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Internet Radio and Beyond


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
August 13, 2007

XM radio (and its fiancé, Sirius) are not just beamed down to North America via satellite, but can also be hear around the world over the Internet. I only subscribe to XM, so I do not know much about Sirius, but I am impressed with the plethora of ways that I can get XM over Internet, all of which provide much better quality audio than the satellite version of the service that I receive in my car.

Roku M2000 Network Music PlayerWell before I joined the XM fold, I became the proud owner of two Roku Soundbridge Internet radio devices—the models M1000 and M2000. They are identical except that the 2000 (pictured above) is roughly twice as large, which means that its display can be read across a large room. Apparently, no one in the Capital District wanted them and so the local Tweeter store practically gave them both away to me a few months before it went out of business. I had been listening to Internet radio on my PC, but the SoundBridge makes things more portable and does not take up precious processing cycles.

The Roku SoundBridge represents the ultimate victory of form over function. The giant M2000 would fit right in at the Museum of Modern Art. Roku, which is Japanese for "six," also makes digital signs and the SoundBridge is essentially a cylindrical, programmable fluorescent sign that can receive a wide variety of digital music via Ethernet or WiFi. It is so sleek that the unit itself has no buttons, knobs, or switches; it can only be controlled via a remote that tends to roll off any surface on which it is placed or via a somewhat clumsy and limited Web interface. (It can also be used as a sign, which can display things like "I'm Roku, Feed me music," by talking to it via Telnet.)

The SoundBridge is strictly a hobbyist device—a quick visit to their user forums demonstrates that these units are temperamental. Mine have worked reasonably well, they only spontaneously reboot or get terminally confused every few days. I suspect that the best way to keep them happy to is feed them voltage-regulated AC power. Set-up is a little easier than getting your typical wireless router to function. (I can do a wireless router in about 20 minutes, my first SoundBridge took 15 minutes and the second one was instantaneous.) Like a wireless router, the first thing you have to do is upgrade the unit's firmware. Then, the beast is ready to sing.

The best thing about SoundBridges is that they have optical outputs that can pass digital music (of which Internet radio is just one variety) unmolested to one's audio equipment. The newer, less expensive, models are to be avoided by the discerning listener because they resample the digital signal, which is not particularly good for it. (The original M1000 and M2000 have been out of production for over a year. The M2000 is a rare item; however, the M1000 frequently surfaces on eBay.) While I first thought that this was the work of the evil forces of DRM, it turns out it was just a cost-saving measure. I listened to the M2000 for several months through its analog output, and while it was certainly listenable, now that I have gotten used to the feeding its digital output into a good digital-analog converter (DAC) I can never go back.

Basically, if an Internet radio station has a URL that begins with "http" and is MP3 or WMA encoded, the SoundBridge can play it. (The unit can also play other formats, but I have not tested them out yet.) One of the previously mentioned ways that XM Internet stations can be received is as a URL with the accountholder's username, password, and station number embedded in it. XM does not make all its channels available over the Internet—sports programs and other specially licensed content are excluded—but lots of channels are available, all of it in 64kbps WMA. This format on my equipment and to my ear sounds at least as good as 128kbps MP3, which is how the better public radio stations stream themselves onto the Internet. Under the best of conditions, an FM radio will sound better than the best you can squeeze out of a 64kbps WMA or 128kbps MP3 stream, but with just a little more bandwidth Internet radio will gain the upper hand. (All my own music from CDs is encoded into 192kps VBR MP3s and it is startlingly better than anything I can get through the atmosphere or over the Internet. On the other hand, a well-produced DVD-A or SACD blows everything else away.)

The problem with Internet radio, and it will stay a problem for a long time, is that it is seriously not ready for prime time. Even ignoring all the music-licensing issues that had been receiving a lot of blog attention lately, Internet radio is not a particularly reliable medium. Radio stations can unexpectedly change their URLs, their encoding methods, or simply vanish entirely. Even on my 10mbps broadband connection (which admittedly is more like 5mbps over wireless), connections can get spotty, most likely because of undercapacity or incompetence at the other end of the pipe. Significant user intervention is required to get an Internet radio to work right and to continue working right.

What makes it easy to ignore all the problems with Internet radio is the sheer quantity of content that is available on it. Sources of entertainment range from major media outlets to guys living in their parents' basement. Commercial radio stations in the U.S., however, seem to have a problem with Internet radio—their feeds are either low quality or are restricted to proprietary players that cannot be directly streamed to Internet radio devices. In contrast, U.S. public radio stations tend to have high-quality, accessible feeds.

My favorite public radio Internet feeds are the dedicated classical music stations that were set up for broadcast over HD radio. Unfortunately, public radio stations do not entirely understand that Internet radio should share as many of the positive features of terrestrial radio as possible. Internet radio already has a latency problem to deal with—in contrast to AM and FM radio that come in virtually instantaneously, the need for buffering adds at least a few seconds of delay to the start-up of most Internet stations. Many public radio stations make this worse by using the opportunity either to beg for money or, far worse, to let one of their corporate sponsors pitch itself to listeners. Given that the broadcast content itself contains numerous pitches, this technique is ultimately counterproductive because it serves as aversion therapy to listeners. Moreover, public radio, with a few notable exceptions, has yet to discover the metadata in streaming broadcasts. They could not only provide useful artist, composer, work, etc. information there, but through in the occasional pledge request.

When I was first thinking about doing this commentary, the Minnesota Classical Radio feed was far and away my favorite non-XM Internet radio station. (XM Classics, which is playing in the background while I write this, is my overall favorite by an enormous margin.) Its content is available on numerous other public radio stations, but the straight Minnesota feed was not littered with bad syndicated content, including propaganda trying to pass itself off as news. Two things changed. First, Minnesota Classical Radio cut back on Jeff Esworthy's time slot, partially replacing him with the syndicated "Performance Today." Second, the station added an introductory sales pitch to their feed that included an ad for UBS.

The two classical radio stations I listen to that do not start their streams with sales pitches are KUSC and WCPE. While both tend toward blandness and warhorses, KUSC is not bad. WCPE, which is based in North Carolina, has some dreadful DJs and serious sound quality issues that make it unlistenable over headphones. There are no more classical stations like those of the youth that would only deign to play Mozart as a joke and stuffed their playlists with truly obscure and often annoying music. The closest that I have found to a true music snob station is WNYC2. The quality of its stream is first-rate; however, it does start its stream with a pitch for a corporate law firm. It claims to provide "music with attitude," but sadly it plays enough warhorses that it comes off as just another radio station pandering to the masses. Moreover, Aaron Copland and Philip Glass stopped being cool a long time ago and their certainly lack attitude.

The Brits certainly shine when it comes to Internet radio. The BBC, Virgin, and Sky all have a variety of good feeds, even if their bitrates tend to be on the low side. Sky's 70s and 80s channels are a shade better than their XM equivalents and have the further advantage of displaying artist and title for every song. (Disclaimer: The author owns shares in British Sky Broadcasting and hopes that someday soon Rupert Murdoch will buy them away from him.)

Specialty stations abound on Internet radio. There are stations dedicated to specific genres and even to single artists. For example, Stellar Attraction is an art rock station that puts out an especially good sounding 128kbps feed that is well suited to further digital processing. (My office system is build around one of those Yamaha units with an absurd number of "soundfield" settings that would normally destroy music but make Stellar Attraction sound even better.)

It will be interesting to see how Internet radio makes the transition into the mainstream. Roku now sells a self-contained AM/FM radio that includes the Internet streaming functionality of the SoundBridge, but also has all its set-up issues. Similar dedicated Internet radios from other vendors have share Roku's ease-of-use issues. Recently, the big audio-video receiver makers (Yamaha, Denon, etc.) brought out "networked" receivers that could play Internet radio, but those models are not catching on. 

It may well be that the only way to make Internet radio truly plug-and-play using anything like the wireless current technology is to marry it to the existing mobile/cellular phone infrastructure. Given the hassles of current Internet radio technology and the creativity in the cellular world shown by the iPhone, that could be where the future of radio of all kinds lies.

Copyright 2007 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to