As predicted, Tivoli Audio relaunched its NetWorks Internet radio today at a media event in Manhattan. The updated NetWorks tabletop has a completely new look and feel--and a whopper of a price tag. While last year's NetWorks took its design cues from Tivoli's Model One, the final version looks like a slightly oversized version of the iPAL--if it were carved from a tree. Tivoli CEO and chairman Tom DeVesto (who personally supervised the design) said he wanted the NetWorks to look like "a block of wood that played music," and--with walnut, cherry, and wenge finishes available at launch--that's a fair description of the new design.
The Networks radio is designed to access any Internet radio station (MP3, WMA, and Real Audio streams are supported). Additionally, it can stream those same audio files from networked PCs, and pull music from thumbdrives and compatible music players plugged into its rear-mounted USB port. (As usual, the USB port won't be iPod compatible, but a standard auxiliary input will let you hear your iPod or any other music source through the NetWorks' speaker.) Set-up was designed to be as painless as possible for nontechies: just key in your Wi-Fi network key (or plug in an Ethernet cable), and you should be good to go. Online stations can be searched via geographic location or genre. Five presets are preprogrammed into the unit, but users can bookmark new favorites at the touch of a button. Alternately, Tivoli will have a "Global Portal" Web site that will let users bookmark favorite stations and podcasts (similar online bookmarking features are available on the competing Grace Internet Radio via the free Reciva site). Other niceties include a clock with dual alarms, an onboard equalizer, and a "SuperBuffer" feature, the latter of which should help smooth out dodgy Wi-Fi connections or online stations prone to dropouts.
Like most Tivoli radios, the NetWorks has just a single 3.5-inch magnetically shielded monaural speaker (you'll be able to buy matching outboard speakers to get full stereo for about $100). Above the driver is a four-line monochrome LCD screen. With the exception of a topside multifunction key that controls volume, and toggles mute, snooze, and power, all of the controls are located on the NetWorks backside, so you'll want to use the included credit card remote to access all of the radio's functions.
Like nearly all products of this type, the Tivoli Audio NetWorks will have upgradeable firmware. DeVesto hinted that support for subscription music services (Pandora, XM/Sirius, Rhapsody) was certainly a possibility in the future, but that he wanted to focus on the vast wealth of free streaming music sources currently available online. (To that end, DRM music files are unsupported as well.)
Now, the hard part: when the NetWorks becomes available in the next month or so, it will retail for $600. (Step-up versions--one with a standard FM tuner, and a European version with DAB support--will cost even more.) While DeVesto is aware of the growing list of competitors that cost half or a third as much, he's confident that none of them sound as good or offer as much functionality. We'll wait until we get our hands on a review sample to make our own judgment, but--considering that Internet radio is more about the variety of choices than the fidelity--we can't help but wonder if the Tivoli's (likely) sonic acumen will be overkill. Our gut reaction is to go with something like the $400 Logitech Squeezebox Duet, the $200 Grace Internet Radio, or $150 Roku SoundBridge M1001--and invest the balance of our savings in a good pair of speakers.
One final note: DeVesto also mentioned that a portable version of the NetWorks--as mentioned last year--is still in the pipeline. Tentatively scheduled to be released in January, the portable NetWorks should be able to deliver 10 hours of playback time from a single battery charge--but is slated to cost even more than its stationary counterpart.