Tivoli Audio NetWorks FM
You may not have heard of Tivoli Audio, but it's one of those companies that make a handful of high-end tabletop radios and other assorted audio products. From the Model One to the iPAL and the Music System, the company has specialized in simple radio-centric products that pair retro styling with an accomplished sound. And now the Tivoli product line is entering the 21st century with the NetWorks, a Wi-Fi radio that can access most Internet radio stations, podcasts, and many PC-based audio files. The NetWorks performs well, making it fairly easy for those who aren't tech savvy to dial up any online audio available the world over by genre or location. However, the unit is plagued with some curious design choices--specifically, rear-mounted controls and bottom-mounted jack packs--and an exorbitant price tag: $600 for the Internet-only model, or $50 extra for the NetWorks FM model (reviewed here) that also doubles as a standard FM radio. With plenty of competing models that handle the same basic functions available at less than a third of the price, the NetWorks is best suited for those who are willing to pay a steep premium for its superior sound quality, unique wooden finish, and relative ease of use.
You could be forgiven for mistaking the Tivoli Audio NetWorks for a bookshelf speaker since--if not for the front panel LCD screen--that's pretty much what it looks like. The NetWorks, which is 8.5 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide by 5 inches deep, will initially be available in three wood finishes--walnut, cherry, and wenge. (Tivoli usually expands color offerings over the lifespan of a product, so don't be surprised to see additional finish options in the months and years ahead).
Like most Tivoli products, the NetWorks is monaural, boasting a single 3.5-inch magnetically shielded speaker. Those looking for stereo separation will need to invest in an identically sized speaker add-on ($120), available in the same set of colors. A 3-inch, four-line LCD readout above the speaker is the only other thing on the front face of the NetWorks; it defaults to a clock when the unit's in standby mode.
The NetWorks includes a 20-button credit-card-size remote. You'll likely be using it almost exclusively, thanks to the ill-conceived control scheme on the NetWorks. The unit's topside has a multipurpose dial button that controls volume, mute/snooze (single tap), and power (when held down for a couple of seconds). Otherwise, all of the NetWorks' controls are found on its backside. It's not a lot--just a five-way directional pad for navigating menus, a source toggle button, and five preset keys that double as music transport controls (play/pause, forward, reverse)--but it's the only way to control the NetWorks without the remote. While we assume that Tivoli wanted to keep the unit as minimalist as possible, we really would've preferred these controls to be on the front or top. That's because navigating the Networks requires that you look at the LCD screen at the same time, which is impossible when you're facing the rear-mounted controls. It's frustrating because if you're near the Networks, it would be nice to spin a few dials to change the station--as you can on the Grace Wireless Internet Radio--instead of having to hunt for the remote or fumble around blindly on the backside of the radio.
The control situation was bad enough, but what really confounded us was the NetWorks' connectivity options. It's not that there's anything missing, it's where the inputs and outputs are located: With the exception of the USB port and headphone jack on the back panel, all of the jacks are on the unit's bottom side. While they're inset about 1.25 inches, that's not enough for most plugs to get full clearance. As a result, pretty much any cable you plug in--including Tivoli's own connector for the stereo speaker, for instance--get twisted and bent. While it didn't seem to put the NetWorks off balance, it's a poorly thought-out design choice, putting unnecessary stress on your cables and making it harder to hook things up.
As far as navigation and access are concerned, the Tivoli NetWorks is good, but not great. Using the directional buttons on the remote (or the annoying back-panel directional pad) lets you zip in and out of menus and folders, but the menu system could stand to be a bit more straightforward and intuitive. Likewise, dedicated page up/down buttons would've been nice for scrolling through long lists of songs or stations. And the LCD readout is fine, but we've seen brighter and sharper ones on other products--again, at this price, you should be getting the best.
The NetWorks' primary mission is to play digital audio. It can play most Internet radio stations (MP3, WMA, or RealAudio sources) and podcasts, as well as stream most standard audio file formats from computers on your home network (or a flash drive plugged into its USB port). A standard auxiliary line-in jack lets the NetWorks double as a speaker for any audio source with a headphone jack.
It's worth reiterating that there are actually multiple versions of the NetWorks. In addition to the $600 standard model, there's a $650 version that adds support for over-the-air FM radio (if your local stations aren't broadcasting online, or you're out of Wi-Fi range). The third iteration is a European-only model that offers support for over-the-air DAB broadcasts (the continent's digital radio standard). Tivoli will also be bundling the NetWorks and NetWorks FM with the matching stereo speaker, for those who don't want to be bothered with buying them separately. And we won't bother dinging the NetWorks for the lack of a battery, since Tivoli's hinted that a portable version will be coming at some point in the future (it'll probably look more like the SongBook).
The big advantage of Internet radio is the diversity: Rather than being limited to a handful of stations in your local broadcasting area, you can listen to literally thousands of stations from all points on the globe. Of course, with that amount of options, finding the stations you want can be a challenge. But the Tivoli makes it pretty simple: You can search via location or genre, or simply use the station name search function. It was simple, for instance, to find plenty of available stations broadcasting as far afield as the Philippines to France.
We didn't have trouble finding specific stations (searching by call letters like "WXPN" or "KNGY," or Net-only names such as "soma"), and the genre and location indexes worked equally well. They're cross referenced, so drilling down from "Europe" to "United Kingdom" will prompt you to choose the British station you'd like by genre, or simply list all of them. Podcasts are also searchable via name, location, or subject area/genre. The Tivoli also includes a "local stations" choice, which determines the geographic location of your IP address and pulls up nearby stations--it correctly gave us our streams originating in the New York City area.
Obviously, normal caveats apply here: Like any Internet radio, the Tivoli can only pull in stations that broadcast online (though the built-in FM support in our test model provided a nice fallback). If you find an online station that's not in the Tivoli system, you can request the company to add it to the directory via the company's Web site. That's nice, but we would've preferred a DIY option, such as a PC-accessible bookmark system (such as the Logitech Squeezebox Duet) or a tie-in to an existing online service (such as the Reciva support on the Grace ITC-IR1000). And while the NetWorks FM radio isn't compatible with over-the-air HD Radio, it can access those HD-only stations that stream online (many do, but not all).
Beyond Internet radio and podcasts, the Tivoli can pull audio from attached USB drives, as well as networked PCs running Windows Media Player or shared networked folders. We used the former method to access the MP3 library on our Windows XP computer, and--although it repeatedly came up "empty" on the first attempt after powering up--subsequent attempts worked fine. Folders can be navigated with the remote's directional keypad,
File format compatibility is limited to MP3, WMA, and RealAudio files across the board (for Internet radio streams as well as network or USB-based music files); local files also support most popular playlist formats. But anything else is a no-go--no AAC, FLAC, OGG, WAV, or AIFF. The dearth of AAC is troubling for anyone who has ripped music in iTunes' default file format or purchased any DRM-free tracks from Apple's popular online music store. And given the NetWorks' huge price tag and Tivoli's audiophile legacy, we'd have liked to see support for a wider array of files.
No DRM file formats are supported for streaming from networked PCs, so forget about playing most songs purchased from the iTunes Store, or all music from the Zune Store. The same goes for subscription audio services--the NetWorks can't access Rhapsody, Sirius, Last.FM, Pandora, and so on. It's possible that these could be added later via a firmware update, but for now, the NetWorks is strictly for listening to free, no-fee Internet radio.
The NetWorks supports only five presets (that's five for Internet radio, five for FM), and it allows a virtually "unlimited number" of favorites in a separate list--just hold down the right arrow key. This was the best way to bookmark favorite stations or podcasts, and we appreciated the capability to go far beyond five choices.
The Tivoli includes a smattering of other niceties you'd expect in a tabletop radio, including a dual alarm (with independent volume level settings and capability to wake to the auxiliary line-in, any Internet or FM preset, or an alarm tone), and a 20 minute sleep timer. There's also a nice full EQ, with seven presets, user adjustable bass/treble, and a loudness toggle. The NetWorks also offers a "SuperBuffer," which should help avoid dropouts if you have an unreliable Internet connection. (We left it turned off, since the extra buffering time was superfluous on our solid high-speed line.) Also, the FM radio on the NetWorks FM model supports RDS, so you get any applicable text displays (artist/song info) from stations that offer the feature.
As mentioned, the NetWorks can link to your home network via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. The rear panel includes the USB port and a stereo headphone jack, and the bottom side includes all other inputs and outputs: Ethernet, power, the connector for the optional stereo speaker, and minijacks for the aux input, mix input (use the NetWorks while intermixing its audio with another source, such as a PC), line out, and even a subwoofer output. Again--we like all of those options, we just wish they'd been placed on the back panel instead of the underside.
Tivoli touts the NetWorks' simplicity, and the setup process largely lived up to the hype. Powering up the unit for the first time, it will automatically scan local wireless networks, and ask you to type the password on the onscreen keyboard. Once we realized it the password was case sensitive, we were online and ready to go. Tivoli's preprogrammed the presets (you can change them at the press of a button), so you can be listening to a station within 5 minutes of powering the unit up for the first time.
By and large, locating and playing Internet radio stations worked flawlessly. As mentioned above, we were able to dial up some favorites from all over the world by their name, call letters, genre, or location. We did experience a few inaccessible stations, however. San Francisco's KNGY-FM showed up in the index, for instance, but it just gave an infinite "loading" message. By contrast, the station played perfectly through iTunes on our PC desktop, so it was definitely up and running--the NetWorks just couldn't access it. Likewise, Los Angeles' KPWR, KDAY, and KIIS weren't available. The first two don't appear to have online streams available outside of a Web browser, so they were more an indication that you can't necessarily expect every over-the-air station to be available on the Tivoli (or other Wi-Fi radios). But KIIS is available, so we submitted it to Tivoli's Web-based submission form. While we got a confirmation e-mail, the station had yet to appear on the NetWorks index a full seven days later. That reinforced our view that the capability to add stations manually--a feature available on Logitech Squeezebox devices (via the SqueezeNetwork site) and the Grace ITC-IR1000 (via Reciva)--is the preferred solution.
With less expensive Internet radios, we always caution that the audio quality is hobbled by the fact that Internet radio is compressed by nature (sometimes fairly severely), and that the sonic capabilities of tabletop radios are limited by their size--in other words, you shouldn't expect a groundbreaking hi-fi experience. With the Tivoli, the first caveat remains in effect, but the second one is somewhat obviated, again, by the high-end nature of the product: Part of the NetWork's rich premium is because of its audiophile pedigree. Thankfully, the unit effectively delivers on its promise of superior audio fidelity. The single 3.5-inch full-range driver delivers an impressively rich sound across the genre board (jazz, hip-hop, rock, classical, and so on), and the ability to tweak the sound with the EQ settings means that you can adjust it to your liking. The sound was notably richer, fuller, and cleaner than cheaper competitors such as the Grace ITC-IR1000B--though when you're paying a $450 premium over the Grace's sticker price, you'd expect nothing less. Ironically, the Tivoli's sound is almost too good--you'll notice a tinny, thin sound on stations Webcasting at 92Kbps that might be otherwise obscured when listening through a less sonically accurate radio. The digital rule of thumb applies here: the higher the bandwidth, the better things should sound. Try to find stations that are streaming at 128Kpbs or better.
At the end of the day, the NetWorks delivers on its major bullet points: The woody casing (the darker ones, at least) look great, it's among the best-sounding products in the Wi-Fi radio category, and it's easy enough to use, even for the nontechie crowd. However, this sort of product is all about a value equation that's not easily addressed on a 10-point rating scale: is the total package worth paying the hefty $650 price tag? For us, the answer is "no." For starters, the rear-mounted controls and bottom-mounted jacks are a liability, and the radio needs compatibility with more file formats and (ideally) some premium online services such as Rhapsody or Pandora to begin justifying that price tag. Ideally, we'd like to see a redesigned version (more like the Model One-like prototype model that Tivoli originally unveiled) with more traditional controls, enhanced features, and--of course--a more affordable price tag. In the meantime, we wouldn't be surprised to see the current iteration of the Tivoli NetWorks do quite well among the Robb Report crowd, with the mass market content with far cheaper alternatives.