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A real transmission overhaul

Now there are two ways to listen to Internet radio, wherever you might be in the house.

May 08, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Through the miracle of Internet radio, you can listen to an all-accordion channel. Marches, waltzes, pop hits and, of course, polkas, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Then there's the station that plays Cambodian karaoke performances. Exclusively.

And if that isn't niche enough, there's a channel that features nothing but the live air-traffic control transmissions from Portland International Airport in Oregon.

How do I know? Because I've been listening to the first wireless Internet radio -- the Streamium MC-i250 from Philips Electronics, which goes on sale later this month. It's potentially a great product, because it allows you to listen to Internet radio throughout the house, not just in the room where the desktop computer resides.

The key word is "potentially." Philips gets points for playing on the cutting edge, but the Streamium is coming out before it's truly ready for prime time.

As of its debut, the Streamium will not be able to receive the Internet radio stations that have made the online medium such a great source of worldwide perspectives on news and cultural events. These hallowed broadcast institutions include the BBC (all 11 radio channels, not just the World Service that is a late-night feature on some local FM outlets), Radio France International, Radio Japan and dozens of domestic stations.

Instead, Streamium will feature online services such as Live365.com, which allows individuals to create their own stations -- often in their own bedrooms or basements. The result is the Internet version of public access television, featuring music choices from mainstream pop to the ultra-outre and lectures by adherents of various political and religious beliefs -- usually on the fringe.

The Streamium will also pick up music streams from recording companies -- Virgin Records programs an all-Peter Gabriel channel, for example -- and other sources.

But without the major Internet radio outlets, the Streamium seems overpriced at $399, plus the approximately $100 to equip your home with wi-fi if it isn't already. Use of the radio also requires a broadband connection.

A Philips spokesman said the company plans to issue a free upgrade in the fall to allow the unit to receive almost any Internet station. If you're interested in the product, it might be prudent to wait until the upgrade is proven to work well.

In the meantime, there is a far less expensive way to make home Internet radio wireless, and it doesn't require wi-fi. The solution is a wireless speaker that not only works reasonably well, but is also incredibly cool looking.

The Sony SPIAR ("sound play in any room") is a silver-colored speaker tower, topped by curved shield that makes it look like a miniature radar unit. It has a built-in light that gives the shield an eerie blue glow and a small transmitter that plugs into the computer's speaker outlet. The system (Sony product number SRS-RF90K) lists for $179.99 but is available from retailers for as low as about $120.

Put the SPIAR in a darkened room, tune in a shortwave broadcast off the Internet and you can role-play a spy listening to clandestine messages. The transmission range is supposedly 150 feet, but in practice is a bit less than that. Indeed, the performance of SPIAR, while adequate for listening to news and other information programming, is not up to its looks. The sound is a bit staticky, and because the wireless signal is fairly weak, you have to move the speaker around a room to find the best reception. If you block the signal path with your body, it sometimes cuts out.

The worst interference comes from cordless phones that operate on 900 Mhz, the same frequency used by SPIAR. Picking up the phone to make or answer a call brings on a horrible screech from the unit. To keep peace between the two devices, it's best to leave the phone in its cradle when the SPIAR is in use.

There are other inconveniences. For example, to change stations, you have to go back to the computer. But Internet radio is a welcome alternative to what's available over the air, especially during this period of international tension, when foreign reports can round out domestic broadcasts.

If the somewhat tinny sound of the SPIAR is a huge drawback, you can get a much better wireless speaker system. But you'd better hurry.

The Advent AW870 features two ordinary looking bookcase speakers that are not as portable as the SPIAR tower. The speakers produce a much richer sound, however, and the signal given off by the little transmitter is considerably stronger.

The big problem with the Advent is finding one -- parent company Recoton Corp. filed for bankruptcy last month, then was bought. The system is currently available from only a few retailers.

Original list price for the system was $249, but it can be found online for as low as about $160 and even less for a refurbished unit.

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