Review: The STREAM 64i from Roberts

In this first review, we take a look at a combined FM/DAB+/Wi-Fi radio – the STREAM 64i from Roberts.

Roberts has been making quality radios for over 80 years. Can they still deliver when it comes to including the technologies of today into their current models? We chose to review this particular model as it supports the latest digital radio standard – DAB+. Coming in at an RRP of £350, we would expect a high performance, well-built radio. Read on to see how well it does.

Summary of features

As mentioned, this radio supports the FM, DAB+ and Wi-Fi radio modes. Additionally, there’s 3.5mm AUX-in support, the ability to play music tracks sitting on your home network and a neat recording feature. We also love how an in-built CD player has been included in this package – something you don’t often see these days on connected radios. All these components, together with an infra-red remote control add value to the product.

Radio

Taking a closer look at the radio modes, you can toggle between the modes using the “Radio” button. This has been distinctly separated from “Media”, which makes cycling through the modes fairly quick. For each radio mode, you’re given 10 presets to store your favourite stations, giving a total of 30. We strongly feel this could have been a much more generous number, given the huge number of stations available on the internet. In internet radio mode, you CAN make use of the favourites list (which can be arranged into groups of your choosing) for organisation a larger range of presets, but it does take a number of steps to reach this list, not to mention the need after that to scroll down to your favourite station.

Built into the radio are two aerials, one for FM/DAB and another for Wi-Fi. This is the only radio we’ve come across where they’ve actually bothered installing a dedicated Wi-Fi antenna. This should give it that extra boost for those of us in larger houses or with Wi-Fi routers located on different floors. The supplied aerial for the radio can be removed to be replaced by your own external aerial after taking the faceplate off. The aerial lead will need an F-type screw-in plug to interface with the radio.

The FM mode is pretty standard amongst the internet-capable radios. RDS PS and RT displays are supported, meaning station names and scrolling text provided by the broadcast can be displayed. In DAB mode you have the equivalent information displays, as well as further station details such as bitrates and the name of the multiplex, if you’re into that sort of thing. Searching for radio stations could be made a lot simpler. In an FM radio, you’d expect to be able to scan up and down for a station on the band – a fairly standard feature on many radios. But for some unknown reason, it is only possible to scan UP the band with the Auto button. This is potentially quite annoying if you’d like to tune to a station you know is just slightly to the left of where you are at the moment – you’ll have to make do with manual tuning with the standard left/right buttons in cases like these. The Auto button also provides a one-touch station scanning function in DAB mode. We kind of wished it was labelled “Scan” instead of Auto, as it’d be far less confusing as to what action pressing the button would perform.

The Internet radio mode is brought to you by Frontier Silicon – a popular module as used by many other radio manufacturers. This means it’s a common standard in terms of menus and extensive station and podcast choice. The obvious downside to this is that the design of the radio is limited to how Frontier Silicon have designed it. For example, we have found other radios that use Frontier Silicon to be rather slow and cumbersome when finding and playing internet radio stations. Unfortunately, the Roberts STREAM 64i is no exception. Whilst the menu system is fairly intuitive and isn’t that bad, it can take a while for your radio to connect to you wi-fi network and before a station will actually start playing. Not ideal if you’re a little impatient. Despite being a higher-end manufacturer of radios, the fact that Roberts have chosen to go this way leaves them with no control over the issue of performance. Station selection can be slow, especially when you’re presented with a long list. Unfortunately, there is no way to scroll by page, which would have made navigating to your favourite station so much easier.

However, there is a one small saving grace: we’ve noticed this is one of the more advanced versions of the Frontier Silicon firmware. The ability to display “ID3” information in Internet radio mode proves this. More and more internet radio stations are using this “ID3” method to show what song’s playing and we’re really pleased it’s supported on this radio to the benefit of the listener.

Network mode

If you’re technologically-savvy enough to have music stored and shared across your network on the computer (or on a Network Drive), the Roberts radio will quite happily find your music to play. This is quite a standard feature to have on internet radios these days, but it’s worth noting that the lossless FLAC file format is partially supported for all you audiophiles out there – both 16 and 24-bit samples will play, but disappointingly not anything with a higher sample rate than 48kHz. What’s really impressed us, though, is the support for UPnP. UPnP not only allows the radio to find music on supported devices (such as on smartphones and games consoles), but also allows music to be pushed to it. What this means is that you can use your smartphone to set up a local playlist and then control the music that’s played through the radio’s speakers. In a house party scenario, this would make the user a much slicker host than having to push buttons in front of the radio or on a remote control. In push mode, the radio supports a good number of formats, including mp3 and AAC/AAC+. This also makes the control of internet radio station selection potentially much quicker than using the radio’s on-board menu system. Note that in order to use the push feature, it requires the radio to be in a “connected” state. This isn’t something your radio will automatically be in. It may depend on the mode you’re on, but you may need to manually give your radio a helping nudge, by putting it into internet radio mode, for example. Roberts tell us that the reason for this behaviour is to do with having to comply with the European EuP Directive, so unfortunately, there is no way for the user to get around this.

CD

Whilst we’re impressed that the inclusion of a CD player allows it to be considered an all-in-one audio entertainment system, we’re equally uninspired by its basic features. You get the bog-standard repeat and shuffle but that’s about it. Given that it’s a connected device, perhaps we had the expectation that it could bring up CD track information from the internet (from CDDB, for example). According to the manual, CDs containing mp3 and basic WMA files are playable, although we haven’t tried these ourselves.

iPod

We had a 2nd generation iPod touch available to use with the radio and it behaved as we expected it to – it charged our device and played our music. Using the cursor keys on the remote control, it was possible to navigate through the menu items in the iPod’s music library. However, this was all done via the iPod’s own screen rather than on the radio’s display. One immediate disadvantage we can think of is if you have an iPod with a small screen. The benefit of remote control is negated by not being able to see what song you’re actually selecting. Another oddity (which is actually documented in the manual) is that charging of the iPod is not supported whilst in FM or DAB modes. We’re told by Roberts this is to prevent potential interference from spoiling FM/DAB reception. We’ve not known this to be a problem with other radios featuring in-built iPod docking stations, but regardless, this is important to know in case you ever find yourself popping your iDevice in to charge, only to find a few hours later that you’ve only drained it even more. Those of you with newer iDevices should also note that a lightning adaptor is not supplied and you’ll have to purchase one separately from your dealer.

Recording

One of the more fun features of the STREAM 64i is the ability to record what you’re listening to a memory card or USB stick (other USB storage devices are not supported). This can be from virtually any mode you want – be it from the radio (FM, DAB+ or Wi-Fi), network music, iPod or even CD. Yes, you heard right: CD. It’s not actually a “ripper” as such, as it records in real-time, thus taking about 74 minutes to dub a whole CD track-by-track. (You can record the entire CD by starting your recordings on the first track). We’ve noticed the quality is fixed at 128kbps, regardless of source, be it CD, FM or DAB. What’s more, it doesn’t sound that good for 128k (not least because of the transcoding taking place): the sound of the recordings has a noticeable metallic swirl about it. It’s probably OK if you’re just recording the radio to listen again, but not really the kind of thing you’d want to be doing if quality is what you’re after. Stick to ripping CDs on your computer. Another reason we called this recording feature “fun” rather than “useful” one is because of its lack of ability to schedule a recording for the future: something you’d *need* if you’re a serious listener wishing to catch the latest programmes on Radio 4.

When in the middle of the recordings, you’re understandably locked out of all controls except the volume: no mode changing, no track changing, no station changing. This is logical, as it ensures you don’t accidentally ruin your recordings unless you tell it to abort by hitting stop. However, it also shows that this radio is not a multi-tasking device, and you’re unable to listen to one station whilst recording another.

As already mentioned, recording of network media and iPod as well as radio is possible. Recording commences as soon as you press record and unlike the CD recording mode, you’re unable to select a “track” to be recorded, as such. Recorded clips are saved in dedicated folders depending on source. But otherwise, there is no context in the file naming – they’re just allocated sequential filenames from file001 upwards. This is the same even in CD mode.
The radio will happily play music files already present on SD cards and USB sticks. The supported file formats are less fewer than whilst in network mode, but the major formats are supported: Basic WMA and mp3.


Sound Quality and Audio I/O

Leaving out the recording feature, the sound quality of the radio is pretty good. The bass levels are satisfyingly pleasant and the overall sound is well-balanced. The sound quality is where the Roberts really shine and worthy of the badge on the radio. This is an aspect of the radio we rate. Built-in to the menu is the ability to change the basic EQ settings. Although you can’t select the specific band to alter, you are given the choice of several preset modes as well as the ability to alter the bass and treble to your own customised preference by +/- 14dB in steps of 2dB.

Looking at the unit’s output options, you’re kindly provided with an optical S/PDIF interface (unavailable in iPod and AUX-in modes) as well as an unbalanced 3.5mm line-out socket. There is also a headphone jack but it sits at the rear of the radio – a design which could have been given a bit more thought, especially if it’s to sit on a bookshelf.

General Usage / Niggles

We gave this a real good test drive and found it to be easy to use with a wealth of features. We thought it would be worth noting the niggles that we’d found. Firstly, the screen brightness only appears to have one setting for any situation. We felt that with the lights out during sleep, the display was too bright. To set it any lower would have meant difficulty in seeing it during the day. Perhaps a night dimmer setting could have been something that was implemented. Secondly, the radio’s alarm could have been designed better. If, like me, you’re on shifts and like to set alarms on a day-by-day basis, this is made possible with one-off alarms that can be set. But the choices you’re presented with are only the forthcoming dates and not combined with the names of the days of the week. This requires thinking time and double-checking with a calendar: something that could have been prevented had the day of the week been included as an aid. It is also something to note that the alarm feature isn’t to be used as a timed switch-on. The “alarm” will only last for an hour if left unattended, and the radio will switch off after that hour. There is no way, as far as we can tell, that this can be disabled. But following the good practices of other internet-reliant devices, the radio is also provided with a backup alarm, should connectivity to the internet be lost.

The radio does not have any Bluetooth, but given the comprehensive uPnP functionality, we’re more than happy to turn a blind eye to this omission. Roberts have their own smartphone remote control app called “ConnectR”. Regrettably, this only works through Bluetooth and as a result is not supported by this model. We were somewhat disappointed that Roberts didn’t produce a Wi-Fi-capable remote control app, given that this radio is somewhat luxury-end model. Again, we suspect this is because of the limitations of the Frontier Silicon module the radio has adopted.

We like how the radio modes have been assigned their own button from the media modes. As there are four radio modes in total and five media modes, it makes reaching your desired mode not too tedious and time-consuming a task.

Overall, it’s a radio with a smart set of different radio and media modes. Its appearance is just as fantastic with its sleek blue screen and shiny black casing. It boasts a range of fun and useful features, but could be improved by speed and more thought over the finer details. It’ll please people who are looking an all-in-one unit with future-proofing. It has iPod docking and a CD player and will provide support for DAB+ when it finally arrives in the UK.

It’ll also appeal to some gadget freaks, where the UPnP “toy” will provide the link with their current-day smartphones. (It’s not cool until you can play around with it with your phone!!) We find the size of the radio comfortable: it’s not too big or too heavy to carry around the house compared to some other radios we’ve come across.

Ratings:

Features 4/5
Sound Quality 4/5
Usability 4/5
Radio Reception 4/5
Value for Money 3.5/5
Overall 4/5

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