Listening to Internet Radio and Suggested Gear

2011-03-15T10:10:23+00:00March 15th, 2011|Audio, Features|22 Comments

I grew up with radio, the BBC (the BEEP to us expats) to be exact, which offered high quality broadcasting in excellent FM sound. Just four stations, mind you. HiFi systems at the time had a record player and a tuner. Over time the FM dial became saturated with public and commercial stations, and sometimes one would interfere with another. Pressure mounted for lower bandwidth broadcasting so more stations could share the airwaves, and along with that came inferior sound. In the UK and elsewhere, highly compressed digital radio brought ever lower standards. The importance of radio for serious listening diminished, overtaken by the flood of digital media available through downloads to play back on your iPod or MP3 player. The car, once the exclusive domain of AM and FM radio, expanded through 8 tracks and cassette tapes to single and multiple disc CD players and then sprouted wired and even wireless connections to iPods and the like.

So radio is on the defensive, but a quiet revolution has been happening along two fronts. The first is the introduction of satellite radio (Sirius and XM Radio) which brings hundreds of digital channels to the home or the car for a modest subscription fee. Some stations are relays from established broadcasters such as CNN and CBC, while others bring unique programming – like Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio and the notorious Howard Stern Show. Sound quality is limited by the maximum bitrate of 54 kbps (kilobits per second), which despite all claims to the contrary, is nowhere near CD quality.

The second front is the more interesting – that’s Internet radio. It uses streaming technology, whereby audio data is compressed, usually using a lossy audio format like MP3, AA3, PCM, OGG or WMA, continuously transmitted serially over the internet in TCP or UDP packets. At the receiving end software reassembles the packets and plays the music a second or two later. Most stations stream at between 32 kbps and 128 kbps, far below the Redbook CD standard of around 700 kbps, but some music stations do much better. Linn offers 3 channels at 320 kbps – Linn Radio, Linn Jazz and Linn Classical, while KEXP broadcasts at 1.4 mbps accessible through Windows Media Player.

What makes Internet radio more interesting? First there’s the enormous range of stations – literally thousands of stations from all over the world. Second is the increasing availability of high bitrate feeds for superior fidelity. Thirdly, you’ve gotta’ like the price – it’s free once you’ve paid for your internet access. Finally internet audio is not restricted to computers anymore. You can feed that stream wirelessly around your home to any Internet radio enabled device. I can listen to Internet radio on my iPad and iPhone, but for serious listening there’s a high quality Internet radio tuner in my Naim Audio UnitiQute receiver. There are very few audiophile devices capable of tuning into Internet radio from a simple wireless internet connection, but an increasing number which can access an internet wireless app on an iPad/iPhone or home computer. Here are some other products to consider, some of which can operate wirelessly:

• Linn Klimax DS
• Micromega AS-400
• Cambridge Audio Sonata
NP30 Network Music Player
• Grace Digital Wireless HiFi
Internet radio Tuner
• Rotel RCX-1500
• T+A E-Series Music Player Mk II
• Pioneer Elite X-79
• Sonos S5
• Bose Wave SoundLink

Micromega’s approach is a very interesting one, building on Apple’s AirTunes wireless transmission protocol, allows you to play music directly from your iPhone. They claim to have the first seamless integration of this technology in the AS-400 HiFi amplifier, and I was able to put it to the test at CES in January of 2011 using my own iPhone. The results were superb, helped no doubt by the superb Focal speakers attached to the amp. Micromega have encapsulated this technology in their AirStream module which is built into the AS400 amp and several other products, and they expect the market will follow them in this direction.

Another growing trend is the expansion of audio systems from one room to the whole house. Once you are streaming it is fairly simple to expand, and several vendors are set up to support this strategy. Naim Audio would like you to set up a single UnitiServe component connected by Ethernet cable to your home network router which can provide multiple independent feeds to a UnitiQute component and a pair of speakers positioned in each listening room, and of course each UnitiQute can wirelessly access Internet radio from that router as well as your music collection from the UnitiServe or your computer.

Sonos offers a Multi Room Music System solution with many options for both controllers and zone players, bringing Internet radio and other feeds around the house at very reasonable prices, although not at the elevated sound quality of the Naim offerings. Yamaha’s MusicCast2 is another competitor in this zone-audio space, again offering Internet radio around the house.

You can also get standalone internet wireless radios like these:

• Logitech Squeezebox
Touch (multi-room system)
• Sony Dash
• Denon S32 Internet radio

There also seems to be a growing trend to include Internet radio tuning in new AV Receivers, along with streaming video.
If you are working with a wireless connection, then you need a fast reliable connection, so 802.11n is the recommended approach, although 802.11g will work well in many situations. You’ll also need a broadband internet connection of course.

There is however one issue with Internet radio and it is the vast number of stations to choose from and no universal channel guide. The SHOUTcast website alone lists a whopping 45,062 free Internet radio stations. You can use the music browser that comes with your tuner to browse through geographic areas or genres of your choice, or you can use the music player of your choice on the computer to find what you are looking for but here are a few websites that can help:

For those of us transplanted from another country, internet audio has a special attraction. It’s good to tune in to the BEEB again, and hundreds of other UK based stations. Even a little country like Israel boasts a dozen channels, while the Canadian Web Radio website lists over 600 local offerings. Satellite radio doesn’t come close, never mind the FM/AM bands. You may also prefer to get your news in a different language (French, Mandarin, etc.) or from a different perspective (Radio Free Iraq, Radio Prague).
Where do we go from here?

I expect Internet radio tuners to appear alongside FM/AM and satellite radio tuners in all sorts of audio systems and digital audio devices, along with the spread of wireless connectivity. The first Internet radio tuners for cars are now coming to the market, although that will be just one more distraction for the already overburdened driver. Blaupunkt is currently offering a 3G based receiver to carmakers, although not directly to end users. Expect this trend to catch on quickly. Think how well this could work with a voice command system like Ford’s Sync. But you don’t even need Internet radio hardware built into your car. You can use your iPhone for example to play Internet radio through a Bluetooth or MP3 connection in many of today’s cars. You just need to download an Internet radio app from the iTunes App Store and you’re off to the races. TuneIn Radio gets good reviews and will set you back all of 99 cents!

While it is hard for a specialty channel to make headway in a small market, when the world is your oyster there may be a good sized international audience no matter how narrow your focus. So I expect a proliferation of highly specialized channels and a massive buildup of websites that not only provide channel listings, but also reviews and recommendations from the vast array of programming available. This in turn will spur the popularity of Internet radio, just as Google helped popularize the internet. MAYBE Google will be the company that pulls it all together. I also expect a gradual upward shift in the bitrates offered as channels start competing in sound quality.

The fly in the ointment is government regulation. There has already been a big battle in the US over the level of royalties payable by the radio station for music tracks. Who knows which way the wind will blow? You can expect the satellite radio companies to lobby for their own interests, and any increase in fees may push some stations out of business or lead to the introduction of user fees in some form or other. The chances of this happening are small right now, but the dangers are there, and being international, it is hard for station owners to raise revenue to support their activities from local advertising.

Welcome to the exciting world of Internet radio.

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