Think about how a radio looks like. Depending on the last time you toyed with said technology, you could be imagining either a bulky, boombox set or a portable but functional-looking device. Well then, British brand Ruark Audio is about to change all that, with their latest R1 Mk4, a deluxe bluetooth radio that doubles up as a set of stylish speakers you’d be proud to display on your shelf or console.
A class act that’s equal parts contemporary and vintage in its design, with a handcrafted wooden grille that sits in front of its amplifier, you’ll also be glad to know that its new makeover isn’t just an aesthetic one. The compact 1.5kg design also boasts a dynamic performance that matches that of larger speakers, ideal if you’re looking for expansive sound while living in a small apartment — that is, all of us living in HDB flats, or hiding out in our work-from-home offices. The new R1 also features a USB-C port that can play from and charge compatible devices. Read on for our review of Ruark Audio’s latest pride and joy.
Needless to say, I was most impressed by the design of the R1 Mk4, which has a bit of a nod to vintage styles, thanks to that new wooden slatted speaker grille. It looks like the kind of device you’d spot in a swanky hotel room, and then you realise, oh wait, this is actually in your home.
Along the sides of the unit is a sleek housing finished in either “Light Cream” or “Espresso”, while at the front, there’s an OLED display that shows the time, alarm, and programme information; this screen automatically adjusts its brightness to suit ambient light levels, which, when combined with the alarm mode, makes this quite a decent bedside companion.
One of the trademark features of the Ruark Audio device is its RotoDial control, a design classic that includes an array of buttons and a jog dial so you can toggle with the volume, change the source, access presets, and control the music when it’s in Bluetooth mode. I find this feature as elegant as the rest of the device, and while the controls seem pared back, they were practical and easy to use, even for someone like me who doesn’t like reading the manuals. It didn’t take too long to pair my smartphone with the speaker, or for it to scan through the many FM channels available within my radar.
My only qualm here is that, on its own, this isn’t a portable device, despite its portable size — I tested it by switching off the power to its plug, at which the radio just turned off. It’s light enough to carry around, certainly, but currently needs to be hooked up to a power source / wall plug for it to function. However, the brand is in the midst of releasing an optional battery pack that you can purchase separately, something that’s suitable for the power requirements for their high-quality Class AB amplifier. Also, I feel that portability isn’t that big a deal, since it was never touted as such; the draw here is a stylish and modern-looking home sound system.
In short, the sound was excellent and delivers exactly as promised — robust sound that’s far bigger than how these speakers look. Specs-wise, this is fitted with a high-quality 9W Class AB amplifier and a 75mm Ruark NaturalSound+ driver, as well as an adaptive equaliser, which work together to deliver on distortion-less sound that replicates the way the songs were recorded.
My favourite and most frequent function is using the R1 Mk4 as Bluetooth speakers, which means I can easily and wirelessly stream music from my smartphone after pairing the device. No matter what I played, there was an open sound with a strong and deep bass. This speaker seemed to command the room. This might not be a surprise though for avid fans of the brand, who know them for 40 years of hi-fi excellence and five-star reviews for the earlier versions of the R1 radios.
For this fourth iteration, I went in on a Spotify Singapore Top 50s spree, I played”Blueberry Eyes” by MAX & SUGA, where the bass was particularly impressive, while the higher-register details of MAX’s falsetto crooning were still packed with detail. Songs like “At My Worst” (Pink Sweat$) sounded rich and intimate, while the Ruark handled Doja Cat’s “Streets” lo-fi aesthetic with ease. The Weeknd’s chart-topping “Save Your Tears” also sounds especially expansive, perhaps also due to the production style of the song.
To get out of the pop landscape, I also switched to some jazz — the clear crooning and saxophones from the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong classic “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” was smooth and rich, while Ella’s falsetto notes were captured perfectly, despite how the track’s probably less layered and more pure compared to today’s pop hits. Louis Armstrong’s voice was crisp, warm, and inviting. In general, I’d say that the radio-speaker is great for casual listening and is versatile enough across these genres that I tried, with a robust bass and a natural, pleasant tone I very much enjoy.
AS A RADIO
To be honest, I don’t listen to our local stations, or any radio stations for that matter, as much as I used to while growing up, or in the car. This habit has given way to on-demand streaming services, podcasts, and even YouTube. Therefore, and quite ironically for a radio, this would realistically be the function I’d use the least.
The Ruark Audio R1 Mk4 is able to tap into DAB and DAB+, a digital radio broadcasting platforms for digital radio stations, which is different from FM, an analog signal — this then allows for more radio stations in the same radio spectrum. Unfortunately though, I wasn’t able to figure out the controls enough to access the DAB mode, if there was one. Whenever I toggled with the “Source”, it would only go from Bluetooth, USB, Line In, and FM. Maybe this an automated feature I’m not familiar about.
I can, however, review this as an FM radio. My first foray into the airwaves got me a rather decent audio quality without much feedback, though this was of course improved to a clearer feed when I propped up the hidden antenna at the back. It does ruin the speaker’s aesthetic a bit, but makes a huge difference for the sound. When compared side-by-side with the Bluetooth audio, I can even say that some songs (Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You”) sounded fuller, warm, and more punchy.
At the back of the Ruark Audio R1 Mk4, there is a 3.5mm TRS jack plug for you to plug input sound from another device, as well as a 3.5mm stereo headphone output. A USB-C output also provides 5V/1A for powering or charging your smartphone. For those who like to wake up to music in the morning or drift off to music at night, there are two programmable alarms and a sleep function that ensures the radio will turn itself off after a set amount of time. There is also a compact remote control available for those who prefer to control the speaker from a distance.
I’d recommend this if you’re looking for a set of stylish speakers — something that will blend in seamlessly in a modern home, while being quite a statement piece in itself. Its design is a standout, and a welcome change to the previous version of the R1. Where it’s a bit more of a consideration though, is when you factor in the price. $479 is not exactly cheap, so you’ll probably consider whether this is worth the investment. I also realised the price puts it in the same ballpark as a set of Marshall Kilburn II or Acton II speakers, which makes similar claims, and used to be quite high on my tech wishlist. I can say though that the Ruark delivers on clear and unexpectedly big sound, especially from such a compact device. And while I did use it primarily as a Bluetooth speaker, this also has the added, and very impressive, radio function. It might be a luxury, but I’m also a believer that you get what you pay for.
Ruark Audio R1 Mk4, $479, available in Espresso and Rich Cream at Musica at ION Orchard, Challenger at Bugis and iStudio at Great World City; available online at Shopee, Krishop, and Lazada. More information at ruarkaudio.com.sg.