Livio Pandora Internet Radio SRP: $150
Published on December 6, 2009
Last year we reviewed one of the several Internet Wi-Fi radios now available, The Phoenix, from Baracoda. The Livio Radio has a number of features that improve on the Phoenix. It is the first and only dedicated device to the offer the Pandora music service, complete with “thumbs up & thumbs down” buttons on the front panel, plus a remote control. But in addition it also accesses over 11,000 Internet stations that provide a greater variety of programming than all the terrestrial stations in the country put together, plus podcasts of all sorts. Pandora is based on the Music Genome Project, which is a highly personalized Internet radio service that takes note of your music preferences and plays tunes on your personal “station” that it thinks you will like, based on the initial tune or artist you selected for your station. You can select as many personal stations as you wish, and listen to them free for up to 40 hours a month. If you haven’t already experienced Pandora (or Last.fm) on your computer, you’re in for a very satisfying music discovery experience! And with no subscriptions or fees of any sort.
You register at the Pandora.com site and then enter various selections or performers to set up a station playing random selections that are close to your entry. I have set up nine personal stations so far, including such obscure selections as Raymond Scott, Bob Dorough, and Kitaro. When my Count Basie station was playing too many Chet Baker vocals, I hit the thumbs down button a couple times. Presto, no more Chet Baker. Plus the data reduction Pandora uses is less than most of the Internet stations, providing good fidelity when you hook up your Livio Radio to your audio system using the handy stereo line out on the back panel, although the speaker built into the front of the Livio is only mono, not stereo as is the Phoenix, though of higher quality. Though it requires its wall-wart power supply, you can still take the Livio Radio anywhere in your home to listen to its serviceable mono signal.
The appearance of the Livio Radio is quite stylish and much more solid than the Phoenix, though it is not a battery-operated portable as that one. In addition to the power input from the separate wall wart there is a front-panel stereo headphone jack, an Ethernet jack if you want to ensure a more dependable Wi-Fi connection than the provided 802.11g wireless function, and an auxiliary input for connection of an iPod. The manual suggested setting up my home network router for WPA security instead of the WEP security I had been using with the Phoenix Radio. The Phoenix runs only on WEP but WPA is more secure, especially with a password key, which I added after noticing that both of my neighbors nodes which appeared on my MacBook were also secured with passwords. The router changes didn’t effect operation of my Airport (Wi-Fi) MacBook.
You have to set up your Pandora membership if you don’t already have one, and it is easier to do that as well as to select your various “stations” at the Pandora web site rather than doing it on the Livio Radio. The Livio has very clear displays for both the Internet and Pandora sources, and Pandora will display on the radio all your different stations for you to select which one you fancy at any time. I had a ball setting up my nine stations! There is also a fun Quick Mix feature which selects random tunes from your various stations. The tracks on Pandora never crossfade into one another; instead there is a sizable silence between them – sometimes of :15 or :20 seconds while its computers locate another similar selection to play for you. Another advantage of Pandora is the total lack of any voice announcements – the performers and song titles appear on the Livio Radio display for each selection, but there are never any commercials or pleas for donations as with Internet stations!
The Internet casters are accessed in a similar way on the radio’s display. They are organized by locations around the world or by genre. It’s quite surprising, for example, how many jazz stations there are in small countries such as Denmark, Belgium and Switzerland. The bitrate used by the particular station is briefly displayed, and I quickly found those of the top rate of 128kbps were greatly superior to the many 56kbps or lower broadcasters. (The lowest rates are designed for those still with dialup connections, which cannot accommodate anything over 52kbps.)
There are also other settings for the radio’s clock, your time zone, firmware upgrades and other aspects of operation. Livio uses the UK-based Reciva database of stations, which covers many thousands and is adding stations all the time. It takes some effort to add a station that may not yet be offered, but going to the Reciva online portal at www.reciva.com is the way to go about it. It also has a better interface for choosing Net stations than on the Phoenix. In addition to the thumbs up and down buttons, the radio also has a skip button to move on to the next selection. However, you cannot select specific tracks nor go back to a track you wanted to hear again or record. For use with the Internet stations, you also have a FAV button which you press and hold to save any Net station you favor for future listening. The button also shows a list of all the stations you thus select. The Pandora stations, however, appear in a separate Pandora menu. The Livio comes with a tiny credit card-sized remote, so you can operate it from your sweet spot when you have it hooked to your stereo system.
I had a bit of a personal struggle getting my Livio Radio set up. Part of it was due to my demo unit being blocked after too many online registrations at the server, part due to terminology in the Livio manual referring to serial numbers and key numbers to enter, and part to my old router not being properly set up. I don’t expect most users would run into these problems. And if you require some assistance, the above web site and phone number will offer excellent help to you.
Signal Reliability and Fidelity
In general, the performance of the Livio Radio was excellent and dependable with most Netcasters – much more so than the Phoenix radio had been. Occasionally they are short muting periods, but this is usually a fault of the Netcaster or perhaps a less-than-perfect Wi-Fi signal reaching the radio, rather than an internal problem in the radio. If your radio is some distance from your home’s router, you may want to run a wired Ethernet connection to ensure better performance. If you have a good broadband service that will usually not be the problem. You can’t connect your computer into the Livio Radio, but the idea is that it is designed to make access to both Net stations and Pandora so much more convenient that using your PC or Mac.
The Livio is equal to a good tabletop radio with its own built in speaker, and in fact is quite similar to the Tivoli radios. Hooking up the stereo mini-jack to your home audio system will deliver excellent fidelity that with Pandora’s service at least, can frequently equal the sonics of an average CD. The one complaint I had on certain of my Pandora stations, as well as some of the Internet stations, was a sometimes-annoying discrepancy in volume levels between selections. Due to the technical parameters of digital, there can be an even wider range of average levels between various compact discs than there ever were between various LPs. I recall this was a problem some years ago with the continuous music services offered by some TV cable services, and it still exists. (And you probably have the same problem if you own a CD changer.) Some streaming players have built in limiters and level adjusting circuits that compensate for the differences between tracks; the Livio does not, but these circuits can also compromise the fidelity of the music. Since most pop music is already heavily compressed, if you choose stations with standard pop fare you probably won’t run into this problem at all; it seems to crop up more in the classical and jazz genres. However, the Livio does have a 24-bit DAC, which probably explains the higher fidelity one gets when hooking it up to your home audio system.
By the way, if you’re a rabid NPR fan, you might be even more interested in the Livio NPR Radio, which is identical to the Pandora Radio except that along with all the Internet stations, instead of Pandora it gives you easy access to all the NPR stations and programming. It has an exclusive NPR menu to easily find, search and bookmark NPR stations, podcasts and content, by topic or program. You can hear their podcasts put up during the past two weeks. If you’ve become tired of going to the NPR web site to access your favorite programs or news that you missed, here’s a convenient way to get them, and listen anywhere in your home without your computer.
– John Sunier