Review: WFT-1 Wi-Fi Component Tuner

By Gerry Blackwell

December 01, 2008

The WFT-1 Wi-Fi Component Tuner ($349) from Sangean works as an Internet radio, FM tuner, and media player, but it won’t play high bit rate audio files and lacks an FM seek function.

WFT-1 Wi-Fi Component Tuner
www.sangean.com
Price: $349
Pros: Works as Internet radio, FM tuner, media player; sleek design fits with standard audio components; 11,000+ pre-programmed Internet radio stations
Cons: Won’t play high-bit rate audio files; no FM seek function

With Wi-Fi-enabled Internet radios growing in popularity, it was only a matter of time before some enterprising manufacturer figured out it would be a good idea to build a component tuner version.

Sangean America, the U.S. subsidiary of a Taiwanese electronics company specializing in radios, has produced the first example we know of, the WFT-1 Wi-Fi Component Tuner with an MSRP of $349 and a street price around $240.

It’s a sleek low-rise box with a standard rack width, designed to be stacked with full-sized audio components—16.9 x 2.8 x 10 inches.

But, unlike other Internet radio products, including the other two Sangean makes, the WFT-1 does not include built-in speakers or amplification (except to power a headphone jack). You connect it to an existing stereo system as you would any component tuner, using standard analog cables.

It does, however, include most other capabilities of stand-alone Internet radios. It plays radio and podcast streams from the Web and works as an FM tuner—no computer required. And it functions as a wireless media player to pull audio from computers and hard drives connected to the local network. 

The WFT-1 looks good, generally works well, interface design is good and it was easy to set up. That doesn’t mean it’s flawless, but the WFT-1 is at the very least worth a look—and may be exactly what you need.

Out of the box

Like most Internet radios we’ve tried, this one was easy enough to set up—in most circumstances. A wizard program in the device’s firmware walks you through the steps: finding and selecting your wireless network and entering an encryption key if required.

If you use MAC filtering, however, you’re on your own. The MAC address is not posted on the device itself and isn’t available in firmware. The user manual doesn’t mention MAC filtering.

You’ll have to turn off filtering in the router’s software, let the radio connect to your temporarily open network, then check the list of connected devices to get the WFT-1’s address—which you can then enter in the MAC filtering table before turning filtering back on.

WFT-1.jpg

The user interface is good. The WFT-1 comes with a wireless remote, with the usual array of function keys, well organized and labeled. On the device itself, there’s a bright, clear, four-line monochrome LCD for displaying menus, station and track lists, and FM frequencies, and a big positive-feeling Tuning knob that you use to tune FM stations and also scroll through lists and menus.

Sangean uses hardware components, firmware, and a radio station database from Frontier Silicon—so it works very similarly to other I-radio products that also use Frontier technology, including the Tivoli NetWorks (reviewed here).

I-Radio

In Internet radio mode, you can browse 11,000-plus stations in the Frontier database by genre or country (and within the U.S., by state). The WFT-1 plays MP3, WMA and RealAudio radio, and podcast Internet streams.

You can either start with a country and then narrow it down by genre, or start with a genre and select by country. We’d love to see another option to browse within genre by bit rate, but no I-radio we’ve tested offers this feature.

The WFT-1 will also display lists of all the most recently added stations, or the stations most popular among Frontier-powered I-radio listeners.

And it has a somewhat painful keyword search function. Using the wireless remote or the Tuning knob, you scroll through a long list of characters on the LCD, pressing a button to select each in turn.

One of the great features of this product, shared with other Frontier-powered I-radios, is that you can register yourself and the radio at Frontier’s Web site and then select radio stations to be added to My favorites on the WFT-1.

How does this work? When you select the My favorites category, the radio goes to the Web site, automatically logs itself in using the identification code you entered when registering at the site, and then downloads your up-to-date list of favorites to the radio.

You can add stations to the Frontier database at the Web site too, using a simple online form to fill in URL, genre, and location. Added stations then appear on the radio under My Added stations.

The Web site makes keyword searching much easier as well, and lets you sort station lists by bit rate, which is very useful for finding the best-sounding stations.

Media player

The WFT-1 can play audio files stored on Windows computers and network attached storage, but with some limitations, one of them a possible deal-killer.

It can only play files ripped in MP3, WMA, RealAudio, and AAC+ formats, but that list includes the most popular formats. More troubling is that it cannot play high bit rate files.

The bit rate at which music files are ripped largely determines audio quality—the higher the bit rate, the closer to the original CD or signal. So, this is a serious flaw for a product designed to work with the kind of sound systems favored by audiophiles.

Another I-radio manufacturer that uses Frontier componentry and firmware, Tivoli, told us that its product could not play files ripped at rates higher than 196 megabits per second (Mbps). In fact, in our testing, the Tivoli radio could play files ripped at rates as high as 320 Mbps—as can the WFT-1. But neither could play files ripped in WMA Lossless format (600 Mbps and up), a natural choice for audiophiles.

Tivoli also told us that Frontier firmware upgrades in the future would make it possible to play other file formats—holding out at least the slim hope that this limitation will at some point be removed.

Media Player mode works in one or both of two ways: either accessing Shared Windows folders or using the Shared Media method, which requires Windows Media Player 11 or above.

To set up the Shared Folders method, you need to go into the Properties for each folder you want to access and select Sharing to make the folders available over the network. And if the computer is password protected, you’ll need to go into the WFT-1 configuration menu and enter the PC’s username and password.

For the Shared Media method, you don’t need to enter username and password but do need to tell Windows Media Player that the WFT-1 is allowed to access media in the program’s library.

None of this is terribly difficult to set up, but does require some intermediate knowledge of how Windows works.

FM

Sangean, as noted, is a radio specialist. The FM tuner in the WFT-1 works well enough—reception was good in our area, sound quality is fine—but we question a couple of design decisions.

The antenna is a rigid aerial that telescopes up from the rear. This might make it difficult to extend the antenna when the unit is stacked with other components, especially if there’s a low shelf above. Better, and just as effective for reception, would be a flexible wire you could more easily feed through small openings to extend it.

The WFT-1 also doesn’t have a seek function. To find stations you have to use the Tuning knob on the radio or remote buttons to step through frequencies, which can be extremely tedious and hard on the ears. Who ever heard of a modern FM radio without a seek function?

Once you find a station you want to return to, you can store it in a preset simply by pressing and holding one of the nine preset buttons. But still.

You can also store pre-sets for Internet radio stations, but Internet pre-sets only work when you’re in Internet mode and FM pre-sets only when you’re in FM mode. Why not one set of pre-sets that could change modes when required?

Bottom line

Don’t misunderstand: the WFT-1 is a good product. In fact, if you want to add Internet radio to an existing component system that doesn’t already have an FM tuner, it may be perfect—as long as you don’t have a sizeable library of high bit rate audio files on your computer that you want to play through it. 

But if the audio system in question already has an FM tuner—as many, if not most component systems, do—and/or if you want to play high bit rate files from a computer, then a better bet might be a purpose-built wireless media player such as one of the SlimDevices products from Logitech.

Media players such as the SlimDevices Duet ($400) do almost everything the WFT-1 does, except work as FM radios. They can all play Internet radio stations—although usually they don’t have as many pre-programmed stations as the WFT-1. On the other hand, they may, as in the case of the Duet, also play commercial for-fee Internet radio services not available on the WFT-1. 

And they typically work better as media players, putting no restrictions on bit rate and playing more obscure audio file formats.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He lives and works in Canada.



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