They make look like ordinary desktop radios, but instead of surfing up and down a local AM or FM dial, they have a slightly, er, broader reach.
By connecting to the Internet over a wireless network, which you can set up in your home for less than $20 these days, a new crop of Internet radios can receive more than 15,000 radio stations from around the world — and no PC is required.
Think of these $100 to $200 gadgets as shortwave radios for the 21st century, if you will. And unlike satellite radio, these radios do not come with a monthly subscription fee.
All Internet radios let you scan the world's radio stations either by country (from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe) or by genre (such as classical, country, rock, pop, dance, reggae, gospel, talk, news, and so forth). If you hear a station you like — be it Bollywood hits from India, BBC news from the UK, or reggae from Kingston, Jamaica -- you can add it to one of presets for easy access.
Along with Internet-only stations (such as the Sky.fm channels), these radios also pick up local and national North American stations, too, including National Public Radio.
Supported audio formats include MP3, Windows Media and RealAudio streams -- be it music or podcasts (some Internet radios have a separate section for streaming podcasts). Audio quality varies, but typically ranges from 64 kilobits per second to more decent 256- or 320-kilobit-per-second music. it's not CD-quality mind you, but tolerable.
Other common features found in these Wi-Fi radios: a headphone jack for private listening, a built-in alarm clock to wake up to your favorite station, Ethernet jack for an optional wired connection, audio-out jacks to connect to a stereo or AV receiver and a backlit LCD screen to see the station information clearly, even in a dimly-lit room.
Many of these radios also have an appealing secondary feature: they can wireless access music stored on a computer's hard drive, therefore you can enjoy your entire digital music collection on, say, your back patio or sun room, even though your computer might be in a home office. Along with MP3, most of these Internet radio support AAC, WMA and WAV format, too.
OK, so which one to buy? There are a few options, ranging from Aluratek and Logitech, Grace Digital to iLuv, Oxx to Sanyo -- but many of them offer the same features, more or less.
If you're looking for a more advanced wireless speaker system with Internet radio functionality, one of the Sonos speaker systems would be a good idea — with content controlled in each room via a free smartphone or tablet app.