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(Pocket-lint) - For 15 years now, Ruark's R1 DAB radio has been the discerning radio-fancier's default choice and a set-dresser's dream. Combining unarguable sonic performance with understatedly sophisticated good looks, the R1 has become shorthand for 'tasteful'.

However, 15 years is a pretty long time where a product like this is concerned - and any number of rival brands will sell you a good-looking smart speaker device with quite a few more strings to its bow than the R1.

So does the fourth-generation of Ruark's entry-level radio have what it takes to maintain the company's pre-eminence when one can't even shout instructions at it?  

Design

  • Dimensions: 175 × 130 × 135mm / Weight: 1.5kg
  • Finishes: Light Cream or Espresso lacquer
  • Hand-crafted slatted wood grille

'Discreet' doesn't begin to cover it. The R1 Mk4 is compact enough to sit comfortably more-or-less anywhere you want it to.

Pocket-lintRuark Audio R1 Mk4 review photo 3

It would be a shame to hide it away, though, because it's a superior bit of industrial design. The cabinet enclosure is smoothly contoured, the slatted wooden grille is precise, and both the 'cream' and 'espresso' finishes add a little bit of modernity to the look too.

Everything fits together beautifully, and the overall design is elegant and grown-up where quite a lot of similarly priced 'smart' speakers seek only to be 'fashionable'. But, as we know, the trouble with 'fashionable' is that it must inevitably become 'unfashionable' - which is a quandary Ruark has neatly sidestepped with the R1 Mk4.    

Features

  • DAB, DAB+ and FM radio reception
  • Analogue input and output
  • Bluetooth connectivity

There's a lot to be said for 'minimalism' where design is concerned, but as far as features go it's a slightly double-edged sword. One person's 'purity of purpose' can quite easily be another's 'lack of features'. 

The R1 Mk4 is, first and foremost, a radio. So there's DAB, DAB+ and FM reception built in, and a big telescoping aerial on the rear panel to make sure those signals are received in full.

Pocket-lintRuark Audio R1 Mk4 review photo 5

The rear panel also features analogue 3.5mm sockets - one input (for hard-wiring a music player) and one output (for headphones) - and a USB-C socket for playback (it will support digital audio files up to 24bit/96kHz) or charging.

At the bottom of the cabinet there's a reflex port, designed to offer a bit of low-frequency reinforcement to the Ruark's sound.

Bluetooth connectivity on board the Ruark is the v4.2 variety, which is hardly at the cutting edge - but it is more than sufficient for streaming MQA-powered Tidal Masters files or some 96kHz content from Qobuz. Which can only be good news.

No matter how the audio information is derived, though, it's dealt with by 9 watts of Class A/B amplification (an on-paper improvement on the more usual Class D alternative) and then served up by a forward-facing 75mm full-range NaturalSound+ dynamic driver.

Pocket-lintRuark Audio R1 Mk4 review photo 8

That's a long as it's plugged into the mains, of course - you've an option of Ruark's Backpack MkII battery pack if you want to make your R1 Mk4 portable, but it will set you back some extra cash.

But, no two ways about it, the R1 Mk4 is a little restricted by the standards of its most obvious competitors. It's not a smart speaker, fundamentally - so it can't be ordered about, it can't integrate your Spotify (or similar) account, can't be any help when you want to know what the weather's going to be like tomorrow...

Interface

  • RotoDial control
  • Optional remote control
  • Integrated OLED display

Ruark hit upon an elegant and distinctive control solution with its RotoDial some time ago, and demonstrably sees no good reason to change it now. And we can't say we blame the company - the combination of a turn/press button with eight function keys arranged around it is one of the more pleasant physical interfaces a product like this ever enjoyed.

Pocket-lintRuark Audio R1 Mk4 review photo 4

The crisp, bright OLED display that lets you know what the R1 Mk4 is up to is decent too - but there's no doubt it's starting to look a little dated. The slow, single-line scrolling, lack of artwork and lack of capacitive touch-functions don't really yell 'modernity!'. The absence of a control app, then, hardly comes as an enormous surprise.

What is a little surprising is that a remote control for the Ruark is an optional extra, not included in the box. Is it just us, or does it seem rather tight to want extra money for a remote control for the radio you've just paid rather a lot of cash to own?

Sound quality

  • 75mm Ruark NS+ river, 9W linear amplifier
  • Supports: AAC, FLAC, WAV, WMA
  • Adjustable equaliser

After all the effort Ruark has made to deliver a good-looking and grown-up device, it would be a surprise if it sounded like a passing boy racer's Vauxhall Nova - and sure enough, the sound the R1 Mk4 makes is every bit as considered and judicious as the cabinet from which it comes.

With the DAB tuner turning out Lana del Rey's Chemtrails Over the Country Club via BBC 6 Music, the Ruark's an impressively balanced listen. No area of the frequency range is given undue prominence or is understated - instead there's a nice smooth journey from the top to the bottom of the R1 Mk4's operating range. 

Pocket-lintRuark Audio R1 Mk4 review photo 1

It doesn't dig especially deep (Ruark claims a 55Hz extension, which seems just about credible), but bass sounds are nicely shaped and controlled, with a decent amount of detail and texture carried along with them.

At the opposite end, treble sounds are rolled off just a little - which, while not absolutely ideal, is probably sensible in the context of where the Ruark is likely to be positioned and the volumes it's likely to be asked to deal with. The last drop of high-end attack is a fair trade for a sound that doesn't harden or sharpen even if the cabinet is surrounded by (for instance) kitchen tiles.

In between, the midrange is communicative, detail-rich and articulate - so a singer is described deftly. Control across the whole frequency range is very acceptable so, despite the fact the Ruark doesn't generate all that expansive a soundstage, the presentation never sounds crowded or too badly confined.

Switching to the same song as a Tidal Masters file via Bluetooth takes a little of the shine off. The positivity of the midrange presentation, in particular, takes a step or two backwards, and the overall unity of the Ruark's sound becomes less apparent too.

Pocket-lintRuark Audio R1 Mk4 review photo 7

The real issue here, though - and it doesn't matter the source of the music you're listening to - is the R1 Mk4's reticence where dynamics and straightforward drive are concerned. Nine times out 10, a polite and unthreatening attitude is exactly what is called for, but on the rare occasions where it might be called on to kick out the jams.

With a listen to Death From Above 1979's Romantic Rights, for example - the Ruark doesn't really have what it takes. There's not a huge of dynamic headroom available here to put much distance between 'simmer' and 'boil', and the recording sounds (relatively speaking) neutered as a result. The bite and grind on which the tune thrives are understated and underplayed, and what is meant to sound snotty instead sounds smooth.

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Verdict

It may seem like a slightly eccentric product in this day and age, but there's a lot to be said for a proper, actual receiver if you're a radio listener - you only have to compare to the standard of the R1 Mk4's DAB performance to the same broadcasts delivered via the internet by a smart speaker to hear what we're getting at.

Add in some extremely pleasing looks and a high quality of finish, and the Ruark starts to make quite a lot of sense. Ultimately it depends on how much you're prepared to spend on all this good sense. It might not be cheap, but it's a little bit of luxury that will go a long way.

Also consider

RobertsAlternative photo 2

Roberts Stream 94i

A much more functional looker than the Ruark, but with Wi-Fi and Ethernet in addition to DAB and Bluetooth, a little more flexible. And a bigger, wider and more assertive sound, too, although it's not as eloquent.

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Writing by Simon Lucas. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 29 June 2021.