The Logitech UE (it stands for Ultimate Ears) Smart Radio has some history behind it. The Squeezebox music system originated with a company called Slim Devices and consisted of open source music streaming server software and hardware players which you connected over wired Ethernet or later Wi-Fi. Squeezebox build up an enthusiastic following, and in 2006 the company was acquired by Logitech which set about bringing the system to a wider market.
Logitech was only partially successful. Products like the Squeezebox Touch, reviewed here, won acclaim for their high sound quality and the flexibility of the system, but the weak point has always been that setup is too complex and quirky to win over the mass market.
Now Logitech seems to have abandoned efforts to beat Apple in home entertainment, and the UE Smart Radio is the only current product which still uses Squeezebox technology. Other products in the new UE range – headphones, wireless speakers – have nothing to do with Squeezebox.
Even the UE Smart Radio does not use Squeezebox branding at all. The blurb on the box says this:
Turn it on, connect to your Wi-Fi network and instantly have access to thousands of free internet radio stations from around the world, online music services, as well as the music stored on your computer.
It is intended to offer a simple out-of-the-box experience without any setup issues, whereas the physically similar Squeezebox Radio which preceded it was unashamedly part of the Squeezebox system.
Out of the box
Enough preamble, how is it out of the box? What you get is the UE Radio, a power supply, a standard 3.5mm mini-jack cable, and a brief introductory booklet in eleven languages.
The unit has a beautiful though easily marked shiny black finish and surprisingly weighty, probably a sign of quality. A recess in the back forms a grip for easy carrying in one hand. There is an internal rechargeable battery which (says the manual) takes 6 hours to charge and then plays for 6 hours; of course you can use it while charging.
On the front is a 2.4 inch colour screen, 6 numbered presets, a large rotary controller, a smaller rotary volume control, a power button, and 8 further buttons: Home, Alarms, Add, Back, Rewind, Pause, Forward and Play.
There is also a stereo headphone jack (although the Radio itself has only a single speaker), and on the back, a wired Ethernet port and a 3.5mm jack input. The input jack means you can use the Smart Radio as a powered speaker for most MP3 players, iPods and smartphones.
Finally there is a secret feature: an infrared receptor on the front. No remote is supplied, but if you have a Squeezebox remote it works. Since this is unadvertised I guess there is no guarantee the feature will remain.
What you do then is to plug in the power, switch on, and connect to your home network, usually via Wi-Fi. Next, wait a moment while the unit updates its firmware if necessary, and the unit is ready to play. A menu displays on the screen, and you use the rotary controller to navigate, pressing it in to select an option. Select Live Radio, pick a station, and play.
Disclosure: in my case this is not what happened. I pressed play but no sound came forth. There was some kind of fault which later fixed itself. I am inclined to put this down to bad luck and possibly early firmware which will soon be updated. Incidentally, support was easy to contact and most helpful, which is not the case with every product.
When a station is playing you can easily assign a preset, simply with press and hold. You can also set alarms. When the unit is on standby it displays a clock, making this an excellent if pricey clock radio.
Radio is supplied through a link with tunein, which claims 50,000 stations. That means something for you, whatever your musical taste or location.
The sound quality is very good. Yes it is mono, but considering the size of the unit it is deep and rich, and lacks the annoying squawk of some small music players. The mono speaker has separate tweeter and woofer for extended frequency response.
I compared it to a Squeezebox Boom, a now obsolete stereo player which is considerably larger. The Boom was better in every way, deeper and sharper. That said, the Smart Radio sounded like a smaller version of the Boom, which I mean as a compliment. The Squeezebox team has always cared about sound quality, and it shows.
With internet radio, of course, the sound quality is limited by the source. I will say though that the Smart Radio is kind to poor sources and tends always to be listenable.
If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, or an Android phone or tablet, you can download the Smart Radio app. This lets you control your Smart Radio remotely. No iPad support currently.
If you have a local music streamer (see below) you can search and play from your own music library.
It also links to the Logitech UE Smart Radio cloud service, where you can add further music services such as Last.fm, Napster, Spotify, and the Live Music Archive to your Smart Radio. Adding a service like Spotify extends your music library to more music than you will be able to hear in your lifetime, though it does require a paid subscription.
Once you have created an account with Logitech, you can add services via the web site, and also set alarms on your Smart Radio.
The UE Music Server
What if you want to play music from your own network? In this case you download and install the UE Music Library for Windows or Mac.
Once installed, the Smart Radio automatically picks up the library and activates a My Music option in its menu. You can then play any music from the library either by navigating with the rotary controller, or by using the remote app.
Album artwork displays on the Smart Radio screen.
Music is picked up from the standard music folders on your PC or Mac, and the Music Library will link to iTunes where available. Supported formats are MP3, Flac, WAV, AIFF, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, AAC (MP4) and Apple Lossless (ALAC). You can add additional library locations from the Music Library control panel.
Smart Radio and Squeezebox
What then is the relationship of UE Smart Radio and the old Squeezebox? This is where it gets a little confusing. The UE Music Server is none other than the old Squeezebox Server (or Logitech Media Server), but cut down to remove many of the features. You can log onto the server with a web browser. The default port is 9000.
So what has been removed? Most notably, plug-in support and the ability to control the player from the server.
If you have an existing Squeezebox server, the annoyance is that the Smart Radio will not connect to it. In mitigation, you can install the new UE Music Server alongside the existing server and it will automatically choose different ports and run without conflict. This mean there is no need to mess with your existing collection of music files.
It is a shame to lose remote control and plug-in support; but the essence of the Squeezebox system, the ability to play your music anywhere in the house, remains. If you have more than one Smart Radio, you can play different music on each unit. Potentially, Logitech could bring out further UE products that use the same server, for example a new version of the Touch designed to link to a hi-fi system, though whether it will is unknown. It may depend on whether the UE Smart Radio is a success.
You could use the headphone output as a line out for a hi-fi, but it is shame there is no true line out setting for this purpose.
Taken on its own merits, the Smart Radio is an excellent device, with good sound quality, portability around the house or anywhere it can connect to the Internet (note it will not play your local music library unless it is on your own network), and some handy extra features such as alarms, Spotify support and so on.
There are two main reservations. The first is whether the relatively high price will deter much of the potential market. You do get a lot for your money, especially once you hear the sound quality and grasp the full capabilities of the system, but it will seem expensive when presented as just an Internet radio player.
Second, to what extent has Logitech succeeded in making the Smart Radio “just work” in the manner for which Apple is famous? I am not fully convinced. The control system is still a little quirky. What does the Plus button do, for example? The manual describes the button as More, and it brings up a number of options. Squeezebox users will know why it is plus, which is because it means Add to playlist. The Smart Radio playlist is mostly hidden though, making this a confusing feature.
Installing the UE Music Server is not really difficult, unless you run into firewall issues, but it is surprising Logitech does not give more prominence to this part of the system. It is mentioned almost as an afterthought, even though it adds greatly to the value of the Smart Radio. The thinking I guess is that most users would now rather subscribe to Spotify or the like, than build up a library of their own music files. This will likely be the future, but I would guess that many potential customers still have music collections on computer that they would like to play. This is still the way Apple’s iTunes works, for example.
If you do not require battery power, you might be better off buying a Squeezebox Radio while stock lasts, since it is cheaper and physically similar.
While there are some excellent music services supported, it is a shame there is no support for Google Play or Amazon cloud player.
This may be the last of the Squeezebox line, but it remains a great system for music at home.