The Sony VGF-WA1 is a stylish tabletop radio that can stream digital music from your PC, but a few key feature upgrades would have made us like it even more.
Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
When Roku rolled out the SoundBridge Radio in March 2006, it was the first tabletop radio we'd seen with the ability to stream music off a networked PC. Despite our praise for the SoundBridge, we haven't really seen the networked tabletop radio take off as a type of device, so we were pretty excited when we got the Sony VGF-WA1 ($350 MSRP) in for testing. Besides being able to play your MP3, WMA, and AAC files, the VGF-WA1 can also play Internet radio stations from Live365, and it has a built-in lithium battery, so you're not chained to a power outlet. Our experience with the VGF-WA1 was largely positive--we liked its ease of use, sound quality, and functionality. On the other hand, there's no denying the VGF-WA1 is missing a few features that would up the functionality even further. For example, the internal memory for portable use is tiny (128MB) and not expandable, there's no AM/FM tuner, and the unit lacks support for subscription-based digital music services. Even without those features, the VGF-WA1 makes an attractive choice for those who want to listen to their digital music around the house and on the go.
The VGF-WA1 looks just like a slick little boom box. It comes in two colors, white and black--we reviewed the white version. The front is dominated by a large white (or black) speaker grille that wraps around the sides of the unit. In the center of the grille toward the bottom are the IR receptor and indicator lights for battery power and the wireless connection. On the top of the unit, just above the grille, is a reflective black plate that includes the display and the touch-sensitive controls.
We're not generally fans of touch-sensitive control panels compared to standard buttons, but the controls on the VGF-WA1 are pretty solid. They're relatively responsive, and each time you press a selection, it beeps in feedback that your command was registered. That kind of feedback becomes especially important when scrolling through artist names on a network when there can be some lag. There were a few times when we hit a button and it didn't respond, but once we learned to use the broad side of our finger, rather than the tip, we were in the clear. All in all, however, standard buttons would still be preferable, although less stylish.
We liked the VGF-WA1's motion-sensitive wake-up mode. After a few minutes, the display and touch-sensitive control automatically dim, but as soon as you get close to the unit, it automatically "wakes up." It's a nice touch, especially in a bedroom where a constantly lit display might be annoying.
Just above the reflective black plate are a few more controls, including the on/off button, and four source buttons (PC, Web radio, Aux, and Memory). There's also a headphone jack. Around the back, there's a handle so you can easily grab the VGF-WA1 when you want to utilize its built-in battery. Below the handle is a flip-down panel, which reveals some ports, such as the stereo line-out, optical output, and the USB jack. To the right of the flip-down panel are the auxiliary minijack input and the AC jack. On the bottom of the VGF-WA1 is a switch to activate battery power.
The included remote provides limited control, but the VGF-WA1 isn't really the type of product where you'll be using the remote frequently. It has a few buttons to switch between sources, playback modes (play, skip forward/backward), volume up/down, and folder up/down. Even with this limited palette, most of the buttons aren't that useful--for example, if you switch to "Web radio," you're still going to have to walk up to the display to choose which station you want to listen to, unless you just listen to whatever was on last.
Setup and user interface
There are two ways to set up the VGF-WA1. You can either use an existing 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi network or use the included USB Wireless Adapter. Setup wasn't too difficult using our Wi-Fi network, but it did take longer than we expected. We followed the directions on the included CD to install some programs and utilities, and it took over 10 minutes before everything was done. Once the VAIO Integrated Media Server and other configurations were installed, they worked without a hitch, automatically tapping into our iTunes and Windows Media Player music collections. You'll need to run the VAIO Integrated Media Server, Windows Media Connect, or Windows Media Player 11 as a media server on your PC to connect to the VGF-WA1.
Once the VGF-WA1 makes the connection to your PC, you can browse for your music on the display. The display itself is a little on the small side, and you'll pretty much need to be standing over it to navigate. You can sort by Artist, Album, Category, and Folder, and the VGF-WA1 picked up on tag information most of the time. We say most of the time because whenever we accessed our files using the VAIO Integrated Media Server, it listed all our files with "unknown" artists, which was obviously incorrect (other media servers didn't have this problem). The only other gripe we had was that browsing a large music collection can be a pain, since the display can only show five entries at a time, and there's a bit of a lag when going from one screen to another.
The main functionality of the VGF-WA1 is the ability to stream music from your PC--sorry, no Mac support. After installing the software from the CD, music from your iTunes and Windows Media Player library is accessible, and you can provide access to other folders by tweaking the settings.
File format support is limited, although the basics are covered. Using the VAIO Media Integrated Server, you can stream ATRAC3, ATRAC3plus, MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV files, including WMA songs with DRM. We had no trouble playing AAC files encoded at 256Kbps, which is the format iTunes uses for its DRM-free songs. Open-source music fans will be disappointed there's no support for Ogg Vorbis or FLAC files, and we really would have liked to see support for at least one lossless file format other than uncompressed WAV. It also would have been nice to see Sony try to implement some sort of USB audio solution so that protected iTunes files could be streamed as well--like the solutions found on the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD and Logitech Wireless Music System.
By selecting Web radio as the source, the VGF-WA1 is capable of streaming Internet radio stations from Live365.com. At the time of this review, we were able to access nearly 100 Internet radio stations from Live365, with stations representing many genres, including pop, blues, jazz, classical, rock, Latin, and more. Web radio streaming somewhat makes up for the lack of an AM/FM tuner, and in many cases, we preferred the programming choices available on Live365 to what's available on terrestrial radio these days.
That's not to say the experience was flawless. The first two stations we tried to listen to gave us the message that the station was at its free-listener capacity and could only accept preferred-member listeners. Unfortunately, Sony doesn't provide any help in the manual regarding this problem, and there doesn't appear to be any way to subscribe to Live365's VIP plan through the VGF-WA1 to get rid of this message. And for $350, we really felt as though the VIP subscription should have been included.
There are other limitations with Web radio. For example, the VGF-WA1 doesn't tell you any track or artist info for the current song playing. We also would have liked the ability to save our favorite stations so we didn't have to scroll through the list of stations every time we wanted to listen to "Radio DavidByrne.com," for example. Furthermore, we would have liked the ability to add Internet radio streams outside of the Live365 universe. Still, even with our gripes, this feature worked pretty well, and we found several stations worth tuning into.
The "Download" button allows you to download the current song you're streaming from your PC onto the internal memory of the VGF-WA1. There's only 128MB of internal memory, so you're pretty limited as to what you can store on the device--don't expect to load your entire iTunes library on it. We definitely like the download feature, as it's a nice option if you're going someplace that doesn't have Wi-Fi, but we wish there were at least a gigabyte of onboard memory, or the ability to add additional memory via a USB thumbdrive or memory card (even Memory Stick).
Along with the download functionality, the VGF-WA1's transportability is enhanced by its built-in lithium battery. By flicking a switch on the bottom of the VGF-WA1, you can operate off battery power, which is rated to last 4 hours, according to Sony.
You can also use the VGF-WA1 as an alarm clock. There are two separate alarms, and you can set the content and volume level you want when the alarm goes off. It worked fine in our test, but it's not exactly easy to turn off in a just-woke-up daze due to the lack of a big snooze button--but, to be fair, Sony isn't selling the VGF-WA1 as a giant alarm clock. Similarly, there's a sleep timer so you can program it to turn off after 30, 45, 60, or 90 minutes.
We found the connectivity on the VGF-WA1 to be acceptable, although a few step-ups would have been nice. On the back panel under the flip-down panel there are two audio outputs, an optical digital audio output and an analog stereo RCA jack. There's also a USB jack for connecting to a PC during the initial configuration. To the right of the flip-down panel there's an auxiliary minijack input, which is nice if you want to, say, connect an MP3 player to the VGF-WA1. As mentioned before, the VGF-WA1 is capable of wirelessly connecting to 802.11b/g networks.
In addition to the lack of a way to augment the internal memory, we were also a little surprised that the VGF-WA1 doesn't offer CD playback or AM/FM tuning. Sony offers several inexpensive boom boxes like the CFD-S01, and one would imagine it's possible to integrate those extras into the VGF-WA1. If nothing else, Sony would make the $350 price tag a little easier to swallow.
The feature sets of the VGF-WA1 and the Roku SoundBridge Radio are similar, but there are some major differences that can help you make the choice between the two. The features exclusive to the VGF-WA1 include battery power (which enables portable use), Web radio functionality from Live365, and 802.11g Wi-Fi with support for WPA security. On the other hand, the SoundBridge Radio has an SD card slot so you can add memory, it supports subscription music tracks like Rhapsody, it has an AM/FM tuner, and it's Mac compatible. We think those feature differences will have the biggest impact on which network media radio is right for you.
Wireless streaming performance was excellent, as should be expected now of an audio-only device. Using our Belkin N1 router as an access point, we were able to stream music over 60 feet away through several thick walls in our office. Now granted, a lot of that performance is due to the N1 router, but we were still impressed that it worked over such distances, especially in the crowded CNET office Wi-Fi space. Furthermore, when we switched to using the included USB wireless adapter, we got similar performance--although not quite as stable at 60 feet away.
For MP3s, we found downloads to the internal memory to be relatively speedy--usually less than 15 seconds for a standard 4-minute MP3. AAC files, on the other hand, take significantly longer--our 13MB AAC file of "Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits took about eight minutes, which is a painfully long time. We also experienced a quirk with AAC files, as other reviews have noted, where it will download 19 percent of the track, pause for a while, and then go back to zero before going all the way back up to 100 percent. Essentially, you're going to want to stick to MP3s for downloaded tracks, unless you have a lot more patience than we do.
In terms of sound quality, we felt the VGF-WA1 stacked up pretty well against the competition. Make no mistake, it's definitely "tabletop radio" quality, but within that realm, we certainly found it acceptable. We had the Sharp DK-A1 iElegance on hand, and we felt the VGF-WA1 had a significant edge--the DK-A1 had a harsh and brittle quality, while the VGF-WA1 sounded "darker," but ultimately much more pleasant to listen to. For example, "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads sounded pretty thin on the DK-A1, but the same track had a fuller sound on the VGF-WA1--although still nowhere near the sound of a true separates-based system. While bass fanatics will certainly find the VGF-WA1 somewhat lacking, we were definitely happy that it didn't start to break up even on hard-rock tracks like Rage Against the Machine's "Know Your Enemy." We think most people will be satisfied with the sound of the VGF-WA1 as a tabletop radio/boom box, as long as they don't expect it to live up to larger systems.