Internet radio seems custom-designed for these recessionary times.
Provided you have a broadband connection, it's free and it offers incredible variety in terms of the kind of music and talk programming you can receive from around the world. You can often access Internet radio broadcasts from the Web site of a terrestrial radio station or from Web sites that aggregate them, such as Receiva.com or Live365.com.
A company called Aluratek even sells a USB drive that will allow you to start listening to Internet radio without downloading any software or visiting any Web sites. Aluratek is also one of several companies which offer stand-alone products that can receive Internet radio around the home using a Wi-Fi connection.
Others include the basic Phoenix Radio by Com One, the imposing Tube by Oxx Digital, and the swank Sonoro Elements.
In the last few years, though, several Web sites have sprung up offering several enhancements over regular Internet radio. Pandora offers music in stations that are tailored specifically for your taste by analyzing the musical characteristics of certain songs. Slacker, on the other hand, offers a variety of genre-specific radio stations that are more like those on satellite radio.
And, unlike ordinary Internet radio stations, they offer at least some ability to skip songs you dislike or are tired of hearing. For those who want a simple solution for enjoying Pandora or Slacker at home, there is a stand-alone radio tailored for each service.
With its boxy, white design and single speaker, the Livio Radio ($149) clearly takes its design cues from table radios sold by Tivoli audio. Its face features an LCD that generally displays four lines of text.
There are also six face buttons, including the trademark thumbs up and thumbs down controls to rate songs on Pandora. The Livio also has a small remote control that can be used to adjust power and volume from a few feet away.
The two-tone black and silver Acoustic Research Infinite Radio ($129) is a bit taller but much narrower than the Livio and features a more modern, but also more plastic look to its trapezoidal profile. A directional pad (four arrows surrounding an OK button) provides the device's navigation.
The AR Infinite Radio also has its special buttons to accommodate its featured service -- a "favorite" button and a "Ban" button.
Setting up both products required a visit to the Web, but after that, they worked well on their own, and both support ordinary Internet radio in addition. Each device has a few extra features as well.
The Livio can take advantage of external audio sources via a line in jack and can access music from other PCs on a network. The Infinite Radio, on the other hand, can read music off a USB drive.
Between the two, though, the Acoustic Research stood out as a stronger offering in several ways. While the Livio product took advantage of its wood cabinet to produce a resonant bass, the overall sound was flatter than the Acoustic Research product, which has stereo speakers.
The controls on the Acoustic Research product were also easier to operate, and it played more consistently with fewer dropouts on its wireless network.
For those who want Pandora, Slacker and more in the same stand-alone receiver, Logitech now offers the Squeezebox Radio ($199) which throws in a color screen and compatibility with many more music services.
Apple also offers the iPod touch at $199, which can be dropped into a music dock to provide Wi-Fi access to Pandora, Slacker, and other streaming music services as well as acting as a first-rate portable music player and Web browsing device. Using these personal radio services at home can ensure that there is always music in the air.