Dedicated internet radios have always been niche products; when you can get all the same content on your desktop, laptop or even smartphone, it's hard to see the point of relying on WiFi. Without a traditional FM antenna, they're many are chained to your network -- if not your wall -- and the lack of keyboard input for setup and channel search furthers their plight. Even so, there must be something to it, as this gadget category refuses to die, so we thought we'd give one promising newcomer a good, thorough try. The Grace Digital Allegro caught our attention with a packed feature list (including Pandora) and a clean, mobile design. Did it enthrall or disappoint? Find out after the break.

Grace Digital Allegro WiFi Radio hands-on

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Grace Digital

Allegro

Pros

  • Clean, portable design
  • Good audio quality for its size
  • Loaded with features

Cons

  • Disturbingly counter-intuitive interface
  • Tiny low-res screen
  • Vertical orientation only
Summary



Presentation

In pictures, the Allegro looks like a sizable, professionally-built audio component; in reality, it's neither. That's bad if you were expecting a box made of wood, metal or glass rather than plastic, but we certainly didn't for the $170 asking price. On the other hand, the box's small stature is a bonus: barely bigger than a few paperbacks side by side, it's quite portable, and looks fantastic on a modern bookshelf. The flimsy cover over the six AA batteries allowing for that portability didn't impress us, but we found the unit pretty solid otherwise, and it sounded excellent for its size. Turning the speakers up to 11 max volume produced some distortion, but the tiny box still managed to fill the room with crisp, nuanced audio from a pair of full-range speakers, and the device has a 3.5mm line-out (though sadly no auxiliary line-in) if you'd rather use your own. Two rear-facing ports give the speakers enough oomph for a little bit of bass, but it won't be shaking your bookcase, let alone the floor, and they make it impractical to set the unit on its back (you'd be covering the ports), which detracts from portability. Not that you'll be carrying the Allegro around much, anyhow. While you can slot in rechargeable Ni-MH cells and even charge them via AC, the six alkalines we used were drained in well under six hours of activity. If you keep it plugged in, however, it's a capable little machine, streaming pleasant-sounding internet radio, Pandora, SIRIUS and Live365 plus files shared via Windows or UPnP server (TVersity worked great with lossless FLAC and OGG) right from your PC.

Interface

It's a cryin' shame that 'capable little machine' is held back by one of the crappiest, most counter-intuitive user interfaces we've ever had the misfortune to behold. If you're familiar with Reciva-based radios, you already have some inkling of what we're talking about -- a tiny, 15-character monochrome display with deep, nested menus burying all the controls -- but the Allegro also has the dubious distinction of having three different control schemes, each with their own critical flaws. The IR remote is by far the best with 10 programmable presets and dedicated Pandora buttons, though you'll need eagle eyes to read the display across a room. Besides, what seems like simple two-axis menu navigation isn't; though the up / down directional buttons do move up and down through each layer of menus, the left / right keys only do the same until the machine starts playing your tunes; from that point on, 'right' only mutes. The hardware dial and buttons on top of the unit are great for controlling volume, but horrible at moving through menus; you have to physically depress the large, clicky dial whenever you make a selection. Here, there are also no Pandora controls, so you're out of luck if you lose that IR remote.

Last and most assuredly least is Grace Digital's iPhone app. While the iPhone's large screen dwarfs that of the Allegro, allowing you to actually read radio station titles and providing streaming Pandora album art, the software is a royal PITA to use -- laid out in no logical order we could discern -- and is actually overruled by its physical counterparts. That means if you put the radio in sleep mode, the app stops responding to input, and if you mute it with the IR remote, you can't undo that with the iPhone controls. Oh, and the iPhone app doesn't have standard media control buttons, unless they were buried under a layer of obfuscation we were unable to penetrate. That splash screen is a lie. While we're at it, you should probably know that none of these three control schemes have any way to stop or pause Pandora (or internet radio) playback. Those stop, pause, backwards and forwards buttons are only for PC streaming control. If you want audio to cease, your only option is to mute.

Wrap-up

Over the course of an afternoon spent swearing at Grace Digital's Allegro and poring through the instruction manual to find out why feature X or control Y wouldn't simply do as we asked, we actually began to feel a familial sort of bond with the device -- something about shared adversity, no doubt -- and managed to settle in for a soothing hour or two of Pandora bliss after painstakingly entering the WiFi encryption key, registering the radio, linking our account and learning the antiquated UI. But we could have done the same with our PC or even smartphone in far less time, and with a device like this the onus is on the manufacturer to make it an easier experience. That didn't happen, and for $170 there's no way we'd recommend the Allegro to any but the most patient individuals willing to trade function for form.

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