Grace Digital Bravado GDI-IRD4400M
The Wi-Fi radio category has grown steadily over the last two years, thanks to greater consumer awareness and the popularity of streaming music services like Pandora. Grace Digital Audio was one of the early entrants to this product category, and the Bravado (model number GDI-IRD4400M) represents a different direction for the company. The Bravado ditches the standard tabletop radio look, instead placing a pair of stereo speakers on top of the unit and giving the faceplate the feel of an old-school stereo component. The rest of the unit will feel familiar to Grace Digital fans, as the radio supports streaming services like Pandora and Sirius, and has access to Reciva's large database of Internet radio stations. We were originally put off by the Bravado's $250 price tag, since that put it into direct competition with the excellent Logitech Squeezebox Boom, which offers more features and better sound. But Grace recently dropped the asking price to a more palatable $200, making it worth consideration over the other models in the company's line.
Most Wi-Fi radios have a fairly generic look, with a single speaker on the left and controls on the right. By contrast, the Grace Bravado looks more like a classic stereo component: it has a square look with sharp corners that makes it feel like it could be rack mounted (it can't). There are six silver buttons on the front panel, and each button serves two functions, depending on whether you're listening to Internet radio or streaming your own music. The large metal knob has a nice brushed=metal feel and it's used to both control volume and navigate menus.
While the faceplate is made of plastic and has a glossy black look, the rest of the unit features a wooden cabinet, with a matte black finish. The build quality of our review sample was technically fine, but it doesn't quite have that high-end feel, like you'd expect from, say, a Tivoli radio. The stereo speakers are positioned on the top of the unit, behind a rectangular speaker grille.
The four-line LCD display is mostly the same as on other Grace radios and as always we appreciate that it shows artist and track information on Internet radio stations that support that feature. The major difference is that while the displays on the step-down models easily wash out when you move off-axis, we had no problem reading the Bravado from any angle. The background color is also brighter, giving it more contrast with the black text, which makes it easier to read from far away. It's a nice step up, but the Squeezebox Boom's display trumps it in size and brightness.
The included remote is another welcome improvement over step-down Grace radios. The little silver clicker has more heft than a standard credit-card-style remote and the button layout is better than average, with a nicely separated volume rocker and directional pad. The mute buttons also has a prominent position in the upper right-hand corner, which is helpful when you want to quickly shut off the sound.
Editors' note: The GDI-IRD4400's feature set is very similar to the step-down GDI-IR2000, therefore much of this section is virtually identical.
The Grace is a Wi-Fi radio, meaning it tunes into the thousands of free Internet radio stations rather than standard AM/FM fare. If you can't stand what's available on AM/FM (neither can we) and don't want to pay for satellite radio (neither do we), there's plenty of great stations available online for just about everybody.
With so many stations available, the main difficulty is sifting through it all. The main way to do this is using the LCD display, which breaks it down by Location and Genre. While the interface is perfectly fine, we recommend ditching it in favor of the online portal, Reciva. This is actually the service that powers the Grace and after you associate your radio with your free account, it's a much easier interface to find and tag your favorite stations for listening. The GDI-IRD4400M itself has only 10 presets available, but you can save as many stations as you want using Reciva.
You can also add podcasts to your radio, as well, using Reciva. We plugged in the RSS feed for WNYC's "Radio Lab" on Reciva and almost instantly a list of the recent episodes popped up on our radio. In just a few seconds, we were listening to the recent "Diagnosis" episode--no need to wait for it to download first.
In addition to Internet radio stations and podcasts, the GDI-IRD4400M can also access Pandora and Sirius. Pandora creates custom radio stations based on what music you like and finds similar artists; we're fans of the free service and think this is a great added feature. Sirius subscriptions run $13 a month. The online music storage service MP3Tunes is also supported, although we did not test that functionality.
In addition to all the online music services, the GDI-IRD4400M can also stream music off a connected PC. File format support is solid, including MP3, WMA, Real Audio, WAV, AAC, and AIFF. Surprisingly, the GDI-IRD4400M also played our Ogg Vorbis and FLAC files, even though they're not officially supported. We've had trouble in the past getting Reciva-based radios to reliably stream, but we had better success this time with the GDI-IRD4400M and a PC running TwonkyVision software.
One of our favorite added features over 2008's ITC-IR1000B model is the Bravado's ability to stay connected to the wireless network even when you turn it "off." The result is that when you turn the GDI-IRD4400M on, it starts playing music in just a couple seconds--most Wi-Fi radios take considerably longer as they reconnect to the network each time. The downside is the GDI-IRD4400M sucks up some power while off, but we're guessing most users will appreciate the feature.
You can also set up to five alarms on the Grace Bravado. The options are flexible, allowing you to set different alarms for the weekends and weekdays, and the ability to tune into basically any music source as your alarm (or a standard beep). The Bravado isn't set up as an alarm ergonomically--there's no snooze function or the ability to quickly change the alarm time--but it may work well enough for some people.
Additional connectivity is a bit sparse. There's an analog stereo output, for connecting the Bravado to a separate stereo system. Next to that is a headphone jack; we would have preferred if it was located on the front panel for easier access. Unfortunately there's no auxiliary audio input, so there's not an easy way to plug in, say, a friend's iPod in a pinch. There's also no Ethernet jack, so you're stuck using Wi-Fi.
While this feature set is excellent on Grace's less expensive, step-down models, it's less impressive on the $200 Bravado. At the time of this review, the Logitech Squeezebox Boom costs about $60 more, and includes much more functionality, including additional streaming music services (Rhapsody, Last.fm, Live Music Archive, and Slacker), more file format support (Apple Lossless and WMA Lossless), and an auxiliary input.
Given that the Bravado is actually slightly less featured than the step-down GDI-IR2000, the main reason you'd spend more money is for better sound quality.
First off, we compared the Bravado directly with Grace's entry-level ITC-IR1000B. The ITC-IR1000B is mono radio, but we've always had a soft spot for its surprisingly satisfying sound. Switching between the two radios, it was obvious that the Bravado had a significant advantage in bass response, as the little ITC-IR1000B doesn't put out much low-end. The Bravado also does a better job of filling a room with sound at louder volumes, although at more moderate volumes the positioning of its speaker is a drawback since the sound likely won't be pointed at your ears. Overall, the Bravado definitely won the head-to-head matchup, but the difference isn't as large as you might as expect, mostly because the ITC-IR1000B sounds better than its small size would indicate.
Next, we stacked the Grace up to the excellent Squeezebox Boom. We started off with "Pick It Up, Lay it in the Cut" by Sharon Jones, which gave both systems a good workout in terms of bass response. We had originally tweaked the EQ to provide a little extra bass on the Bravado, but we had to scale it back as the bass distorted right away. Neither radio sounded great with this track, but the Boom sounded less strained and handled the low-end with more finesse. Next up was "Queen Jane Approximately" by Bob Dylan, and here the radios were closer matched. However, when we cranked the volume, the Boom again had the edge, as the Bravado started to sound a little harsh.
Like virtually all Wi-Fi radios we test these days, the Bravado had no dropouts or buffering issues during our testing. As always, wireless networks differ significantly depending on the exact environment, so performance can vary significantly. Luckily Grace offers a 30-day money back guarantee, so you can fully test the GDI-IR4400M in your home environment without any risk.