Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The new radio at home. Verdict: superb.

I collected a delivery box from Waitrose at Burgess Hill late yesterday afternoon - the new Ruark R1 Mk3 DAB digital radio, plus a couple of useful accessories, ordered online on Saturday morning from John Lewis. Let's do the unpacking and setup together.

There were three packages in that not-too-big-or-heavy delivery box. One contained the radio itself. Another contained the rechargeable power pack that would fix on the back of the radio. The third package contained the leather carrying case that would make it easy to move the radio from room to room, or around the interior of my caravan.

I'd spent about £290 on all this. I regarded it not as a present to myself, but as money invested in a 'home-and-caravan equipment upgrade', just as I would if buying a new TV, cooker or fridge. The radio could clearly not become a with-me-all-the-time personal companion like my phone - it was too bulky and too heavy. But make no mistake, I felt strongly that I would fall in love with it very quickly, and it would become one of my best-regarded possessions. Infinitely more so than its utilitarian plasticky predecessor ever could have, or did.

In fact I'd be wary of letting anybody else even touch it. At the price asked, it certainly wasn't a throwaway stopgap device whose safety and welfare wouldn't matter much. Nor was it a toy to be meddled with. It was a luxury device, almost an item of furniture, a precision piece of equipment. Best kept under my personal eye, and touched by my fingers alone! I was no more going to let someone else play with it than I would let them play freely with my phone or my camera. Was this an unattractive character defect, being possessive and not not wanting to share something like this? Was it evidence that I had been, and always would be, difficult to live with? If so, I am unapologetic.

Well, the packaging was high-class. A great first impression. I soon had the radio bits ready for assembly on my study table.

As a UK customer, I got a UK plug with a two-prong 'continental' alternative, in case I travelled abroad. The first thing you had to do was to screw in the telescopic aerial, and then tighten up the nut that held it firmly in position with a special spanner that Ruark had supplied. (A tool to be preserved very carefully, of course!) The only trick there was to make sure the aerial was absolutely vertical before tightening up that nut. After that, the radio could be plugged in and set to scan for stations. Moving now to my lounge, I did that next. I had no problems with the instruction book.

What a clear display! Within seconds, the time was being shown, and it had already found ten strong-signal DAB stations.

The scan complete, I was free to manually select any of the many stations found. I was glad that I'd finished the main setting-up in time to catch the Six O'clock News on BBC Radio 4.

I settled back on my recliner to listen. Note the blue light on the standby button, which means 'the radio is switched on'. All the controls are on the top.

After a while, I found out how to make BBC Radio 4 the first station in my list of ten pre-selects. I could have made it number four, of course, with Radio 1 as the first pre-select, Radio 2 as the second, Radio 3 as the third, and so on. But that's pandering to a spurious logicality. For me, the best order is the one that gets me the stations I want in the order that I'm most likely to listen to them. So my personal list is this, for now:

Preselect 1     BBC Radio 4
Preselect 2     BBC Radio 3
Preselect 3     BBC World Service
Preselect 4     Classic

That's all so far. I feel encouraged to try a few other stations, and they may get added, but I'm pretty certain that most of my listening will still be with Radio 4, which I regard as the station with most varied, most high-quality programmes on air. Long may it flourish. A bastion against lowbrow mediocrity, and the best place to sample what is at the true core of British Life. Incidentally, I also rate the BBC News app on the Internet, which is like reading the scripts of in-depth BBC Radio 4 programmes, but with pictures, and video clips if you really want them.

No, I won't need a long list of pre-selects. Partly because they would mostly have to be commercial stations, and those always contain ads. The ads on commercially-funded Classic are already irritating me, and these are for elite products and services. I heard one about a Mercedes car, for instance, and another about the Zoopla property search website. I admit that Mercedes and Zoopla are not the same kind of mass-market thing as orange juice or KFC. But they still jar with the dignity and seriousness of the classical music. They are a disincentive to listening. Indeed, I may in the end eliminate Classic from my pre-selects - though not too quickly, or I'll have no credible alternative to Radio 3 at my fingertips!

Advertising is definitely the major reason why I hardly ever watch anything but BBC stations on TV. Advertising seems to go hand-in-hand with predictable, unadventurous, populist programming. I've had this view for decades. No doubt it's a sign of cultural prejudice. I do not care. I have no patience with any but vintage TV advertisements that I nostalgically associate with my childhood and teens, when advertisements were simpler, more direct, and not nearly so 'clever'. I confess to liking occasional stand-out advertising campaigns from later years, like the famous Guinness ads, or Jack Dee coping with penguins, ladybirds and widgets while drinking John Smith's Yorkshire Bitter in a pub. Those I didn't mind, and still don't mind, when I view them on YouTube, using that platform as a kind of 1990s peepshow.

But now, if I occasionally see something worthwhile on - say - Channel 4, I always mute the TV as the ads begin. I do it gleefully. It ruins them, of course. Sometimes it makes them oddly surreal. But I chiefly want to rebel, to thwart the sales message, and shut out a communication industry that wants to invade my space with its inventions. I don't want false values, needs and expectations planted in my mind, nor do I want to see the same old hackneyed stereotypes, in maudlin 'family' situations that have nothing to do with me. And all those artificial smiles! I dare say the advertisers do carefully categorise their target audiences, and work out a profile for every likely viewer; but I seem not to fit into their scheme, which makes me feel marginalised.

If you work in the advertising industry, you'll feel that my attitude is wrong, wrong, wrong; irresponsible; and likely to put British jobs in danger. Well, like everyone else, you are entitled to your opinion, but I'm unmoved. Oh, I do see how advertising creates product awareness, and generates sales which stimulate the economy. But personal freedom from unwelcome and unsolicited sales messages is more important. And I say it again: it's impossible not to notice the TV programming differences between - say - BBC 4 (intelligent, publicly funded, and independent of advertisers) and Channel 5 (sensationalist, shallow, and bound lock, stock and barrel to advertising).

Let us continue.

The next task was to put the radio in its leather case. It simply slid in. The case fitted perfectly. It was secured not by buckles, nor studs. but by magnetic pads under the leather. How neat.

Next, fixing the power pack on. The photo below shows the rear panel of the radio.

The power pack had to be threaded over the aerial, then screwed in using two screws and a special Allen key. (Another tool to preserve, and not lose!) The four corner recesses on the rear panel became four points that projections on the power pack could locate into.

Having screwed the thing onto the rear panel, and re-attached the mains cable - onto the power pack now - I established that the radio was working normally, but I couldn't see a yellow charging light that should have been winking at me. How vexing! Had I missed some vital step? Yes - there was a red tab on the back of the power pack that had to be removed before attaching the pack to the rear panel. I hadn't read the instruction on that, even though it was shown in the diagram as 'Step 1'. Silly me! I undid everything, pulled out the tab, fitted the power pack back on, and this time saw that yellow light.

It's there, top centre of the power pack, caught in mid-wink. You can also see the neat way the leather case fits around the walnut body of the radio, one of the magnetic fastenings, and the leather carrying handle.

The instruction book suggested that the power pack might take up to five hours to fully charge up, but in fact it was ready after barely four. Meanwhile, I listened to all kinds of voice and music on most of the stations available to me. It was a great way to spend some of the evening.

The sound quality was very good. My hearing isn't the best, so I can't be precise, but what I heard was very satisfying to my own ears. Bass, mid-range, treble - all were strong, with no part of this range predominating. Speech was very distinct. Half-volume was as loud as I needed. The volume control was the large flat knob in the centre on the top. It had a little dimple, for twirling it around with a finger. All very smooth.

The sound from my new radio seemed as good as the stereo output on my 2008 Samsung TV, and, surprisingly, just as good as the 2010 sound system in Fiona (at least while driving along, when road and engine noise get mixed in and obscure Fiona's finer audio capabilities). 

The treble-biased sound from the tiny speakers on my 2012 Sony tablet and 2014 Samsung phone offered no competition whatever. But I won't be using Bluetooth to stream music from phone to radio. I paired radio and phone easily enough, but found that the radio's superior speaker revealed how lacking the mp3 format actually is. Mp3s might sound fine on a phone, even with earphones inserted, but decidedly less so through a proper speaker. Even I could hear the difference.

It isn't so difficult to see why the Ruark is such a decent sound-producer. It's well-made, naturally. But essentially it's a stout, almost-empty wooden box, with plenty of space for the air within to vibrate. There is also a large hole in the base, the mouth end of a tube extending deep inside, which must be a bass reflex port (see 

Towards midnight I went to bed, and this was how the radio looked on the bedside table: 

I had no fears about accidentally knocking it to the floor. The Ruark was heavy enough to be very steady and secure on its non-slip rubber feet. In the morning, a two-second press of the easily-found standby button switched it on. With practice, I'd be able to do this in the dark, or with both eyes closed.

After breakfast this morning, I took the radio out to the caravan to see how it blended into that all-wood setting. As anticipated, it looked just right.

I was struck how much the radio brought to mind an old Rolleiflex TLR, especially one in a brown leather carrying case! Alternatively, it could easily be mistaken for some item of military kit, especially when seen from the side or rear. Even just as a radio, it wouldn't look amiss on safari! A must for one's next trip to Rhinoland.

The new Ruark also looked natural inside the house, especially as the decor there is a bit old-fashioned, relecting my late parents' tastes rather than mine. Here it is, on a garden-facing window sill, and then in the kitchen:

So, to sum up. This is a serious portable DAB radio, mainly intended for use inside the home, but equally suitable for a space like a caravan. It's easy to use and it sounds very, very good. It's something of a design icon. It's high-tech. It does have a pretty significant price tag, especially with the carrying case and power pack added, but the money secures a useful object of desire, a little bit of solid luxury. I can't see any snags, and none of the online reviews I read saw any either. 

I'd say that if you are in the market for a posh radio that you'll want to move around several times a day, then this is the business.   

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