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Logitech UE Smart Radio review: Logitech UE Smart Radio

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If Logitech's "new" UE Smart Radio ($180 street price) looks familiar, you're not experiencing deja vu. From the outside, it's nearly identical to the Squeezebox Radio the company launched nearly three years ago, save for the new "UE" branding on the front. Its long list of streaming services is also unchanged, including heavy hitters like Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, Mog, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Slacker, Last.fm, and TuneIn.

Sony KDL-46EX640
7.3

Logitech UE Smart Radio

The Good

The <b>Logitech UE Smart Radio</b> has a built-in 6-hour battery and supports several high-profile streaming-audio services, including Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, Mog, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Slacker, Last.fm, and TuneIn. Setup and navigation are much simpler than for previous Logitech Squeezebox products and the smartphone app has a slicker look. The Smart Radio also sounds great for its size, even though it's a mono speaker.

The Bad

The UE Smart Radio is more expensive than many Bluetooth speakers and requires a Wi-Fi connection to work, which makes it somewhat less portable. You're also reliant on Logitech to add support for new streaming-music services, rather than simply using the app already on your phone. And hard-core Squeezebox fans will lament the lack of interoperability with existing Squeezebox products.

The Bottom Line

The Logitech UE Smart Radio's great sound, built-in battery, and solid list of streaming-audio services make it an attractive compact music system, but you may be better off with a Bluetooth speaker.

There are big changes on the inside, though, including a built-in 6-hour battery that means you can move the unit from room to room and even out of doors, as far as your Wi-Fi signal can reach. The software has been significantly redesigned, making it much easier to set up and get music playing quickly, albeit at the loss of compatibility with existing Squeezebox products and some advanced customization options. (More troubling for Squeezebox fans is that the UE Smart Radio signifies the end of the Squeezebox line of products.)

For most buyers, the UE Smart Radio would be better than the Squeezebox Radio it replaces, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right compact music system for your home. Bluetooth speakers, which have gotten better and cheaper over the years, are a compelling alternative, especially since they work in the absence of a Wi-Fi network (even better for outdoor use) and they'll play audio from any app your smartphone supports -- no need to wait for updates from Logitech. If you appreciate that the UE Smart Radio doesn't need a smartphone to serve up its audio, it's a well-designed product and a decent value. But if your music experience these days revolves around your phone, a Bluetooth speaker may be the better buy.

Design and user interface
Squeezebox aficionados will recognize the Smart Radio's design as little more than a rebranding of the Squeezebox Radio. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's a well-designed tabletop music system. The cabinet is plastic, although it feels solid and thoughtfully built. The glossy black finish seems like a misstep, considering you'll frequently have your hands on the device, but fingerprints don't show up as much as you'd think. The back is curved, with a built-in handle, which makes it easy to carry.

The UE Smart Radio is centered around its smallish 2.4-inch color display, and navigation is handled by the large knob below. Overall, it feels a bit like navigating an old-school iPod, spinning the dial to sift through menus, then clicking the knob to make choices. Logitech has focused its redesign efforts on menu navigation, which is vastly improved from the Squeezebox Radio. Where the old Squeezebox Radio's interface was needlessly complex, the UE Smart Radio has stripped away the cruft and put the features you're mostly likely to use -- such as Pandora and Spotify -- right on the home menu.

While navigation is undeniably improved, it's a shame Logitech didn't take the opportunity to improve the hardware. The front panel still feels a tad cluttered with buttons, which makes it less approachable than it should be. (For comparison's sake, refresh your memory about how sparse the iPod control scheme is.) And given that it seems like the UE Smart Radio's natural home would be the bedroom, a more alarm-clock-like design would make sense.

Remote: Your smartphone
The UE Smart Radio doesn't come with a remote, and that's because the company more or less assumes you already have the remote: your smartphone. While you can use the Smart Radio without a smartphone, it's clearly built with the expectation that most buyers will be using the Smart Radio app (available on iOS and Android), which makes it easier to search and browse for music.

I tested the UE Smart Radio using the iOS app, which is easier to use than the older Squeezebox app. It's stripped down to just three panels: Favorites, Now Playing, and All Music. The app is very responsive, and the UE Smart Radio reacts nearly immediately to track changes and volume adjustments. Again, the main improvement is that there are fewer menus and options you need to deal with to get music playing.

There are some surprising limitations, though. Your phone is probably loaded up with a good deal of your personal music collection, but you can't actually play any of the music on your phone directly on the UE Smart Radio. That might make sense to those who understand how the UE Smart Radio works (it needs a server running to stream local media), but it's not intuitive, especially with the prevalence of Bluetooth speakers that can play anything on your smartphone.

Features
Aside from the redesigned navigation, the biggest difference between the Squeezebox Radio and the UE Smart Radio is that the battery is now built-in, rather than offered as a $50 accessory pack. It's a great upgrade and makes the UE Smart Radio a lot more versatile out of the box. You're still likely to have a "home base" for your UE Smart Radio where you keep the charger, but the battery makes it easy to bring to the kitchen or your backyard.

Around back you'll see there's not much connectivity -- just an Ethernet jack and minijack input (the old-school way to listen to your phone's music), plus a headphone port on the side. The UE Smart Radio also has built-in Wi-Fi, which is a nice plus over the competing Sonos Play:3, which needs the separate Sonos Bridge to connect to your home network. Note that the UE Smart Radio needs to be connected to the Internet (even to play locally stored music), so you can't use it anywhere that doesn't have Wi-Fi. More on this later.

Streaming-media support includes Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, Mog, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Slacker, Last.fm, and TuneIn Internet radio. There's also support for a larger group of niche streaming-audio services; you can see the full list here. Again, it's important to note that the UE Smart Radio must explicitly have support for a service to listen to it, unlike a Bluetooth speaker that can play back audio from any app on your phone/tablet. That means if a great new streaming-audio service comes out -- call it the next Spotify -- you'll need to hope that Logitech will issue an upgrade so you can listen to it on the UE Smart Radio.

The UE Smart Radio is also capable of playing back your personal digital music collection, provided you download the UE Music Library software and have the server running on your Mac or PC. It's a bit of a hassle to need to always have your computer on in order to listen to your digital music collection, especially when there are several cloud-based music lockers (Google, Amazon, Apple) that a device like the UE Smart Radio could have drawn on to provide access to your music without a computer. That being said, the software was very easy to install (unlike the tweakier Squeezebox software) and worked great in my testing.

Squeezebox enthusiasts also have a point that the UE Smart Radio is somewhat of a downgrade from the existing Squeezebox Radio: it requires an Internet connection to play back even local media, it loses a lot of geekier customization options, and it doesn't work with the existing Squeezebox ecosystem of products. It's the classic battle of simplicity versus customizability (see: iOS versus Android), but for new customers it may well feel like overall Logitech made the right choice, as the UE Smart Radio is significantly simpler to set up and use than the Squeezebox Radio. It's a shame the company couldn't offer a simplified product that also maintained compatibility for those invested in the Squeezebox ecosystem.

Sound quality
Like the original Squeezebox Radio, the UE Smart Radio sounds better than it should for its small size. It's a mono-only experience (which isn't much of a drawback since stereo separation is negligible at this small size), but it's a musical speaker that sounds good with a variety of music types, from jazz to hard rock to classical.

The bass reproduction sounded surprisingly good on Bill Evans' "You Must Believe in Spring." It has just enough low-end to sound credible, but it never felt hyped or overly boomy. It also never distorted even as I cranked the volume, which is common on lesser systems. You can't expect Black Sabbath's "Master of Reality" to have the same impact it would have from full-size speakers, but the UE Smart Radio held its own, even doing a decent job with Geezer Butler's detuned, sludgy bass.

It's a good thing the UE Smart Radio is so well-tuned out of the box because Logitech doesn't offer any EQ options for adjusting the sound quality. It's a somewhat surprising move, since small systems like the UE Smart Radio can often benefit from tweaks (to account for their sensitivity to room placement), but I rarely felt the need to do any EQ tweaking during my listening.

What are the alternatives?
The most comparable system may be the Sonos Play:3, although it's considerably more expensive at $300. The Sonos software remains best-in-class, especially if you have more than one Sonos device, but it's very expensive as a standalone product, especially if you need to also buy the $50 Sonos Bridge for wireless access. For most people, the Logitech UE Smart Radio is a better value as a standalone purchase.

On the other hand, it's worth considering whether you even need a standalone "radio" like the UE Smart Radio or if you'd be better served by a simple Bluetooth speaker that relies on your smartphone to serve up music. Again, Bluetooth speakers are compatible with any music app on your phone and don't require Wi-Fi. The downside is that they don't work without your phone supplying audio, but that's not a big drawback if you always have your phone with you. And the deciding factor for many may be price; excellent Bluetooth speakers like the Logitech Bluetooth Wireless Speaker are selling for $120, compared with $180 for the UE Smart Radio.

Conclusion
Logitech's aim with the UE Smart Radio is clearly to take the best of the Squeezebox Radio and bring it to a broader audience by making it simpler. I'd call it a success on that level. Digital audiophiles will lament the loss of features and Squeezebox compatibility, but the UE Smart Radio is more accessible out of the box than any prior Squeezebox product.

However, many buyers will be better served by a Bluetooth speaker, like Logitech's own Bluetooth Wireless Speaker, the Soundfreaq Sound Kick SFQ-04, or the Jawbone Jambox. If you want standalone operation and your music listening doesn't revolve around your phone, the UE Smart Radio is a nice portable home-audio option, but make sure it's the best one for your own listening habits.

Sony KDL-46EX640
7.3

Logitech UE Smart Radio

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8