By definition, the term Wi-Fi radio is somewhat of an oxymoron.
These new devices are not radios in the strict, over-the-air broadcasting sense. They're actually small computers whose sole purpose is to stream and play Internet music files in your collection -- whether they're downloaded or ripped songs (like from
iTunes or a CD) that reside on a computer hard drive -- as well as radio stations from all around the world.
These stations, more than 6,000 of them, are free for the asking. Let me repeat that. You have a choice of more than 6,000 radio stations worldwide.
Now, you could listen to them on any computer but that's so 20th century. The hot, new, modern way to listen to radio from anywhere on the planet is with a Wi-Fi radio.
I've tested nearly every Wi-Fi radio on the market so far. Some look good and sound OK. Some sound OK and are a nightmare to use. Now I've found a unit which is easy to use and is stupendous-sounding at the same time -- the Sangean WFR-20.
The people at Sangean are radio experts. They make all kinds of radios to receive standard AM, FM and shortwave broadcasts, HD radio broadcasts and now Internet radio stations. They also make radios for other companies.
The WFR-20 is a medium-size box (11.5 inches by 7.5 inches by 4.5 inches) with a beautiful high-gloss, piano-black finish. There is a pair of stereo speakers on the front edge and a bass port on the back.
Also on the back are AUX in, line out and headphone jacks, an Ethernet port (for wired connections) and a small pop-up Wi-Fi antenna (for wireless services).
On the front there's only one rotary knob. It controls everything. It took me a few days to get used to pressing in the knob for some functions (like navigating the internal menu system and turning the radio on and off) or twirling the knob (to change stations and adjust the volume).
Once you've mastered the menu system, operating the WFR-20 becomes second nature.
I personally would rather have a separate on-off switch. The radio also comes with a cute, little remote control that makes life easier from a distance.
The Sangean handles MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV, AIFF, FLAC and Real audio files whether wirelessly streamed or played via the Ethernet connection. The radio connects to Windows computer shares as well as UPNP (Universal Plug 'N Play) servers.
The WFR-20 can speak to you in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Finnish (Suomi), Dutch, Swedish and Norsk.
The large, built-in display shows a 12- or 24-hour digital clock when the radio is turned off and radio station information when the radio is playing music. I wish the radio station display would also let you know the current time -- especially when you use the radio, like I do, as an alarm-clock radio and you need a few extra minutes before starting your day.
There are 12 memories you can program for your favorite stations. I wish there were 10 times that amount.
I tested the Sangean on two Wi-Fi networks (using my Ruckus 2826 Multimedia wireless routers) at work and at home. It connected easily and works flawlessly in both locations.
As for the sound, this box is the best of the Wi-Fi radio bunch. It sounds great sitting right next to my bed and even better when listening from across the room. This radio produces enough volume to consider using it as a small room hi-fi system.
Every morning, I get to choose from my favorite jazz stations from Newark, N.J., and Paris, France, as well as local New York stations. If it weren't for Wi-Fi radio I couldn't listen to Fordham University's WFUV. Where I live I can't receive its over-the-air signal.
You can buy a WFR-20 for $300 or less. In a quick check of the Web, I found discount prices ranging from $233.10 (on Amazon.com) to $249.99 (J&R Music). This radio is highly recommended.
One last note: If you check out Sangean's
Web site you'll find pictures of two upcoming Wi-Fi/broadcast radio models -- one a larger, table-top device and the other a component tuner made to plug into your stereo system.
We'll report on both of those as soon as Sangean lets us try them.
Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.