A Design Journey: Radios

Good, dear friends recently inspired a journey into the world of radios, speakers, and design. I love nothing more than being challenged to consider deeply a topic that’s otherwise new to me and through that to broaden my understanding of what I value and enjoy.

The journey began with the Victrola 8-in-1 stereo system. The goal was a multi-functional music system that invoked nostalgia and quality. We have a long history of sharing music, my friends and I, and the idea of a capable, full-featured unit was both thoughtful and on-point.

Victrola 8-in-1 Stereo: Radio, CD, cassette, LP, bluetooth, etc.

I read reviews, considered build quality and feel, and where Victroia is in their life cycle as a company. The overall vibe I got was of sourced components assembled into a somewhat nostalgic housing that called back to the glory days of Victrola. The clash of Flash Gordon-era FM dial (love it) and the digital display and controls of the CD was jarring, as was the inclusion of a cassette deck in the side of the unit. Functionally, I don’t have LP or cassette collections and only a few CDs. I do have a few minidisc’s laying around, but that’s a sad story for another time.

That left only bluetooth and radio features for me, so I began exploring other options that spoke to those capabilities in a smaller, perhaps more craft-oriented package.

I spend far too much time with technologies and their plastic, inhuman, cold aesthetic. I like to fill me space with objects that connote warmth and nature, while being hi-tech. Real wood, stone, and bronze in a slick package usually catches my eye.

Victrola itself produces a classic-looking speaker with many of those features. Had I seen that unit early on, I might well have stopped there and been pleased.

Victrola FM, Bluetooth speaker with steel knobs and a cherry-finish housing.

Following that design feel via image searches, I found the Tivoli Audio Model One (and Two and Three). The Tivoli has a storied history, clean design, and warm finish that demonstrates significant audio quality and craft as attested in this love letter. It is also quite pricey at 179$ for what is, essentially, a radio. A radio with very smooth dial glide and sonorous audio, granted.

The Tivoli Model One BT edition.

During some period of Tivoli production, they offered a blue faceplate model that rather caught my eye. I’m fond of blue and that along with a (real) wooden housing and quality audio almost had me ordering. However, they no longer offer the blue model. There is some availability on the secondary market. but I wasn’t ready for that quite yet.

Tivoli Model One (non Bluetooth) with a blue faceplate.

Tivoli currently offers a blue PAL model speaker with the same attention to audio quality, but in a cold, plastic aesthetic. So, again, a pricey radio speaker, in plastic and blue.

Tivoli PAL Bluetooth with blue faceplate

I also considered the go-to of tech audio brands, Bose. The Wave music system is highly valued by some and certainly has the popularity to support its 499$ price point. Aside from price and some criticism from audiophiles, the plastic look wasn’t what I was looking for.

Bose Wave Music System IV

Following the breadcrumbs to higher quality audio and looking to bring some warmth back into my journey, I found Klipsch and their tongue-twisting The Three II, a wood and fabric speaker, no radio, and quite a bit more expensive at 399$. It looks like something from the set of Mad Men and I quite like the style, albeit not the price. The audio quality is outstanding; Klipsch has a long history of producing awesome sound.

Klipsch’s The Three II

There was a side trip at this point into the world of shortwave radios. Classic designs such as the Eton Elite Executive called to me. At 179$, I was worried this wouldn’t be a radio I would use everyday; only an expensive curiosity.

Eton Elite Executive shortwave radio with leather case

Nevertheless, I’ve spent a considerable time looking at the Eton line as well as C. Crane’s Skywave SSB radio. The Skywave SSB meets none of my aesthetic goals, but almost all of my functional goals for a robust radio. The Youtube reviews I’ve viewed tend to be very positive. I’m strongly inclined to look into this further in the near future.

C. Crane Skywave SSB

The Sangean shortwave ATS-405 also caught my eye.

Sangean ATS-405

While the Eton, C.Crane, and Sangean world band radios were functional, none of them satisfied the warm, grounding aesthetic that had triggered my search. I may end up with one of these radios, but they weren’t the everyday use, warm talking piece I was looking for.

Sangean brought me back to the question of aesthetics with their HRD-18 radio. I found a number of commentators who weren’t fond of the plastic-y feel of the knob movement, but this was more like what I had imagined at the beginning of my search.

Sangean HDR-18

I could have ended my quest at any point and would probably have been satisfied, but the quest itself had become the goal. I was enjoying spending time discovering how to assess quality and craft, learning about the designer and design history of these units, and imagining how they might each fit into my world.

The next system I discovered was Como Audio’s Duetto. I happen to have found this otherwise 449$ unit at a point where they were on sale for 299$ (although I’m starting to get the sense that they’re on perpetual sale). It’s a combination of internet radio tuner (i.e., streamed stations over WiFi), Spotify, FM radio, bluetooth, and optical line in, to connect to your TV system all in a 14 inch by 5 inch by 5 inch, real wood housing (lasered half-inch MDF with real wood veneer).

Como Audio’s Duetto in walnut

I was particularly enamored by the story they tell around the design and production of the units.

Como Audio design video used in their Kickstarter campaign

Perhaps because the Duetto had the largest wood-to-tech ratio or because it had the most gadget-ness, it won my heart. I learned that Tom DeVesto, the designer, also had been involved in the Tivoli product line. No wonder the Como and Tivoli brands share similar aesthetics.

I did—and still do—have some concerns that, although they began with a goal of simplicity, the user interface has somewhat gotten away from them. The complexity of associating the device with all your other devices and services is a bit daunting and bodes ill for the future maintainability of this unit as services change and become obsolete. Contrast that with an analog AM/FM/SW tuner from the 1950s or ’60s—barring the need for tube replacements or external damage, those tuners are still functional (although HD FM in the U.S. and DAB/DAB+ in the E.U. are starting to change that).

Still, I ordered the Duetto from Amazon and waited anxiously for its arrival.

The Duetto User Experience

Upon unboxing, the unit was stunning. Warm and responsive. I giddily plugged it in and began the setup.

After laboriously entering my long, arbitrary network password via the Duetto’s spin dial interface, the unit promptly connected to my network and detected a new firmware version, downloaded it, and installed it, thus wiping out my configuration settings, network password included.

Como clearly needs to do better in this regard. They should engineer in a protected memory store to cache configuration during any severity of firmware updates. Better configuration management would greatly enhance the user experience and amortize the investment in configuring all the associated digital services, presets, etc.

After reboot, I again entered my network password, resenting every character, but certain the audio experience would be worth a few minute’s trouble. I was right. The audio was exceptional and my resentment of the password entry faded as my enjoyment of the audio began.

I connected an optical audio cable and cued up Blade Runner on Netflix. The opening sequence audio was awesome, in the truest sense. There were subtleties of sound I had never noticed, even during my in-theater experience watching the film.

At about 4 minutes and 20 seconds, the audio dropped out. I disconnected and reconnected the optical cable and reset menu options, to no avail. Audio from the FM tuner and Internet radio continued to play nicely, but the optical input would not. I also experienced poor audio quality when connecting bluetooth devices; something akin to weak signal, static-laden AM broadcasts.

After a week where I tried different audio cables and resets, I emailed Como customer support noting that as I touched and moved the unit for debugging, I would occasionally hear optical audio or clear bluetooth. They suggested I reset the software to factory settings. Being unimpressed with the suggestion, I tried it anyway, with no change in symptoms.

I arranged to ship the unit back to Amazon for replacement and, while reboxing it, noticed that the FM antenna seemed to wiggle in its mount too much. Maybe it was an assembly quality issue and the antenna was shorting a connection…?

When my replacement Duetto arrived, I again set it up—this time using the device’s WPS capability to connect to my home WiFi; no password entry needed—and hoping for the best.

I’ve had the unit in service for about a week. The audio via all methods has been stunning; I’ve not experienced any issues with either bluetooth or the optical audio connection.

Conclusion

I’ve enjoyed this exploration of radio’s aesthetics. It’s also spurred me to learn more about radio as a technology—rather than taking the science and technology for granted—but more on that another time.

Even though I have to be reminded of it frequently, I value craft, quality, and functionality. I enjoy finding ways to incorporate warm, natural, and textured elements into my otherwise decidedly tech-filled environment.

I’m not sure that I’ve landed at the absolute best decision, but I’m happy with the journey and where I’ve arrived. I have high hopes for my continued enjoyment of the Como Duetto and other aspects of radios.