They don't get the hype that iPods or AV receivers do, but Wi-Fi radios are some of the more satisfying products a gadgetphile can own, opening up access to thousands of free Internet radio stations. VTech is best known for its cordless phones, but the company has entered the increasingly crowded Wi-Fi radio space with the IS9181 Wi-Fi radio ($160 street price). Instead of putting out a generic Wi-Fi radio, the VTech has a truly unique set of features, with a color LCD display, portability (with six AA batteries), and a downfiring subwoofer that puts out plenty of bass. On the other hand, some features that are standard on other radios are noticeably missing: the IS9181 lacks Pandora support, a headphone jack or the ability to stream podcasts. Overall, the VTech IS9181 offers up a compelling Wi-Fi radio package at an attractive price--and its currently the best portable option on the market--but it's definitely worth comparing competing products, like the Grace GDI-IR2000, to see what set of features fit your needs best.
The VTech strikes a pretty pose in pictures. The speaker grilles are matte black with a glossy black finish surrounding the display in the center, with more glossy black covering the entire top of the unit. It mostly looks as good in person, although the finish on the top picks up fingerprints fairly easily, tainting some of its slickness. It has a rectangular shape with rounded corners and measures 12.4 inches wide by 3.5 inches high by 6.3 inches deep. There are two 3-watt speakers on the front of the unit, plus a 10-watt subwoofer on the bottom.
Navigating the VTech is done using the disc on the top of the unit. Spinning the disc works a bit like a rotary phone; stick your fingertip in the indentation and spin. It's a mostly comfortable way to browse menus and music stations, although we do prefer the knob-based navigation on radios like the Grace GDI-IR2000 and Livio Radio. The arrangement is a bit more trying anytime you need to enter text using the VTech's onscreen keyboard, as spinning the disc to move the cursor can get tedious. A regular directional pad, or again, knob, would be easier.
While the controls are perfectly suitable for using the VTech as a radio, we were disappointed that there weren't any alarm-centric buttons, like snooze or alarm set. That's too bad, since the VTech's design seems perfect for a bedroom nightstand. If you're looking for Wi-Fi radio to double as an alarm clock, check out the Aluratek Internet Radio or the Acoustic Research ARIR200.
The star of the VTech's design is the 3-inch color LCD screen in the middle of the unit. Most Wi-Fi radios (with the exception of the Philips NP2900) are stuck with plain-old text displays, so the color display is nice upgrade. It's a relatively high-resolution display, which allows it to display several lines of text, a playback progress bar, time, and other icons, all on one screen. We were disappointed that it couldn't display album art from our personal MP3 collection, like the NP2900 can, but it's still better than the vast majority of displays.
The included clicker is the slim "credit-card-style" remote that's often packaged with Wi-Fi radios; we prefer a meatier design. It's fine for basic use, but we had plenty of nitpicks. There are up/down buttons for navigation, but when using the onscreen menu, the up button makes the cursor move right, which is a bit disorienting. We were also sorely missing a mute button for when we needed to cut the music off in a hurry. There's also little button separation, so you'll need to look right at the remote to make any tweaks.
Hitting the source button brings up the four main ways of listening to music on the VTech: Internet radio, my music (streaming music for a connected PC), FM radio, and Aux In.
Selecting Internet radio allows you to tune in to the thousands of free Internet radio stations that are available (VTech claims 11,000 stations). If you can't stand what's available on AM/FM (neither can we) and don't want to pay for satellite radio (neither do we), there are plenty of great stations available online for just about everybody.
Thousands of stations are great, but that much variety can make it overwhelming to find exactly what you like. VTech filters the stations in a few ways: genres, locations, languages, most popular stations, and my stations. You can use multiple filters at once, picking, say "Jazz," then Belgium, to find jazz stations in Belgium.
"My Stations" allows you to access stations that you've saved via VTech's "Station Finder" Web site. This is a great option, as we found it much easier to quickly search and browse online, building up a list of stations to later choose from on the actual unit. We also appreciated that VTech lists the bit rate of the stations online ("MP3 128K"), which makes it easier for us to filter out rough-sounding low-bit-rate stations. VTech also allows you to add any station you like via entering a URL.
In addition to My Stations, there's a "favorites" function that allows you to save stations, both Internet radio and FM stations. The difference between My Stations and Favorites is a little confusing; stations saved as my stations aren't the same as favorites. It's also slightly confusing to actually save a favorite. We intuitively tried to press down the favorite button, which doesn't work; you need to hit menu, then select "add to favorites." You can favorite 100 Internet radio stations and 20 FM stations.
Unlike many of the Wi-Fi radios we test, the VTech includes an FM tuner along with its Internet radio capabilities. We admittedly almost never found ourselves switching over to the FM dial, but it's a nice backup if your Internet connection goes out. AM radio would have been a nice addition to pick up local sports broadcasts that often aren't available on Internet radio, but it's not included.
One of the best features of the VTech is weather data via AccuWeather. Weather is accessed (somewhat confusingly) by pressing the info button; you get an icon indicating the weather, the highs, and the lows, all with a description. Spin the disc on top, and you can browse the weather five days out. Again, this would make it an ideal alarm clock if the design had more alarm-centric features.
Another unique feature of the VTech is that it's capable of battery-powered operation. Flip the unit over, take off the cover, and there's a tray for six AA batteries. It's a great added feature, because it allows you to bring your Internet radio tunes with you anywhere in the house that you get Wi-Fi reception: out on the deck, in the kitchen or a den. On the other hand, relying on AA batteries isn't ideal; either you need to use fresh batteries (expensive) or buy rechargeables with a charging station, which requires you to constantly shuffle them in and out. Still, the VTech is the best portable solution we've currently tested; the Sony VGF-WA1 has a superior design with a built-in lithium battery, but it has too many limitations in the stations it can stream.
The VTech can also stream music (MP3, WMA, Real Audio, AAC formats) off a network-connected PC. The VTech uses shared folders to access music, instead of running a uPNP server, and that makes setup a bit more difficult. That being said, it immediately allowed us to stream music off a NAS drive on our network. Unfortunately no matter what track we played, the VTech couldn't properly display the artist and track information; we got garbled text, instead. We'd love to see a firmware update that addressed the issue.
While Internet radio provides a diverse collection of stations, the VTech doesn't offer any other popular streaming audio services, like Pandora, Slacker, or Last.fm. That's a fairly big setback, as those services offer up personalized radio stations that can be a nice change of pace when you need a break from your favorite stations. We also couldn't find an easy way to directly stream podcasts. If those additional music services are important to you, it's worth checking out more fully featured radios like the Grace GDI-IR2000 or the Squeezebox Boom.
Connectivity is decent on the VTech, with some exceptions. Around back you'll find a minijack auxiliary input, which makes it easy to connect an MP3 player with a patch cable. There's also an analog stereo output, if you'd like to connect the VTech to a larger stereo system. The two missing connections are a headphone jack and Ethernet port; neither is essential, but we still like to have them.
Sound quality on Wi-Fi radios is always a compromise. The small design combined with the compressed digital audio of Internet radio stations makes for a difficult environment to get high-quality sound. That being said, some Wi-Fi radios sound better than others, with plenty of radios passing the "good enough" barrier.
The VTech's sound quality is tough to nail down. When we first fired it up on our wooden desk, we were overwhelmed (in a bad way) by the bass coming from the unit's subwoofer. "Come Together" by The Beatles sounded overly bassy, which is an unusual criticism for a Wi-Fi radio--usually we have trouble getting any bass at all. Moving the unit around yielded much better results; farther from the wall and on a more solid surface yielded a tighter sound. Unfortunately there aren't any EQ controls to help dial in the VTech's sound, so you're limited to changing its placement. Compared with other Wi-Fi radios we tested, we preferred the sound of the more expensive Squeezebox Boom and even the GDI-IR2000 was more to our liking at times (although it was close). On the other hand, if you like a lot of bass, the VTech might suit your tastes as it puts out more low end than every other Wi-Fi radio we've tested aside from the Oxx Digital Tube.
Aside from sound quality, we had a few other performance nitpicks. First off, any time you unplug the VTech it takes forever to turn on. If you're planning on leaving it in one room, that's not a problem, but if you are moving it around frequently (without battery power) we could see it being a real annoyance. We also experienced a few instances when the VTech would have a slight hiccup in playback. It frequently happened if we were accessing the menu while listening to a station, and occasionally it would happen just when listening back to music files streaming off a PC, without using the menu. It wasn't an overbearing problem, but it occurred more frequently than on other radios. Finally, it's worth pointing out that the VTech can't do gapless playback when streaming music off a PC, meaning that albums that flow together continuously will have annoying breaks between tracks. If you're looking for gapless playback, you'll need to upgrade to the Squeezebox Boom.