In spite of all the ways we have to listen to music today, there's still nothing quite as comforting as switching on a radio and tuning in your favorite station. As an updated take on the classic portable radio, the Pure Evoke Flow ($229) expands beyond your local FM broadcasts, offering over 15,000 free Internet radio stations ranging from standards such as BBC and ESPN, to niche independents.
If your interest in radio is primarily about hearing great music, products such as the Logitech Squeezebox Radio, or even the Apple iPod Touch, offer a selection of streaming music services that the Evoke, unfortunately, can't match. But if your tastes span beyond music, into news, talk radio, and sports, the Evoke Flow offers a streamlined and well-built solution for hearing the world's online broadcasts.
Taking a break from the molded-plastic look of most of today's electronics, the Pure Evoke Flow is unapologetically boxy and retro. Constructed primarily of farmed wood, and finished with a thick piano gloss, the radio's design is a nod to the past and provides a reassuring sturdiness that is rare for this price range.
We wouldn't blame you if you mistook the radio for a lunchbox, since its 5.5-inch x 8.25-inch x 3.25-inch dimensions and solid metal handle fit easily within our grade-school memories. Your old lunchbox was never this cool though (no, not even the A-Team one). Using a combination of touch-sensitive buttons, old-fashioned knobs, an OLED screen, and a 3-inch speaker, the Evoke Flow strikes an intriguing balance between old and new.
On the back of the radio you have the FM antenna, power-adapter socket, aux input, stereo output, headphone output, aux speaker out, and USB port. Although we think it would be more convenient to have the headphone output located on the front panel, it's nonetheless an impressive amount of connectivity. One port not offered, however, is the Ethernet input included on the rival Squeezebox Radio. For an Internet radio geared toward portability, the lack of a hardwired Internet connection isn't a deal-breaker for us, but it's worth noting for the sake of comparison.
Also included on the back of the radio is a compartment for a proprietary rechargeable battery pack. While we can appreciate the ecological high-road Pure has taken by using a rechargeable pack, the $59 price tag is a steep premium for portability. As the total price of a truly portable Wi-Fi radio inches towards $300, the alternative of pairing an Internet radio-friendly $199 iPod Touch with a portable speaker becomes harder to resist.
As much as we enjoy the retro-futuristic look of the Evoke Flow's chrome plastic knobs and touch controls--the combo falls short as a user interface. The three illuminated touch-buttons are defined by labels above them on the screen. In one context they may serve as an option key or preset control, in another they be used as links to station search or listings. Combined with the nearby back arrow control and a dial for scrolling menus and making selections, the interface as a whole does a commendable job of doing more with less.
We did experience some initial frustration with the radio's controls, however. As with most Wi-Fi radios, entering in your network password using dial and onscreen keyboard can be tedious, though you only need to do it once. Our more nagging frustration was the poor breadcrumb navigation for backing out of some menus. For example, after tuning-in a classic rock Internet radio station using the search menu, hitting the back button takes you back to the main menu instead of the search results. To return to the search menu, we had to twist the selection knob to access the station listings, then press one of the contextual buttons to bring up search. It's hardly as intuitive as simply allowing the back arrow to step you one page back, but you get the hang of it.
The term "radio" encompasses many types of audio today, including AM/FM radio, satellite radio, online-only music broadcasts, and personalized Internet music services. No single device excels at delivering radio in all its forms. It's up to you to figure out what radio services are most important to you, and what devices will best deliver them.
The Pure Evoke Flow offers an FM radio, podcasts, on-demand radio segments from popular BBC programs, and even a broad selection of relaxing ambient sounds--but what it does best is stream Internet radio broadcasts. There are over 15,000 free Internet broadcasts users can tune in and add to their list of favorite stations. You can browse these stations directly on the radio using the high-contrast OLED screen and controls, but to really dig in, we recommend using Pure's TheLounge.com online portal. Users can sign up on the site for free, sift through stations based on country, language, genre, name, and audio quality, and manage a list of their favorite broadcasts. After associating your radio to the online account, all your favorites are accessible through both your radio and your browser.
Users also have the capability of streaming a music collection from any Mac or PC on their local network to the Evoke Flow. You'll need to install some UPnP software to pull this trick off, though, and the experience of browsing your music collection using the radio controls is less than exhilarating--but it works. More specifically, it works with unprotected WMA, AAC, MP3, MP2, and Real Audio, leaving out DRM-protected songs you may have purchased using iTunes or lossless formats such as FLAC or Apple Lossless.
The Evoke Flow also includes streaming audio options for Listen Again, podcasts, and Pure Sounds, all of which can be previewed freely using Pure's TheLounge.com website. Currently, the Listen Again feature offers a directory of over 1,000 recently recorded broadcasts from the BBC. It's great news for any homesick British expats, but probably not a compelling feature for most Americans until more content becomes available.
The directory of over 4,500 podcasts, on the other hand, offers something for everyone (and includes CNET podcasts). An archive of ambient sounds is also on offer, ranging from chirping birds to café background noise. If you like the idea of dozing off to the sound of a babbling brook, a sleep timer can be set to fade out music after a specified period of time. An alarm clock feature is also included, but can only be set to use the FM radio or built-in alarm tones as an audio source.
In spite of all of the many features included on the Evoke Flow, there are a few noteworthy gaps. Especially when held up against the similarly priced Logitech Squeezebox Radio, the lack of popular Internet music services (such as Pandora, Slacker, Last.fm, Rhapsody, and ShoutCast) is a considerable strike against the Evoke. Granted, Pure has done a better job than Logitech when it comes to terrestrial radio support and construction quality, but the vastly broader feature set of the Squeezebox makes it our preferred choice. (Disclaimer: CNET and Last.fm are both properties of CBS.)
Beyond our minor grumble about how the back arrow is used in the menu interface, there's very little about the Evoke Flow to complain about in terms of real-world performance. We found the 802.11b/g Wi-Fi reception to be stable, with effective range around the home. Thanks to the retractable antenna on the back, terrestrial FM radio reception is good, as well.
As with most Wi-Fi radios this size, audio quality isn't going to knock you out of your chair. You're dealing with a single, 3-inch driver with 7 watts of power behind it. For listening around the house, putting the radio at maximum volume offered just enough juice to project the sound between rooms, and maintained a clean, balanced sound without distortion. The sound quality easily surpasses what you'll hear from the majority of clock radios, but it doesn't measure up to the beefy sound of the larger, more expensive Squeezebox Boom.
If we had our heart set on upsetting the neighbors, Pure sells an auxiliary speaker for the Evoke that can be plugged into the back. A line-level stereo output is also included on the back if you feel inclined to run the radio through your home stereo.
If you invest in the rechargeable battery pack (which we recommend, in spite of its high price) you can expect around 15 hours of playback, listening at a moderate volume.