When it comes to internet-enabled radios, it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. Today we’re taking a look at the Grace Digital Encore, a beefy little Wi-Fi radio with huge sound, dead simple setup, and even smartphone support. Read on as we take a tour and put it through the paces.
What is the Encore?
The Encore (full product name: Grace Encore Wi-Fi Music Player, model#: GDI-IRC7500) is tabletop internet-enabled streaming radio intended to be used both as a stand alone unit or hooked up to a larger stereo system that has an MSRP of $199 but typically retails for $170. The Encore is capable of connecting to practically any streaming source or local file format you can throw at it (it supports HTTP/S, RTSP, WSMP, and Shoutcast streaming protocols as well as local and network-stored files in AIFF, AIFC, WAV, CAF, NeXT, ADTS, MP3, AAC, and WMA formats) which, translated from acronym-jargon means you’d be hard pressed to find a streaming radio station/online audio source or file on your computer that you can’t play through the radio. In addition, the radio has an index of 50,000 radio stations (with the ability to add your own), Pandora, iHeartRadio, Live365, and SiriusXM Radio (a subscription to the satellite radio service is required). Local playback is available via USB port located on the back or by connecting to a UPnP server located on your home network.
The physical radio is quite sturdy with dimensions a little over 12 inches wide, nine inches deep, and four inches tall and weighing in at 8.5 pounds. Although we didn’t take a screw driver to the unit in order to inspect its guts, we’re confident most of that weight is thanks to the large 12w Class D amplifier and the accompanying stereo tweeters seen on the front of the unit and the large woofer hidden under the unit. In an age where devices grow ever smaller and lighter, it’s nice to feel the heft of the Encore: it’s a pleasant weight and you certainly won’t need to worry about it sliding around whatever surface you place it on.
The unit features a 3.5″ display screen that, while a touch difficult to photograph well, was quite clear and crisp when viewed by the eye; it’s no retina display but it doesn’t need to be for the task it performs. To the left of the screen there is a standard 32 ohm headphone jack (which means you can plug in any old headphones without worrying about using a headphone amp). To the right of the screen is a small port for the IR receiver the physical remote control uses. The top of the unit features a button and dial interface that we found surprisingly pleasant to use.
The dials serve both for simple adjustments (like changing the volume with the smaller knob and the station with the larger knob) and for interacting more precisely with the unit via the on-screen keyboard. The buttons are delightfully tactile: each one has a firm travel distance with a sharp click indicating the button is engaged. We didn’t realize how much we missed devices with tactile buttons (instead of smooshy membrane-style buttons) until we started playing around with this unit. In addition to the basic buttons like the power button, home/back buttons, and the expected skip, pause, play type buttons there is also a snooze bar (although a bit big for a small nightstand, the Encore has a built-in alarm function), a spread of preset buttons (which you can use for radio stations, Pandora and the like, and podcasts alike), and an additional set of blue icons above existing keys. These blue icons indicate Pandora-only button functionality that is enabled when the Encore is tuned to a Pandora radio station. (The play/pause and skip buttons retain their functions, the stop and back buttons become the thumbs up/down buttons so you can rate songs with a button press).
The same button structure is more or less replicated on the included remote (sans the dials and with Pandora getting its own row of custom buttons). In addition to the physical remote the unit can also be controlled by smartphone using the free Android/iOS remote apps (which we’ll explore later in the review).
The back of the unit features a physical power switch, the power-in port for the 12v transformer, a USB port that can be used both for plugging in a flash drive or MP3 player to enable local music playback (the USB port also supports the Grace Digital USB-to-Ethernet adapter if you wish to hardwire the radio to your home network instead of using Wi-Fi), and a set of stereo RCA jacks. The left set is for auxiliary-input (to pipe music into the unit) and the right set is for line-out (to send music to a larger stereo/speaker arrangement).
How Do I Set It Up?
As pleased as we were with the physicality of the radio, the part of reviewing any keyboard-less piece of tech we’re reviewing that we look forward to the least is the setup. Although we were braced for a very-not-good-time setting up the Encore (and you can hardly fault us for assuming the setup for a device with pause/play buttons and dials would be a huge pain) we were pleasantly surprised by the whole process. Once you have the Encore connected to the internet, there is very little that can’t be adjusted via remote control.
Before we dive into actually setting the unit up, however, we feel compelled to give a nod to whoever was responsible for writing the manual that came with the Encore. Most user manuals are awful but the manual included with the Encore isn’t just filled with clear step-by-step instructions, it also includes informative bits that explain why you may wish to set up the radio one way or another. For example, on page 48 of the manual in the section devoted to explaining how to use the USB drive/local playback feature they actually took the time to explain the limitations of the FAT32 file structure and the ARM processor that drives the unit (and why if you have thousands of tracks you wish to load it’s better to use UPnP in order to lessen the strain on the radio’s processor). The whole manual is filled with that kind of clear (and informative) instruction. If there’s anything you want to do with the radio if it can be done it’s explained clearly in the manual. Let’s get the thing set up to show you just how easy it is.
To setup the Encore plug it in, flip the physical power switch on the back, and let it warm up for a minute or so. It will scan for Wi-Fi nodes automatically (if it doesn’t, and you end up at the main menu, turn the large knob until “Settings” is selected, click the knob in, and select “Wi-Fi Network and Settings” then “Scan for networks”. Select the network you wish to connect the radio to.
This is the point in most hardware reviews where we’re groaning: the point where you’re stuck putting a long Wi-Fi password into a device with no keyboard. The Encore’s interface solution is surprisingly smooth given the limitations of the physical user interface. When it’s time to put the password in an on-screen keyboard pops up and you select the letters by rotating the large dial atop the radio and clicking it down when you’ve selected the appropriate character. Because the dial has such large travel distance per rotation it’s actually really speedy and pleasant to use. We were thrilled to see we wouldn’t have to click the buttons over and over again to move the little cursor around. Enter your password. Sit back and let the unit download updates and flash the firmware if necessary.
How Do I Use It?
Once the radio is connected to the Internet you can immediately start using it. Go ahead and use the large dial to select a radio station (it should automatically detect your location based on your IP address, you can set it manually in Settings menu). Before you sit down and start playing around with the unit, however, we’d recommend you link it to Grace digital web portal and set up the free smartphone app as these two things make it really easy to configure and control the device.
Click the home button and then select Settings -> Get Registration Key. With the registration key displayed, visit myradio.gracedigital.com. Plug in your registration code on the main page to start the process and then select a username and password. Once registered you’ll have access to the control panel (seen above) where you can search for radio stations (and add them to hotlists on your radio), rename your radio (if you have more than one unit), link the radio to your Pandora, Rhapsody, and SiriusXM accounts, and add streams and podcasts to your radio unit. It’s worth noting that neither the radio unit nor the website will archive actual content on your behalf so if you wish to both listen to and archive your favorite podcasts you should subscribe to them with another tool also (like iTunes or Downcast) in order to archive them.
To install the smartphone remote (and if you have a smartphone, we insist you do, it’s fantastic), search for “Grace Digital” in the app store; it’s available for Android and iOS. The smartphone remote app can handle every function the physical buttons and remote can (and it displays album art just like the on-device screen). The only thing the smartphone remote can’t do is control attached media devices or stereo equipment or shutdown the unit fully like the manual power switch on the back. It can, however, do nearly everything else like wake the unit from standby, navigate the on-device menus remotely, set presets, etc. The only function we found was missing was the ability to browse attached USB drives; if you have a playlist for the songs on the drive you can select the playlist and launch it but you can’t manually browse the files to select a song that isn’t already in a playlist. That’s a minor oversight we assume will be corrected in the near future.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
After playing around with the menus and doing quite a bit of listening, we’re ready to report on the Encore and whether or not it’s a worthy addition to your home setup.
- Setup is far simpler than one would assume given the limitations of the button/dial hardware interface on the machine.
- The remote management dashboard makes it very easy to find radio stations and add them to the unit, as well as link premium services (like Pandora).
- The unit sounds great. Any sound quality issues we had were directly related to the quality of the source material and not the physical capabilities of the radio. It sounds great just by itself and it sounds even better when linked to a larger stereo system.
- Quality construction. The case is sturdy, the components are hefty, the buttons have a nice tactile click to them, and the knobs are smooth and responsive. The lowest quality component of the entire build is the screen and even then, in fairness, it’s the highest quality screen we’ve seen on an internet radio (and it’s more than easy enough to read it).
- The onboard interface (buttons/dials), the included remote, and the smartphone remote control all work great. Whether you’re sitting at the desk with it or on the other side of your home or office, you’ll always be able to control it effectively.
- We’re pretty disappointed that the unit doesn’t support plain old shares (like Windows SMB shared folders) and requires UPnP for network-based music sharing. UPnP is a pretty cruddy and insecure protocol; given that the unit can browse local USB files, we can’t image it would be very difficult to implement access for simple network shares.
- The smartphone app needs to replicate every function on the unit (we really want the ability to browse local files properly).
After enjoying the Encore, what do we have to say about it and is it worth your hard earned money? It’s nowhere near as cheap as just plugging your phone into your stereo or listening to music on your computer but given the build quality, the ease of setup, and the ease with which you can enjoy a very wide range of music, radio, and podcasts (and control it all very easily with the onboard interface, the remote control, and the smartphone remote control) the Encore offers a whole lot for around $170. In fact the only reason we wouldn’t buy the Encore at this point is if we wanted a rack-mount form factor for a home theater system (and even then we’d buy the Encore’s slender sibling the similarly priced GDI-IRDT200).