In the brand's revamped lineup full of personal, portable audio products, the Logitech UE Smart Radio is something of an oddball — sure, it's got a battery, but it's really just an around-the-house luggable, dependent on Wi-Fi for services. And it's a table radio — a clock radio at that. Why is this square doing hanging around all of the new L/UE cool kids? And hey, it looks kinda familiar. . .
Yep, it's got some history behind it. And the Smart Radio is, in its own way, quite cool.
When Logitech UE announced the Smart Radio as part of its revamped lineup; the collective wailing and gnashing of teeth among computer audiophiles was audible. Diehard users of the Smart Radio's much-respected ancestor, the Squeezebox (the Smart Radio is, in fact, a rebranded update of the final Squeezebox Radio) felt abandoned by the refresh, which was clearly targeted at the general consumer.
If you have any experience with the old Squeezebox Radio, this'll look quite familiar; the most obvious improvement is the inclusion of the battery pack at the same MSRP (a rechargeable battery was previously available as part of a $50 accessory pack). Even though the Radio is dependent on Wi-Fi (so you won't be going far, though conceivably you could head to the great outdoors and use a smartphone or dedicated 4G hotstpot) this is a pretty useful feature; you can drag the Radio into the kitchen or bathroom with you pretty easily without having to find an extra outlet (and of course, you can listen in such places in blissful freedom from electrocution paranoia).
On the unit's face you'll find a bright, readable display flanked by 6 programmable preset buttons (you can assign Internet radio stations or services to these, transport and navigation buttons, a central navigation wheel, a dedicated volume pot, and the power button. On the side there's a headphone jack (sadly, the only available audio output on the Radio), and around back an Ethernet port (which can be handy if you live in an interference-prone area and your wireless isn't up to the task of handling your services) and a 1/8-inch aux input jack.
The top line services offered include streamers Spotify, MOG, and Rhapsody; "radio" services Pandora and Slacker, Sirius XM; Last.fm; and a wide variety of actual Web radio offerings via TuneIn. Beyond that, you'll find a number of international and specialized radio offerings — along with the much-loved by Squeezebox fans Live Music Archive app — you won't want for available content.
Setup was absolutely painless. Fired it up (it arrived charged out of the box, so I did this before I even plugged it into the wall — and packaging is as well thought out as it is with the rest of the new L/UE line, so it was simple to find all of the essentials). Entered my network credentials via the scroll wheel; a bit ungainly but quite smooth and fast as these things go. It logged on to my wireless network, downloaded the most recent firmware upgrade from Logitech's servers, and we were ready to rock.
Now, you can't do much from the Smart Radio's front panel. Basic functions are accessible, and you can select from and search within your various streaming services, sure, but to add services or take advantage of many of the deeper functions, you need to admin the box either via the UEsmartradio.com Web service or via the iOS/Android Smart Radio Controller app.
You download the free app from the Play Store or the App Store (I installed it on a Samsung Galaxy SII smartphone), and you're prompted to create an account. That done, you pick from a menu of services (I chose, to start, Spotify). I entered my credentials via the app, and a Spotify icon instantly appeared on the Smart Radio's screen. I chose it via the scroll wheel, and in a few seconds I was listening to A.C. Newman's new "I'm Not Talking" (from Shut Down the Streets, his latest solo effort). Internet radio (via TuneIn Radio) just works, right out of the box, no setup required. I then quickly added Pandora and Slacker; again without hassle. Enter your credentials from the Android or iOS app's interface, and you're instantly up and running from the Smart Radio's own front panel. Easy as could be, I had a full roster of streaming services and radio access.
You can control your services from either the app or the Smart Radio's front panel; I noticed that it occasionally took a few seconds for the Smart Radio's display to update to match what had been chosen via the app (though playback began instantly). Slightly confusing, but more just something to be aware of rather than an actual complaint.
Sadly the apps are optimized for iPhone/Android phones only; as of now there aren't tablet-scaled versions for either platform, so they'll look a bit odd and seem a bit clunky on your iPad (or Thrive or Nexus or Galaxy Tab, should your tastes run in that direction). And the apps could be slicker: navigating up and down the nested menus between services still isn't exactly straightforward, occasionally choosing the menu to return to the "All Music" homepage seemed unresponsive, and the Smart Radio would real benefit from a unified search tool among services — but admittedly, such cross-service functionality is the domain of much more expensive solutions.
Want to play back your own collection? Download the UE Music Library application to your PC or Mac (it's available from UEsmartradio.com; you'll have to log into your account to grab the installer). This is a Smart Radio-specific server, rooted in the old Logitech Media Server application that served as the back end of the Squeezebox ecosystem. There's obviously some legacy code here — you'll notice occasionally, as the device plays back from your locally stored files, an address with an "lms" prefix, a remnant of the old software. As of now you'll have to install the UEML on a computer; there's no extant option to install on your NAS, as you could with the old LMS.
Obviously this all brings up a sore point for Squeezebox fans. But Logitech has committed to supporting the older mysqueezebox.com set of services for the foreseeable future, so fans of the older system should have little to worry about, so long as they don't need to acquire more playback devices in the future.
But back to the software. Installation is simple and functionality is smooth. On the Mac (and since that's what we have around the office, that's what I installed on ), you'll find a UE Music Library Preference Pane; from there you can select your local (and shared — you can select folders on network drives). You can have it incorporate your iTunes library with a checkbox.
I chose a few music folders, drawing from a mix of locally stored files and others stored on a network drive, and the server began indexing. A status bar keeps you updated on your library-building progress. A large library will take several hours or more, so you might want to run the process overnight.
One thing to keep in mind: you won't be able to play back your local files unless you have a working Internet connection — your service goes out; your own library'll be as inaccessible as your Spotify playlists.
But that aside, this is generally quite a robust system — the Radio even kept playing through a server crash (kernel panic on the Mac — replaced during the writing of this review — that used to host my music library). It did give up the ghost after the buffer ran out (apparently about a minute or so), but that was nearly enough time to get up and running again. Nice to know. A couple of times over the few weeks I spent playing around with the radio I ran into an odd bug where the device appeared to be playing back files, but was in fact muted despite the volume control setting; cycling the Radio to standby and back brought things back online
Early reports to the contrary (and somewhat frustrating given the lack of any digital audio or analog line level outs on the device), the Smart Radio does handle high-rez FLACs perfectly well — I cued up the latest structured improv recording from Nik Bartsch's awesome Ronin (a 24/96 download from HDtracks) and it played back just fine, as did a 24/44.1 FLAC of Virus' King Crimson-meets-Voivod The Agent That Shapes The Desert. It all sounded about as good as I could expect through the Smart Radio's 3-inch woofer and 3/4-inch tweeter, though I'm assuming some downrezzing is happening on playback.
The point of the Radio isn't high fidelity. It's high convenience, and on that front it succeeds in spaces, though the mobile app controller interfaces could stand to be a bit more refined. But as it stands, this is a very friendly, simple to manage device that for most people will provide easy access to most of the music and talk content they're interested in. The inclusion of Spotify, MOG, and Slacker is very much welcome in a standalone audio device, and in combination with more common options like Pandora, Web radio, and support for locally stored media (albeit on or via a running PC), I can't imagine most people being disappointed in what's on tap here in terms of services.
The controller app is nice enough, if in need of a dedicated tablet redesign, but it's quite traditional in its way — it's merely a remote and managment tool rather than a part of the experience, and unnecessary once you've set up your Smart Radio. For many folks out there, this is as it should be — there's no need to depend on your mobile device to enjoy music while relaxing at home.
As for sound quality — it's a perfectly fine sounding tabletop radio, and because that's what it is — and all it is — a vocal subset of existing Squeezebox fans are likely to be disappointed by this unit. Various incarnations of the Squeezebox over the years, notably the last-gen Touch, have provided a lot of audiophile functionality for surprisingly little money, and that community of users understandably feels some regret at this latest transition in the line — absent for now is any sort of high-end device with big-rig-friendly digital or line outs, and for now it's true there's nothing like the old LMS's support for delivering content directly from NAS, or the various plugins and third party controllers that have evolved over the years. But it might be best to adopt a wait-and-see attitude to see what's coming as the new Logitech UE ecosystem takes shape. Postings by UE product manager Ariel Fischer on the Logitech blog seem to point to more units in the works. We're certainly curiousl