Friday, October 10, 2008

Tivoli radios:
full-size sound from itty-bitty boxes

Because of the success of the Walkman and the iPod, and their imitators, it's hard to find a compact-size portable radio with a speaker, particularly one that sounds good.

Fortunately, for those who don't want to wear headphones or earbuds, or who do want to share the music, Tivoli Audio makes some some excellent, innovative and stylish portables that actually have speakers.

Don't be put-off by the small size of the Tivoli radios. They can easily fill a room with glorious music, and you can have fun fooling people into thinking they're hearing your big-buck audio system, when the sound is really coming from something the size of a Kleenex box.

You can choose from several models. I have an analog-tuning "PAL" (Personal Audio Laboratory, $150) in my kitchen, that sometimes goes out on my rear deck. I also have a digital-tuning SongBook ($160) in my bathroom, and I keep another one in my office, and sometimes take it on vacations.

Both models have weather-resistant, rubberized cabinets (for most colors), auxiliary inputs, and can use rechargeable batteries (standard on PAL, optional on SongBook), or a 12VDC power source, or an AC adapter. Although both radios merge left and right channels through their single speakers, you can plug in stereo headphones for full channel separation.

The more expensive SongBook does not come equipped with rechargeable batteries, but it does have features that PAL doesn't have: five preset tuning buttons, a wakeup alarm, cool-blue illuminated display, and even a hang-up slot. It does not have the convenient finger-grip slot that PAL has; but it should, because unless you hold it tightly, it can slide out of your hand.

The SongBook's volume conrol knob is a particularly stupid design. It has a slippery texture and a tapered shape, and if you try to grip it tightly to adjust the sound, your fingers slip and you lose your grip! PAL's knobs are much easier to use; and instead of a digital display and electronic tuning, it has a retro vernier tuning dial with LED signal strength indicator. A $300 variation of the SongBook includes a flip-down iPod dock, and second speaker.

The whole family of products offers sensitive and selective tuning, and super-sweet sound; and I recommend them highly, despite my minor criticisms. Tivoli portable and non-portable radios are available at Target, Best Buy, Tweeter and other audio specialists. CLICK for the manufacturer's website.

GEEK TRIVIA: The PAL ("Personal Audio Laboratory") was designed by audio pioneer Henry Kloss (rhymes with gross). Henry's long history with audio began in the early 1950's when he built speaker cabinets for fellow MIT students. Henry dropped out, and co-founded Acoustic Research, where he helped develop the first acoustic suspension speaker. Next came KLH (the "K" stands for Kloss), and the Model Eight, the first highly sensitive FM table radio. Later at Advent (where I met him when I worked for Rolling Stone), Henry developed one of the first projection televisions (an Emmy winner), and one of the first consumer cassette decks with Dolby noise reduction. Next came Kloss Video in 1977, and Cambridge SoundWorks in 1988, with long-time associate Tom DeVesto. In 2000, at the age of 70, Henry emerged from retirement to once again work with DeVesto at Tivoli. Henry died in 2002.

After I had my PAL for a couple of years, it developed an intermittent audio problem. The sound would suddenly crackle for a few seconds, and then music would be replaced by silence. I'd thump it on the table, and the music would come back. When the thump-to-thump interval increased to the point where I was really annoyed, I called Tivoli to find out the procedure for getting it fixed. The Tivolian wanted my serial number. I questioned that, because the radio was clearly out of warranty, and I did not expect a free fix. Mr. Tiv said he would not give me a return authorization without the serial number. My radio was two flights down, so I said I'd call back. By the time I walked down two flights of stairs and back up, I was pissed-off enough to open the PAL and re-solder the speaker wires myself. The repair took less than a minute, and I saved about $50!

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