For over 14 years the Ruark R1 has been one of the most prestigious and desirable DAB radios. The simple bookshelf design was elegant and practical. The controls were stripped back, but easy to use. Most importantly, the sound was excellent: refined, full bodied, open and packed with detail. The R1 has always been understated but a class act through and through.
And now it’s back with a new look, some new technology, a new linear amplifier and Ruark’s latest NS+ driver powering the sound. The new R1 Mk4 is the most radical update the R1 has ever had, but I think it will please both Ruark’s existing fans and quite possibly make a few new ones.
Ruark R1 Mk4 review: What do you get for the money?
Ruark has never battled it out at the low end of the audio market, and the R1 Mk4 is, like its predecessors, an expensive radio. Its price of £229 would nearly get you two of Pure’s equivalent Evoke H3 radios or one of Roberts’ all-singing, all-dancing streaming Revivals, with a bit of cash to spare.
The Ruark R1 Mk4 isn’t all-signing or all-dancing. It’s a straight up DAB/DAB+/FM radio and the only mod cons are support for Bluetooth connectivity and a USB Type-C connection at the back. The display is now a large, 2.5in OLED affair but don’t expect any fancy graphics. It’s simple monochrome text all the way. The design, meanwhile, shows a new Scandinavian influence, with the front panel dominated by a wooden grill and a choice of cream (off-white) or espresso (dark brown) finishes to set the whole thing off. The cream version I’ve been testing seems to look a little lovelier every day.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Ruark’s RotoDial control, with a single central control dial surrounded by a further eight keys. The dial handles volume by default, but press the menu key and it rotates through the options, with a down-click to select. The other keys handle flicking between stations, setting and selecting presets, setting the alarm and switching between DAB, FM, Bluetooth, USB and Aux-in sources.
The R1 Mk4 will run from mains or batteries but requires the optional Backpack MkII battery, which costs £60 and lasts for up to twelve hours.
Ruark R1 Mk4 review: What features does it have?
Obviously, DAB and DAB+ radio is the Ruark R1 Mk4’s focus, and it does a speedy and efficient job of hunting down channels when you first set it up. You can save up to ten of your favourite channels as presets, and the radio is fast to retune whether you select channels from the channel list or hop up and down through your presets.
Bluetooth pairing is just as easy, connecting with a Samsung Galaxy A71 within a few seconds and streaming music flawlessly. You can also connect external devices through the 3.5mm jack or a USB memory stick through the USB-C port.
It has to be said, though, that the experience with the USB port isn’t great. First, you need a USB-C stick or an adapter, which needs to be formatted as a FAT-32 drive and even then, files and folders need to be structured as the system expects; simply dropping album folders in the root folder left us with a jumbled mess of individual tracks that was almost impossible to navigate.Still, does anyone still stream music from a USB drive these days?
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Ruark R1 Mk4 review: How does it sound?
Previous Ruark R1s have sounded impressive and the R1 Mk4 continues that trend. Its biggest strength is its versatility. Stick to pop on Radio One, Heart or Capital and the sound is crisp, warm and punchy, with plenty of detail at the high end and enough low-end welly to make the beats sound huge. Switch to jazz and there’s space and body, with an impressively juicy pluck to double bass notes and a pleasing richness to saxophones and trumpets.
Some small radios struggle with classical music but the R1 has the detail to keep instruments distinct and the dynamics to cope with the quiet bits and the loud bits, even handling tricky transients well. And if you’re glued to Radio Four, there’s plenty of authority and presence in the voices. It’s no party boombox but it does go pretty loud for such a small thing.
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Ruark R1 Mk4 review: What could be improved?
For some reason, great sounding radios don’t usually work quite so well as Bluetooth speakers. While it comes close, the R1 Mk4 doesn’t quite buck the trend. Maybe it’s the way the amplifier and cabinet are tuned, maybe it’s the compression in the Bluetooth signal, but UltraHD music streamed from Amazon Prime Music through to the Mk4 sounds fantastically clear and detailed but doesn’t quite have the same energy or weight that comes through when you’re listening to DAB+.
It’s a clearer and more open sound than you’d get from, say, an Ultimate Ears Boom, and it works for some genres pretty well. A quick blast through Charles Mingus’s “Mingus Ah Um” showed some finesse when dealing with the brass and double bass, while folk and country also seem to work well. Yet, feed the Ruark some dance or heavier rock and there’s not quite the impact that you’d want. It’s fine for casual listening but don’t expect the R1 Mk4 to be the only speaker you’ll ever need.
Ruark R1 Mk4 review: Should I buy it?
If you’re serious about radio, then yes. It may be a big investment but the Ruark justifies it because it looks and sounds so good. In direct comparisons it outperforms established favourites, like the Roberts Revival iStream 3, and delivers a much wider and more dynamic sound than you’ve any right to expect from a compact bookshelf radio. It’s a luxury, but you get exactly what you pay for.