Review: Ruark R4 Mk3 DAB digital radio
We got our hands on a Ruark R4 Mk3 radio to play with. It’s the first Ruark-branded radio set we’ve reviewed and at £650 we’ve got high expectations.
Ruark is a British brand known for producing audio products for the luxury consumer. So what will we make of this after a comprehensive test-drive? Will the feature and design offering justify its high price?
From simply unboxing the radio, it’s clear to the eyes and hands the R4 is a beautiful machine. With its rich walnut finish (other colours are also available) and how solid it feels to the touch, we get the impression it’s something that will remain in a permanent location in a room that’ll be as part of the furniture.
The R4 features built-in CD player, FM radio, DAB radio, Bluetooth audio, USB playback and Optical in and Aux in. Rather surprisingly, especially for a modern-day radio, it does not feature any form of internet radio. Compare this with their much cheaper model, the R2, which DOES offer connectivity to the internet, and you immediately wonder how the pricing structure could have been thought out. Perhaps we’ll find out later?
In place of the availability of features, this would be an aspect of the radio that may explain its price. The R4 was pleasant to listen to – the in-built subwoofer adding fullness to the sound, yet was subtle enough not to be annoying. The top ends in music and speech were clear and crisp. However, it wasn’t as easy to find the right balance of the settings in the sound modes on offer. “Loud” was adjustable, but only had black and white modes – on and off. We eventually came to what we felt was a good balance with the subwoofer on +2 and with loudness off. “3D” is also something we prefered to leave disabled. The subwoofer also has limited range from -2 to +2 in power. Perhaps allowing greater customisation by having finer levels of adjustment would have helped. But at least the standard “Treble/Bass” settings range all the way from -4 to +4. It’s useful to note that for all sources, the settings here are applied universally, so may require re-tinkering each time you switch sources.
Ruark’s own literature describes their experience of being designers of high-end speakers as being beneficial:
“We understand the importance of cabinet and drive unit design to create natural sound, free from colouration and distortion. The enclosure of R4 IMS is hand-crafted from materials chosen for their exceptional acoustic properties and likewise our drive units are carefully designed and constructed to allow optimum dynamics with a smooth extended frequency response”.
Sounds like this could be what you’re paying for.
Let’s delve into each of the radio/playback modes now.
We used an external aerial in our tests, mainly because the reception of radio signals is rather poor in our lab. The telescopic aerial that the radio comes with was easy to remove with the enclosed spanner.
We’re pleased with the sensitivity of the radio. Weaker stations could be picked up with less noticeable hiss than some other radio sets we’ve used. In terms of usability, some initial tweaking of the settings may be required to pick up all the stations available. The default seems to be that it will only pick up the stronger stations on an Autoscan. A quick (but not necessarily the easiest) setting change in the menu helped bring us all the stations broadcasting to our area. Manual tune can also be invoked by a change in the settings which then subsequently allows the rotary knob to be put into use for tuning at your own pace (note that this first needs to be activated by initially pressing either the left or right scan button). We find that flexibility over the tuning method is always much appreciated on a radio set. They get a thumbs up from us in this respect. On toggling the display whilst in FM mode, the station name (RDS PS), Programme Type, RadioText and signal strength can all be shown.
Just like in FM mode, the main method of changing stations is by using the left and right buttons, but it is possible to use the rotary wheel before the selection mode times out on you. This saves time when you have a huge list of stations which many parts of the UK now seem to get, especially with the new minimuxes coming online all adding to the list.
An autoscan will scan all frequencies, including the new UK allocations, so there’s no risk of not picking up what you’re supposed to receive. It’s interesting to note, though, that a manual tune to a particular frequency is not possible, should you wish to spend time attempting to pull in a station on a distant multiplex. Despite the technical limitations that many DAB stations in the UK face, the sound output from the radio is pleasing enough to the ear compared to many other radios out there. I would suspect there’s some clever processing going on.
Technically, there’s one little not-so-obvious behaviour of the radio that we’re really impressed with – mainly because we’ve not seen it in use on any other radio. Should a station be available on more than one local multiplex, the radio will automatically choose the multiplex with the strongest signal. As logical as it may seem, other radios usually employ the really unhelpful algorithm of putting the station on the first multiplex it first sees during a setup scan. Such behaviour would, inevitably, make a compromise on user friendliness, especially when it’s the weaker, bubbling station that the radio tunes into. Ruark, here, has evidently put some thought into this kind of scenario and by avoiding such issues, makes the experience much better for both technophobe and even the tech-savvy.
The display can be changed to show the station name, scrolling text, bitrate (but no indication of mono or stereo audio), multiplex name, Programme Type, signal strength and whether the station is in DAB or DAB+ format. The play/pause button can be used as a fast way of muting the radio should you need to answer the telephone. This little trick also works in FM mode.
Wired audio inputs
The R4 offers both optical (S/PDIF) and two analogue line-in ports. Two because the designers decided it would be a good idea to include both a front input port (for easy access) and a rear one (for the more permanent, hidden audio lead setup). We considered this to be well thought-out. The front input accepts a 3.5mm stereo plug whereas the rear takes the standard RCA/phono type.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the equipment to test drive the optical input, but as far as the analogue ones go, we like the fact that there’s some control given to the user for the input volume levels. You can choose between levels of 1 through to 4, with the default being at 2.
Bluetooth wireless audio
A must for a modern audio system, this radio also boasts support for the aptX codec, enabling high-quality listening through a wireless system. We put this to the test with a Samsung smartphone. After the simple pairing procedure, we noticed that not only was the audio quality very high in quality, as is to be expected, but the latency was also very low. So low that it was perfectly fine to watch a YouTube video on the phone with little distraction from lip-sync issues. We’re very pleased to find aptX support since more and more music listening is done wirelessly these days – it seems to be more a necessity than an “in” thing. Well done for including this, Ruark! Of course, the more common SBC codec is also supported for older Bluetooth A2DP devices such as iPhones.
Toggling the display reveals the name of the device that’s delivering the audio. From the phone, local music players and YouTube are just some examples of apps that will happily send the names of the “now playing” clip to the radio’s display.
mp3, AAC and WMA (without rights-protection) formats are supported, but a letdown is its lack of support for lossless FLAC files of any kind. For such a model where sound quality is important, you’d have the expectation of being able to play music in FLAC.
On insertion of a USB stick, the radio scans your folders for all tracks. You’re also given the option of specifying a particular folder if you really want to.
The radio displays ID3 song name labels of the track you’re currently playing, but it doesn’t show any info on the audio format or the bitrate.
Alternative displays modes provide info on the total time of the track, its playing progress and the name of the folder the audio file resides on.
Shuffle and Repeat is possible but the creation of playlists seems to be impossible. Perhaps a reason for this is that the radio only comes with buttons for simple operations and an “Add to playlist” function would have been too complicated to implement. Still.. as a radio that’s capable of playing your music, it does an acceptable job. A playout system for your house party it isn’t, and wasn’t designed to do.
The left and right buttons allow you to skip tracks and to advance/rewind to a particular point.
The USB port is advertised in the manual as being able to charge smartphones. However, the output current is at a mere 1A, so may be a bit slow for the power-hungry devices of today. The manual also discourages the use of the port to charge tablets like the iPad.
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Pretty bog-standard here. The Ruarks R4’s CD mode comes with basic playback controls including shuffle and repeat. In terms of display, you have the usual duration/remain timer ticking over. When used in conjunction with E-CDs, track information is also displayed. But as the radio has no form of internet connectivity, it’s incapable of performing a CDDB lookup for the standard audio CD. The radio will quite happily read your self-burnt mp3 CDs with the presentation and interface pretty much the same as if it were a USB stick: again, you can browse by folder, but there’s no provision for playlists.
The radio comes with a remote control. We found this to be a bit too basic. Simple features that would offer real convenience were seemingly omitted. Examples we could come up with were numbered buttons that would select a preset station at a single touch (or a track on a CD). Additionally, sleep mode cannot be activated from the remote control. We see this as a huge oversight as this feature is often invoked from the bed.
Buttons that are present on the remote control are volume up/down, previous, next, select (play), menu, source, preset (which requires additional button presses to do anything) and power (standby).
We’re keen on the beautiful OLED display on the screen. It’s a lovely shade of white that is subtle enough to work in harmony with the radio’s colour schemes. A slight shame, we’ve noticed, is that its dimmest setting (5 steps available) may still be too bright for bedroom with the lights out. But this is often just down to personal opinion.
We were wowed by some things, but also let down by others. Ignoring the absence of internet connectivity and the potential stations it comes with, we would say the set of features this radio has is actually pretty healthy. For Ruark, it is clear the sound quality and aesthetics are important. However, has this won us over?
We think it is a radio worth considering as a luxury item in a home – for those who are happy to spend more on the looks. Its well thought-out usability also makes it ideal for modern-day technophobes. The sound quality is satisfying to listen to and has a decent balance of high and low audio producing components. Tech-geeks will likely be left somewhat disappointed by the high price and may very well opt for a different model. For example, Ruark’s own R2 model is much more affordable (£250 less) and includes an internet radio mode as well as having a very similar look and a more compact size. However, this is at the expense of Ruark’s special acoustic design, high power output and a subwoofer – but may not necessarily a problem if an existing separate amp is already at one’s disposal.
For the R4’s relatively high price, we really do wish they had thought of everything (like FLAC support) to really make it the unbeatable ultimate machine. But as it stands, we feel Ruark is leaving itself open to competition for prospective new customers, even from its own lower-end models. At the same time, we’re confident existing loyal customers who appreciate the values Ruark stand for will not hesitate to shell out for an R4.
Sound Quality 4.5/5
Reception sensitivity 5/5
Value for money 3/5
Full specifications are available here.
The R2’s specifications are also worth a read.