The iPod may have killed AM/FM radio for the latest generation of music fans, but the classic version of Apple's ubergadget only lets you listen to your own music collection; there's no hipster DJ introducing you to your new favorite band. Music fans still crave new sounds and personalized Internet radio services such as Pandora and Last.fm have filled the "music discovery" gap by taking note of your music preferences and playing songs they'll think you'll like. Pandora's a great service, but--portable devices notwithstanding--it's not easy to listen to away from your PC, which is where the Livio Radio ($150) comes in. The Livio Radio is the first Wi-Fi radio we've tested that is designed completely around the Pandora service, offering all the standard functions--like "thumbs up/down"--right on the front panel. The gorgeous design is outstanding for the price; it's easy to use and you won't find anything that looks this good until you spend about twice as much. Its competitors will better serve audiophiles and feature-junkies, but the Livio Radio hits the sweet spot for those looking for a simple, great-looking way to add Pandora to a bedroom, kitchen, or living room.
The overall design ethos is a mix between Apple and Tivoli, and even though we're not generally fans of the Apple whitewash look, the Livio Radio pulls it off. The cabinet is made of thick, black textured plastic that gives it a quality feel and doesn't smudge. The front panel is off-white and accented by a layer of clear plastic that gives it a classy glass-like look. The single speaker is behind a silver grille and the right half is dominated by the blue LCD screen with playback controls underneath. The only element that doesn't quite have that high-end feel is the plastic menu/volume knob, but that's our only nitpick on an otherwise outstanding design.
The included remote control is the slim credit-card-style variety; we prefer full-size remotes, but they're not common at this price point. The remote mostly duplicates the front panel controls, although there are some additional functions; we really appreciate the dedicated mute button and the five dedicated preset buttons for quick access to your favorite stations.
The Livio Radio's main functionality is playing back Pandora radio stations. Pandora is a streaming music service that creates a personalized radio station based on your musical tastes, letting you fine-tune your music taste by giving a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to the songs playing and the station adjusts accordingly. We find that the service actually works really well, especially as a way of finding new music. Since Pandora is a free service and you can listen to it on your PC or portable device (it's also accessible on BlackBerry, iPhone/iPod Touch, and Windows Mobile devices), you can try it out to see if it appeals to you. Because the Livio is so tightly integrated with Pandora, we would have liked to see some unique features--like the capability to switch between Pandora accounts--but we're not aware of any other radios that offers that feature either.
In addition to Pandora, the Livio Radio also functions like a standard Wi-Fi radio, meaning it can tune in to 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. The Livio uses cnet:link ext="http://www.reciva.com">Reciva's database of stations, so it's easy to check out the available stations online to see if there's enough content that appeals to you.