One in a series of occasional reviews of consumer devices that are expanding the definition of radio.
The Grace Solo Wi-Fi Receiver brings the benefits of a standalone Reciva-based Wi-Fi radio to your home stereo system. Unfortunately, it brings the limits of the Reciva system and Internet-based radio as well.
The good news: If you want the functionality of a Wi-Fi receiver in your living room, with the results pumped through your top-end amplifier and speakers, the Grace Solo is a worthy — if hobbled — addition.
Listed at $124.95, the Solo is a Wi-Fi radio receiver, nothing else. It doesn’t have speakers or inputs.
Features and setup
The Grace Solo Wi-Fi Radio Receiver, a wireless radio and media streamer, is made by Grace Digital Audio of San Diego. It offers a range of quality Internet radios in portable, tabletop, iPod-dockable and receiver-only models.
Listed at $124.95, the Solo is a Wi-Fi radio receiver, nothing else. It doesn’t have speakers or inputs, and it only outputs to a pair of female RCA jacks and a miniature headphone jack.
Physically, the Solo is about the size of a cube of butter with a bit more height (6 inches wide, 3-1/4 inches high, 3 deep). Its front panel has a four-line backlit LCD screen, flanked by a Volume knob on the left and a Menu/push-in Select knob on the right.
The unit has eight buttons on its lower angled face. These are variously used for On-Off; 10 programmable presets; digital media controls (Play, Pause, Stop, Forward, Shuffle) and overall system controls for the Solo’s Reciva software (Retrieve, Back and Menu).
Features include a clock (synched to the Internet), five individual alarms, a sleep timer, backlight brightness settings and a 12-language menu.
Supported audio formats include AIFF, AIFC, WAVE, CAF, NeXT, ADTS, MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC and WMA. It works with playlist formats ASX, M3U, PLS, and supports streaming protocols HTTP, HTTPS, RTSP, WSMP and Shoutcast.
The built-in media player lets you stream audio files from your PC or Mac. As to networking, the Solo offers 802.11g wireless connectivity and works with all 802.11b/g/n routers; it also supports WPA Personal, WPA2-AES and 64/128-bit WEP encryption.
The Solo comes with a small remote control that can navigate its many Reciva menus, RCA stereo patch cords and an AC adaptor.
The Grace Solo can access Internet radio stations either through Reciva’s website or Grace’s customized site, which accesses the Pandora personal radio service, where you can have a say in what you hear.
This unit can also log onto www.live365.com, plus access podcasts and music stored on your own local home network (Media Player). Add clock radio functions, and the Grace Solo offers all of the standard Reciva Internet radio features — all ported through your home stereo.
It took little time for me to connect the Grace Solo into the back of my venerable Yamaha RX-V670 amplifier and listen via my large Bose loudspeakers.
Entering the password for my home Wi-Fi network was a bit of a pain, because I had to use the Menu dial and push functions to scan manually for and then select each letter/number. But once the WEP password was in, the Solo wasted no time in logging onto the network and getting down to work.
Pros and cons
The Grace Solo is a stylish little glossy black unit that fits well with most home stereo components. The front-panel buttons were responsive. However, the remote has to be pointed directly at the front for its buttons to work.
In general, the Solo does what it promises, adding Internet radio functionality to a home entertainment system, allowing you to use your existing amplifier and speakers for the best sound quality rather than relying on a standalone Internet radio’s own components.
This said, the quality of the Internet audio depends on the size of the station data stream you are tuned to. At 32 kbps, Beethoven Radio didn’t sound that impressive compared to a local off-air FM station received on the Yamaha’s own radio. In contrast, 001 Canada Classical, which streams at 128 kbps, sounded much more suited to my stereo’s sonic capabilities.
In fairness, the problem here is not the Solo or Internet radio in general: It is that data stream size really matters when you are hearing the stream through a good audio system. The same is true of the MP3s that I accessed through my home PC. Although they sound excellent, CDs still sound better, as they should.
This receiver became irritating during the use of the Reciva’s page-based menu system. To find Beethoven Radio, you have to select “Internet Radio,” then “Genre,” then specify what country you want; then download its available stations, and then scroll the menu to select the exact station you want. (Finding and then playing audio files on one’s home PC is even more time-consuming.)
Grace Brings ‘Heart’ to the Home
Among content available for at-home listening on the Grace Solo is audio from CBS Radio, NPR, Pandora, Sirius (with subscription) and NOAA, as well as thousands of independent online stations.
The company also recently announced the addition of iheartradio, Clear Channel’s music and entertainment portal, to all of its Internet radios and wireless media players.
“Grace adds iheartradio’s 750+ radio stations to its current line of radio shows, podcasts and on-demand programs,” the company stated. “Iheartradio delivers America’s favorite radio stations online at iheartradio.com and as an application on your iPod Touch, iPhone, BlackBerry and Android phones. Grace Digital customers can now connect Grace Internet radios to their broadband Internet connection and instantly access iheartradio’s premier station lineup.”
It said that with the successful iheartradio mobile app, Internet radio users “were looking for a convenient way to bring first-class radio content into their home radio devices, and our partnership with iheartradio has provided that.”
I personally do not have an alternative to the Reciva-based system to offer, but this approach is clunky, time-consuming and due for improvement. In fairness to Reciva, once you have entered your favorite stations into the presets, getting to them is easy.
(Ed. Note: Regarding limitations of searching for stations, a Grace spokesman agreed and wrote: “We offer two alternative methods. You can search and save them on our website, then they will show up in the My Stuff folder. [Or] you can search and save them on our iPhone app, then they will show up as a preset or in the My Stuff folder, depending on how you save them.”)
One minor complaint: The gloss finish on the Solo shows dust and fingerprints within minutes of deployment. Or maybe I just live in a dusty house.
For the money, the Grace Solo delivers what it promises and then some. If you make sure to tune to stations with decent data streams, the sound quality is substantial and listenable through decent speakers. Just be prepared to struggle through the Reciva menus to program the stations you want and you’ll be fine.
Grace Digital Audio products are sold on the company’s website and at retailers like Best Buy, Sears and J&R Music. The company publishes a chart comparing features of its half-dozen Internet radio models.