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VTech IS9181 Wi-Fi Internet radio review:

VTech IS9181 Wi-Fi Internet radio

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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 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.

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