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Among the networking AV receivers and music servers and other complex gear we review, what a delight to review a product so compact and attractive as the Ruark R1. Its apparent simplicity actually underplays its four ways to play, but it’s a lovely object, a ‘deluxe tabletop radio’ as Ruark styles it.
And we do love products that come with a tool. We found a shiny silver thing in the bottom of the R1’s packaging and we wondered what it might do. But time for that later — we focused first on lifting the little Ruark from its wrapper, clipping the Australian pins onto the oversized power-plug, and admiring the walnut soft lacquer finish. (White and black are also available.)
We know Ruark Audio well — indeed we should declare that some years ago we accepted a very nice fish pie from Ruark, and a cider too, we think, on the seafront at Southend-on-Sea, after touring their facilities and meeting Archie, the company dog. From decades past we remember them as Ruark Acoustics, making fine floorstanding and standmount speakers with thrusting names like Sabre and Swordsman, an essential British speaker brand through the 1980s and 1990s. Then, as Alan O’Rourke told us (see interview here
), the company took a twist in 2006 when DAB digital radio was growing in the UK.
By developing the R1, which the UK’s Sunday Telegraph called “the Aston Martin of DAB radios”, Ruark took such a sidestep that it created a new brand, Vita Audio, for these home-friendly lifestyle solutions. Such was their success, however, that traditional loudspeakers fell by the wayside (though “never say never”, says Alan O’Rourke), and the reinvented Ruark Audio now has a range of radio and streaming solutions from this latest Mk3 version of the R1 up to that four-legged radiogram of the future, the highly desirable R9.
So, the latest R1 maintains the original’s dimensions, though its finish and design have been updated, in particular the company’s trademark Rotodial up top, which combines a semicircle of buttons with a central turn-and-push knob. Round the back on the sturdy plate is a minijack headphone output and analogue line input, the power socket, and a USB-B slot, not for sticks or drives but to power and/or charge your smartphone, which can then play through the R1 via either cable or, more likely, Bluetooth.
So we have an auxiliary input and Bluetooth to play from an external device, but then crucially, of course, the radio tuners inside which were always the centre of this design, both FM and digital DAB+. For these you’ll need to attach the rod antenna to the back, and we found that it tended to flop around all over the place, far too loose. What we need was — aha! — a tightening tool. That was it, in the Ruark box, a special dedicated aerial spanner. Job done.
We’re suckers for a good knob, and Ruark’s RotoDial does its job admirably, controlling volume as you’d expect in normal use, but doubling up as a scroll wheel when you’re in settings menus.
Enter those, and the white-on-black LED display leads you through the options. There
are bass, treble and loudness adjustments, none of which we ever felt the urge to employ, but which could be handy for adjusting the tone for different positioning — especially as the R1’s cabinet has its port through the base, so that a soft surface, such as thick fabric, can significantly soften the bass output.
Also in the menus are time and date formatting options, though the date and time information itself will be set automatically once the radios are tuned in. There are twin alarms available, with snooze and sleep functions. You can adjust the brightness of the display separately for on and standby, including an option for standby where the display is off entirely — essential for bedroom use, though not all brands think of it. You can do a factory reset, and there’s a firmware upgrade option, but don’t press it just to see what happens — it stops the music and locks up the R1 for some time, is what happens.
More menus appear when you go to the radio sections. Each has 10 preset positions, though it’s so easy to shuttle through DAB+ stations by name that you may never use them. Digital stations come and go, with short-term pop-ups and regular name changes, so it’s worth regularly rescanning and doing a ‘prune’ of dead stations.
And this is just the size of radio to deliver enjoyable DAB+ music. DAB+ is not quite the digital wonder you might think; it does some pretty weird stuff to high frequencies, but the warmth and smoothness of the R1 makes the absolute best of such vagaries. As Alan O’Rourke says above, Ruark has put a good driver with a good amp in a solid cabinet, and it’s no transistor radio sound, rather a good rich warm friendly radio sound. There’s loads of level on tap from the Rotodial, and the sound remains well balanced at all levels, so remains equally effective across all genres of music. Also impressively, the tone was maintained even through Bluetooth, allowing you to listen to any streaming service or stored music the smart device or laptop can access, including internet radio of course.
Spoken word is a good test of tone, and a crucial one for radio of course; the R1 nails it, whether it’s 2GB big-voice talkback, clean-cut ABC presenters or rambling teenagers on Triple J, the voices sound real and rich. The R1’s front display delivers all manner of radio text broadcast on both DAB+ and FM by broadcasters, from track titles to phone-in numbers.
A couple of accessories are available to deliver portability — CarryPack, a hand-stitched leather case and strap in black or tan, and the BackPack, which looks like a big heatsink but is actually a battery pack, so you can take the R1 Mk3 beyond the bounds of its mains power input.
If you love radio as background for work or home, the R1 has a perfect sound — not intrusive in the bass nor irritating in edgy treble, instead friendly, rich and ideal for long-term listening — just like those old radiograms which Alan O’Rourke cites as sonic inspiration. But the quality is such that it also encourages and rewards more critical listening, and while you can stream it your Spotify and your Pandora if you wish, you may find yourself drawn back to the enduring delights of radio. It’s nigh on 100 years since pundits predicted radio’s demise in the face of an amazing new thing called television. Yah boo sucks, we say to that.
Ruark Audio R1 Mk3
+ Warm radio sound from FM & DAB+
+ Bluetooth and auxiliary input
+ High build quality, battery options
Inputs: DAB+, FM, Bluetooth, minijack in
Dimensions: 170 × 130 × 135mm