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Last year, we looked at the Livio Radio and praised it for its easy access to thousands of Internet radio stations, Wi-Fi security compatibilities, Pandora playback, and connectivity options. One year later, Livio has released The NPR Radio, a device that remains mostly the same as last year, but replaces Pandora with an NPR-focused content-delivery system.
This is the first Wi-Fi radio we've tested that is designed around the NPR network, offering access to more than 800 NPR stations as well as specific programs, podcasts, and other content. The radio's 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 NPR Radio by Livio hits the sweet spot for those NPR junkies looking for a simple, great-looking way to add National Public Radio to a bedroom, kitchen, or living room.
The overall design ethos is a mix between Apple and , and even though we're not generally fans of the Apple whitewash look, the NPR 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 black grille and a blue LCD screen with playback controls underneath it dominates the right half. The only element that doesn't quite have that high-end feel is the loose-feeling plastic menu-volume knob, but that's our only nitpick on an otherwise outstanding design.
The Livio Radio's main function is to play NPR radio stations and content. Its main menu gives you access to NPR stations around the country (by region), specific NPR content, podcasts, and the capability to search through the enormous library of media. We really liked the capability to jump to specific sections in a program. For example, choosing "All Things Considered" lets you listen to the entire program, skip to a certain segment, or jump to a spot in the timeline. Better yet, these segments are labeled by chapter, so there is no guessing involved.
For most NPR programs, you have the capability to listen to about two weeks' worth of past content; anything beyond that isn't directly accessible from the radio. You can customize your own NPR menu by adding certain items from the network to your "favorites," which is then just a button click away from the radio or remote control.
Besides providing access to the seemingly infinite amount of premium NPR content, the NPR Radio also functions as 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 or FM--we know we can't--and you don't want to pay for satellite radio (neither do we), there are plenty of great stations available online for just about everybody. The Livio uses
Unlike the competing Grace GDI-IR2000, the NPR Radio can't access podcasts or stream music off a connected PC. According to a FAQ on Livio's Web site, the lack of podcast access is to "keep the device simple." However, we don't think adding a Podcasts menu option--that streams podcasts that you save on Reciva--would make the device more complicated. We have yet to find a Reciva-powered radio that offers reliable music streaming off a PC, so the lack of this function isn't a huge loss.
The Livio's connectivity package is generous. There's a headphone jack on the front panel, and an auxiliary input (so you can connect an iPod in a pinch) and an analog stereo line out on its back. The stereo line out is actually a minijack connector, but Livio includes a minijack-to-RCA adapter that makes it easier to connect to a home theater receiver. Rounding out the connectivity is an Ethernet jack, if you prefer a more stable wired connection. Even better, Livio provides a 6-foot patch cable to get you going right out of the box.
Before we talk about how the Livio sounds, it's important to get the caveats out of the way. It's a tabletop radio with only a single speaker (mono sound) and many Internet radio stations offer up low-bit-rate streams. Wi-Fi radios are really for casual listening, not an audiophile experience.
That being said, the NPR Radio's sound quality is passable. Because a lot of NPR's content is talk, you probably won't miss the lack of high fidelity. That said, dialogue sounds very rich and smooth on the radio. Our Internet radio stations played us a variety of music from rock and jazz to classical, and while the Livio never sounds bad, it never sounds great, either. There's minimal bass and the sound isn't particularly detailed, but it doesn't easily distort or sound harsh. If you compare it with higher-priced alternatives such as the Logitech Squeezebox Boom or the , the Livio doesn't compare. However, it's "good enough" for most people, especially for a $150 radio. We really would have liked some EQ controls to dial in the sound quality to our tastes, but most users won't miss them anyway. The included thin remote control features all of the functionality also found on the front of the radio and works well.
Connecting to a wireless router was simple and took about 2 minutes. Like virtually all Wi-Fi radios we test these days, the NPR Radio's Wi-Fi performance was excellent, as we had absolutely no dropouts over our hours of listening. Of course, it's largely dependent on your Wi-Fi signal strength, as well as the speed and reliability of your Internet connection. Luckily, if you don't get acceptable performance in your home, Livio's FAQ states that consumers can get a full refund if they're unhappy with the purchase.