Grace ITC-IR1000 Wireless Internet Radio
Editors' note: This review has updated to reflect a recent firmware update that fixed several minor issues and added access to the streaming music service Pandora. The rating has also been raised to reflect these changes.
Internet radios are kind of like the Jerry Lewis of consumer electronics--apparently they're really big in Europe, but you don't hear much about them in the States. That's too bad, because while your local AM/FM radio might be lame, and satellite radio is still expensive, you're bound to find something you like on the thousands of stations available on an Internet radio. Web radio offers online simulcasts of many of the world's broadcast stations, as well as a wealth of Internet-only streams--in other words, even the most eclectic music and talk radio fans can find something worth tuning into. The Grace Wireless Internet Radio is one of the few Wi-Fi radios available in the U.S. market and--for about $200--the price is right. Now, with that low price you'll have to make some concessions: the Grace is a bit short on connectivity, and we especially missed an auxiliary input so we could connect an external source such as an iPod. On the other hand, the Grace Wireless Internet Radio scores well on many counts, including an attractive design, good sound quality, and hiccup-free playback of Internet radio streams. With a recent firmware update fixing several minor issues and adding Pandora access, the Grace ITC-IR1000B is now at the forefront of the Wi-Fi radio category.
The Grace ITC-IR1000B Wireless Internet Radio is a sharp-looking little radio. Its glossy black finish looks nice, but it is prone to collecting fingerprints. The left half of the unit is dominated by a black speaker grille, which houses a single 4-inch speaker. There's an LCD readout in the upper-right corner of the device that displays about four lines of text at a time, including artist and track information if the station supports it. Down and to the left of the display are nine buttons used for playback, storing presets, and navigation. Below that is a medium-size volume knob and to the right is a large knob that is used to navigate the thousands of stations available.
Overall, the experience for navigating all the stations is decent, especially if you're used to using a traditional tabletop radio. When you first turn it on, it connects to your wireless network, then loads up the last station you were listening to. If you're in the mood to select a new station, you can hit the browse button at the top.
One slight usability problem we ran into was how light the Grace Wireless Internet Radio is. The large scroll knob can be pressed to make selections, but often when we went to press it, we wound up pushing the whole radio back instead of pressing the button. We got into the habit of holding the Grace Wireless Internet Radio by the side when we wanted to make a selection, but it would be better if we didn't need to support it. That being said, the Grace's controls had a much nicer feel to them than the competing Asus Air, which feels cheap in comparison.
While we appreciate Grace's decision to keep things simple, we definitely would have liked some extra search categories. For instance, we'd like to be able to narrow the fields by bit rate to weed out those rough-sounding 32Kbps feeds. Alternatively, it would be great to be able to use multiple filters at once--like jazz stations in Germany. As it stands, too often you'll make a couple of choices and have a thousand feeds to flip between, which are too many to reasonably choose from. It would also be nice if there was some way to see how others users rate stations as another way to make it easier to find a station you like. In general, we preferred to use the online interface (discussed later) to load up a bunch of our favorites, then just select from that smaller list on the actual radio.
The Grace Wireless Internet Radio gets streaming audio from the Internet via your home's broadband connection and Wi-Fi network. The Radio has a built-in 802.11g, but it'll also work with slower 802.11b and faster 802.11n networks. There's a single Wi-Fi antenna in the back, which can be rotated, but not replaced--you cannot unscrew it. It's compatible with both WEP and WPA security, and we had no problem logging into our WPA network--although entering the network key is a bit tiresome using the scroll wheel (luckily you only have to do it once). There's no Ethernet jack--meaning the wireless network is mandatory, not optional--and the only other connection available is a stereo headphone jack around the back.
The radio has clock, alarm, and sleep functionality, and each works pretty much as you'd expect. You can set five separate alarms, which have convenient options such as setting an alarm to only go off on weekdays or only on weekends. The alarm can be set to a standard buzzer or one of the five preset stations. We would have preferred access to all of the stations we've marked, but in reality, it's not that big of a limitation. A nice addition to the radio would have been a big snooze button on the top of unit, but hitting the big scroll wheel works well enough. Sleep functionality works as you'd expect, with the capability to set any amount of time in 30-second increments up to 24 hours.
The Grace lets you associate five stations to the preset buttons, and we would have liked a few more preset options. Luckily, you can add additional favorite stations to the "My Stations" section, but you'll need to use a PC to do so. The Grace Wireless Internet Radio uses a third-party database for its Internet radio stations--called Reciva--you can visit the Reciva Web site and register your radio. Grace Digital has updated its Web site significantly since the product's launch, and the company now has detailed instructions for using the Reciva Web site--just check out the FAQ section. Using a PC to organize your favorites isn't an ideal solution--if you're browsing around on the radio and find something you like, you'll either have to give it one of your precious five presets or remember the name and enter it on your Reciva account the next time you're on the computer. That being said, we really appreciated this functionality considering the overwhelming amount of choice--and the big deviations in quality between stations. Also, to be clear: the station and podcasts favorites are attached to your free Reciva account, so they'll continue to be accessible even if your computer is turned off.
In addition to the thousands of stations available via traditional Internet radio, the Grace can also access Pandora's streaming audio service. We won't go into all the details of how Pandora works, but essentially you tell the service what artists you like and it creates a customized radio station based on your taste in music. Again, it's easiest to set up and organize your Pandora account online, but you do get access to a good deal of features by hitting the Reply button, where you can bookmark an artist, or give it a thumbs-up so Pandora knows it made a good choice.
On top of standard Internet radio, the Grace Wireless Internet Radio can also pull digital music off your PC. We had no problems using Windows Media Player as a Universal Plug and Play server and to gain access to our tracks. You can view tracks by standard categories such as Artist, Album, and Genre, but we were disappointed to see that the list wasn't actually alphabetical--we couldn't tell how it was arranged. Luckily, it did let us browse by folders, which made browsing our meticulously organized music collection easy. If you're not as detailed, browsing your music will probably be a pain. Supported file formats include MP3, WAV, AAC, AIFF, WMA, and Real Media--no DRM formats are supported.
Gadget enthusiasts will find plenty missing on the Grace Wireless Internet Radio. For example, the competing Asus Air comes with a remote control, an Ethernet jack, a removable Wi-Fi antenna , a stereo RCA-jack analog output, and a minijack input--especially useful for hooking up an iPod. While we'd agree that the minijack input and the remote would definitely be worthwhile additions to the Grace's Wireless Internet Radio feature set, we honestly didn't miss the other features in our use. On the other hand, the Asus lacks the capability to stream music off a networked PC, so it depends on which features are more important to you. One feature we'd love to see is battery power, which would make it a breeze to carry from say, the kitchen to the bedroom--even outside (if your Wi-Fi range is good enough). If you're interested in a battery-powered Wi-Fi radio, be sure to check out the Sony VGF-WA1, which has a built-in rechargeable lithium ion battery.
Also, note that there's no over-the-air access to standard AM or FM radio. If your favorite local station doesn't Webcast online--or your Internet connection dies--you won't be able to hear it.
The Grace Wireless Internet Radio sports a single 5-watt speaker, which means you'll be limited to monaural sound. That's not necessarily a bad thing; with tabletop radios we've sometimes preferred the mono sound from a Tivoli to stereo sound from lesser radios. Let's face it, on units such as these where the speakers are only a few inches away from each other, you're not going to get stereo separation anyway. There's also a bass port in the back to help fill in the low end.
Before we start talking about sound quality, let's get some caveats out of the way. First, remember that Internet radio is compressed by nature (sometimes severely), so no matter how good the radio is, it's not exactly a "hi-fi" experience. Secondly, keep in mind that the Grace Wireless Internet Radio is a tabletop radio and sounds like one--don't expect the same sound you get out of a real component-based sound system.
With those caveats out of the way--and when considering its $200 price tag--the Grace Wireless Internet Radio sounds pretty good. We tuned into a bunch of music types, including classical, jazz, rock, hip-hop, and the Grace held its own. Sure, when we cranked the volume all the way up, you'll start to get some distortion, and you can hear the little 4-inch speaker struggling. Still, we could turn the volume up to about 85 percent, and it got plenty loud enough for small-to-medium rooms without breaking up. The Grace can't compete with the thumping bass of the Polk I-Sonic, but that model costs three times as much (and lacks Internet radio). However, a fairer test is head-to-head with the similarly priced Asus Air, and the Grace Wireless Internet Radio easily came out on top. We had the two units set up right next to each other and it was no contest. The Air sounded thin and tinny--and it only got worse as we turned up the volume--while the Grace sounded rich and full comparatively. The difference is substantial enough that we'd strongly recommend anyone even marginally interested in audio quality to choose the Grace over the Asus.
Wireless connectivity was excellent overall for Internet radio, as signal dropouts were very rare in our experience. When loading a new station, there's a few seconds of buffering--which will be alien to AM/FM radio buffs--but that's standard on an Internet radio. Streaming music of a PC also worked without a hitch. We streamed 256Kbps MP3s off a PC running TVersity, and the Grace was rock solid, without and stuttering or buffering messages. It certainly isn't the interface if you have a huge library of music--standalone options such as the Logitech Squeezebox are better suited for that--but it is nice to have access to your own digital tunes. If you're more interested in streaming music from your PC, check out our list of top digital music streamers. Most of those models handle Internet radio as well, but most of them don't have built-in speakers and will need to be connected to a separate stereo system.