Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
When Roku rolled out the SoundBridge Radio in March 2006, it was the first tabletop radio we'd seen with the ability to stream music off a networked PC. Despite our praise for the SoundBridge, we haven't really seen the networked tabletop radio take off as a type of device, so we were pretty excited when we got the Sony VGF-WA1 ($350 MSRP) in for testing. Besides being able to play your MP3, WMA, and AAC files, the VGF-WA1 can also play Internet radio stations from Live365, and it has a built-in lithium battery, so you're not chained to a power outlet. Our experience with the VGF-WA1 was largely positive--we liked its ease of use, sound quality, and functionality. On the other hand, there's no denying the VGF-WA1 is missing a few features that would up the functionality even further. For example, the internal memory for portable use is tiny (128MB) and not expandable, there's no AM/FM tuner, and the unit lacks support for subscription-based digital music services. Even without those features, the VGF-WA1 makes an attractive choice for those who want to listen to their digital music around the house and on the go.
The VGF-WA1 looks just like a slick little boom box. It comes in two colors, white and black--we reviewed the white version. The front is dominated by a large white (or black) speaker grille that wraps around the sides of the unit. In the center of the grille toward the bottom are the IR receptor and indicator lights for battery power and the wireless connection. On the top of the unit, just above the grille, is a reflective black plate that includes the display and the touch-sensitive controls.
We're not generally fans of touch-sensitive control panels compared to standard buttons, but the controls on the VGF-WA1 are pretty solid. They're relatively responsive, and each time you press a selection, it beeps in feedback that your command was registered. That kind of feedback becomes especially important when scrolling through artist names on a network when there can be some lag. There were a few times when we hit a button and it didn't respond, but once we learned to use the broad side of our finger, rather than the tip, we were in the clear. All in all, however, standard buttons would still be preferable, although less stylish.
We liked the VGF-WA1's motion-sensitive wake-up mode. After a few minutes, the display and touch-sensitive control automatically dim, but as soon as you get close to the unit, it automatically "wakes up." It's a nice touch, especially in a bedroom where a constantly lit display might be annoying.
Just above the reflective black plate are a few more controls, including the on/off button, and four source buttons (PC, Web radio, Aux, and Memory). There's also a headphone jack. Around the back, there's a handle so you can easily grab the VGF-WA1 when you want to utilize its built-in battery. Below the handle is a flip-down panel, which reveals some ports, such as the stereo line-out, optical output, and the USB jack. To the right of the flip-down panel are the auxiliary minijack input and the AC jack. On the bottom of the VGF-WA1 is a switch to activate battery power.
The included remote provides limited control, but the VGF-WA1 isn't really the type of product where you'll be using the remote frequently. It has a few buttons to switch between sources, playback modes (play, skip forward/backward), volume up/down, and folder up/down. Even with this limited palette, most of the buttons aren't that useful--for example, if you switch to "Web radio," you're still going to have to walk up to the display to choose which station you want to listen to, unless you just listen to whatever was on last.
Setup and user interface
There are two ways to set up the VGF-WA1. You can either use an existing 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi network or use the included USB Wireless Adapter. Setup wasn't too difficult using our Wi-Fi network, but it did take longer than we expected. We followed the directions on the included CD to install some programs and utilities, and it took over 10 minutes before everything was done. Once the VAIO Integrated Media Server and other configurations were installed, they worked without a hitch, automatically tapping into our iTunes and Windows Media Player music collections. You'll need to run the VAIO Integrated Media Server, Windows Media Connect, or Windows Media Player 11 as a media server on your PC to connect to the VGF-WA1.
Once the VGF-WA1 makes the connection to your PC, you can browse for your music on the display. The display itself is a little on the small side, and you'll pretty much need to be standing over it to navigate. You can sort by Artist, Album, Category, and Folder, and the VGF-WA1 picked up on tag information most of the time. We say most of the time because whenever we accessed our files using the VAIO Integrated Media Server, it listed all our files with "unknown" artists, which was obviously incorrect (other media servers didn't have this problem). The only other gripe we had was that browsing a large music collection can be a pain, since the display can only show five entries at a time, and there's a bit of a lag when going from one screen to another.
The main functionality of the VGF-WA1 is the ability to stream music from your PC--sorry, no Mac support. After installing the software from the CD, music from your iTunes and Windows Media Player library is accessible, and you can provide access to other folders by tweaking the settings.