With its full-range stereo speakers, high-gloss wooden case and low-key elegant design, the Sangean WFR-1 Wi-Fi/FM radio is the most impressive Internet radio I have seen. Its performance on the Internet "band" or as a LAN-connected music player is stellar. And yes, the radio sounds good when tuned to the Web.
But the WFR-1's FM tuning is possibly the worst I have encountered on a modern digital radio. Its nicely-weighted tuning dial tunes in 0.05 MHz steps, making roaming from one station to the next tedious and time-consuming. The fact that you can hear the audio "chuffing" in staticky bursts as you tune doesn't help. As for the remote control? Even though it has a 0–9 numeric pad, you cannot punch in FM frequencies directly. The only good news is that the remote will tune in 0.10 MHz steps, at a rate of 7–8 steps a second.
The WFR-1 is well-built, well thought-out piece of radio hardware. It has two 5 watt, 8 ohm speakers for stereo sound; jacks for Ethernet, USB input (from an iPod or other device), Line Out, Aux In and headphones; and the ability to connect to a wireless network (aided by a back-mounted, movable Wi-Fi antenna). Its remote control is full-sized and runs on two AAA batteries, making replacement easy. The controls essentially duplicate everything offered on the front panel.
The monochrome LCD display (yellow lit letters on a dark background) is easy to read in all lighting. The front layout is logical, with buttons ("Band", Volume Up and Down, EQ) clearly labeled and accessible.
Unlike many Internet radios I have reviewed, the Sangean WFR-1 does not use the Reciva radio tuning system and Web site. Instead, its technology and the radio Web sites it accesses comes from the Frontier Silicon Radio Portal at www.wifiradio-frontier.com.
Like Reciva.com, the Frontier Silicon Radio portal provides constantly updated links to thousands of Web radio stations and podcasts for free, with the ability to accept new listings submitted by users. Unlike Reciva, you can only access the audio online if you buy a Frontier-enabled radio and enter in the access code stored in your WFR-1's memory. This is displayed to you on the receiver's LCD screen.
Despite the use of a non-Reciva system, the WFR-1's tuning approach is similar to Reciva-driven receivers like C. Crane's CC WiFi Radio or the Tangent Quattro. Using the tuning dial, which presses inward to make selections, plus a few keys on the front, you drill down through the WFR-1's menu. All of this functionality is duplicated on the remote control, which is easy to use.
For instance, you can choose Internet stations based on their Location or Genre. The WFR-1 also will let you connect to "Popular Stations" (based presumably on the tuning of other Frontier members), or add your own from the profile you've created at the Frontier Web site. The same approach is used to access podcasts or music files on other PCs on the LAN, using the WFR-1's Music Player mode.
On the FM side, the WFR-1 lets you tune using its tuning dial or remote control TUNE- or TUNE+ keys. Once you have found the station you want, you can add it to one of 10 presets. (The Internet radio can also accept 10 presets, accessible using the remote control.) The set comes with a back-mounted extendable FM whip antenna. RDS is provided.
Pros and cons
Wow. What a schizophrenic receiver.
On the "pro" side of the equation, the WFR-1 is the answer to an Internet radio listener's dream. Finally, a receiver with stereo speakers; no longer must I plug in headsets or a pair of external speakers to hear stereo audio from the Web. Frankly, I am baffled as to why all Internet radios do not come with stereo speakers as a standard feature. Sangean got this right.
The sound quality of the WFR-1 is excellent. It is aided by this radio's provision of numerous EQ presets (Rock, Classic, Jazz) and its ability to accept your own personal EQ settings (limited to bass and treble). Again, this is the best Internet radio for listening enjoyment that I have found to date.
The genres offered by the Frontier Silicon Radio Portal far exceed those offered on Reciva.com. I like being able to drill down into a specific Old Time Radio channel featuring shows from the '30s and '40s; rather than having to search the Reciva Oldies channel to guess which stations offer Jack Benny and which are simply playing 1950s rock and roll
The Music Player accesses sound files easily across a network. It is as simple to use as surfing the Web for audio; that's a nice change.
The finishing of the WFR-1 is gorgeous. I find myself constantly wiping fingerprints off its glossy, deep lacquered case.
However, FM tuning on the WFR-1 is nothing short of appallingly bad. Tuning in 0.05 MHz steps is agonizing, and the fact that the remote control can only speed this up to 0.10 MHz steps doesn't help much. There's no excuse for this.
Note to Sangean: Add a variable tuning speed button on the front of this receiver, to end user frustration. Failing that — or better yet, in addition to it — allow direct frequency entry on the remote control. I know the frequencies of the FM stations I like. If I can just punch them in directly, I'll be happy.
Frankly, I am baffled by this deficiency. As a shortwave radio manufacturer with long experience in direct entry keypads, Sangean knows how to build such technology. I have owned Sangean direct entry sets not for years.
Is the WFR-1 worth the money? If you are looking for a high-end Internet radio that looks great, the answer is yes. FM tuning notwithstanding, this is an excellent radio for Web listening ... and serving as eye candy in your living room/office. If FM is your first priority, look elsewhere. The tuning is just too painful to use on a regular basis, unless you intend to set your presets once and leave things at that.
The Sangean WFR-1 is available at many Web sites. It retails for $349.95; we found it online for well below that.