By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, August 6, 2006
The Internet can bring a radio signal or a recording from the other end of the country to your house, but getting that music from your computer to your stereo can take a little more work.
Computers are a natural at downloading music off the Internet, but most have terrible speakers and don't even occupy the living room in the first place. Stereo systems provide all the volume and sonic fidelity you'd need, but they don't connect to the Internet.
Several years ago, computing vendors started selling a new type of gadget, the wireless media receiver, to fix this problem. It plugged into your stereo but connected to your computer via a wireless network to allow playback of your Web radio feeds and music files: no need to string audio cables from laptop to stereo, or burn audio CDs of each new set of MP3s.
Unfortunately, most of these things did little to smooth over the hassles of home networking and file-sharing.
Now, though, enough time has passed to see the worst contenders swept out of the market, while the survivors have managed to craft some attractive, useful devices. The only thing that's holding them back now may be the online music services that help make their existence necessary in the first place: Each of three receivers I tested from Roku, SlimDevices and Sonos did fine with Web radio and MP3s, but balked at downloads from one or more of the big online stores.
Roku's SoundBridge M1001, at $200 ( http://www.rokulabs.com/ ), was the cheapest of the bunch. This slim cylinder connected to a wireless network with minimal fuss -- once I'd entered the network password by selecting its 26 characters, one at a time, with the remote control's buttons. (Roku supports WEP passwords, not the newer, more secure WPA encryption.)
Unlike the SlimDevices and Sonos hardware, the SoundBridge doesn't need any special software. If you use iTunes, turning on that Apple program's music-sharing option makes your music library available to the receiver; if you use Windows Media Player, Microsoft's free Windows Media Connect software does the same.
You can browse your computer's music by the usual categories of artist, album, song and composer, cue up a set of songs and then shuffle their playback. The SoundBridge's two-line, fairly low-resolution LED display, however, can be hard to read from the couch.
The SoundBridge played standard-issue MP3 and Windows Media Audio files as well as WMA files bought off the MSN Music store and songs rented from the Rhapsody music service. But it couldn't do anything with songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store -- and instead of skipping to the next track, the SoundBridge halted playback until I responded to this error message with a tap of the remote: "Can't play protected content. [OK]" No, it's not OK!
The blame for that incompatibility falls on Apple, which won't license its FairPlay copy-control system to Roku or other wireless-receiver vendors, even though Apple doesn't sell a true wireless media receiver of its own. (Apple's AirPort Express can play iTunes purchases but lacks a remote control and display.)
SlimDevices' Squeezebox v3, at $299 ( http://www.slimdevices.com/ ), had the same trouble with iTunes downloads but also couldn't play WMA purchases -- the firm says it hasn't seen enough demand for that option to justify the cost of adding it. Entering a wireless password wasn't much more fun with this trim, rectangular device (though it accepts both WPA and WEP encryption), and then I had to install extra software.
And yet the Squeezebox might be the best receiver of them all, considering the creative features it bundles.
It helps that its open-source SlimServer software, available for Windows 2000 and XP, Mac OS X 10.3 and 10.4 and Linux, takes seconds to install and then stays out of your way. It will re-create an iTunes or Windows Media Player library on the Squeezebox, including all your custom playlists and Web radio presets, and can play Rhapsody streams too (though I couldn't get that feature to work).
But the Squeezebox can also connect to SlimDevices' SqueezeNetwork, a free Internet service that features a goody bag of extras. You can play an archive of concert recordings, tune into a customizable set of Web-radio broadcasts, relax to a "Natural Sounds" collection of soothing sonic backdrops (surf, rivers, rain and so on) and subscribe to RSS Web-site feeds (though you see only the briefest summary of them on the Squeezebox's display). And you can get a 90-day free trial of the fascinating Pandora music-recommendation service, which plays music similar to the work of the artist of your choice.
The Squeezebox's display, larger and more legible than Roku's, taxes your eyes less. Its remote, however, needs work; I had to look in the manual to figure out that I had to hold down the left-arrow button for a few seconds to point the SoundBridge to a new music server.
The Sonos ZonePlayer system ( http://www.sonos.com/ ) provides the same basic service as the SoundBridge and Squeezebox, but it's aimed at people in a higher tax bracket -- the entry-level Sonos bundle costs $999. If you need to broadcast different feeds of your computer's music to separate locations around your house, Sonos can do the job quite nicely. But if you just want to hear your computer's music in the living room, this constitutes massive overkill.
That $999 bundle includes two ZonePlayer 80 receivers, $349 sold separately, and a handheld controller, $399 by itself. Because this hardware sets up its own wireless system instead of piggybacking on your WiFi signal, the first ZP80 needs a wired Ethernet connection to either your network's router or the PC or Mac holding your music (running Win 2000 or XP, or Mac OS X 10.3 or 10.4).
Sonos offers about the same compatibility with online music stores as SlimDevices; its clean, simple server software supports Rhapsody streams (with this system, they played on the first try) but not iTunes or WMA purchases.
The Sonos controller provides a much better view of your music -- album art included -- thanks to its color LCD, but it was also a little sluggish to operate. And it drained its rechargeable battery at a frightening rate; a day of moderate use left it with only half a charge.
All these devices have one strange thing in common: They're most practical if you avoid buying music online, instead copying it off your CDs -- or those of friends -- or grabbing it off file-sharing services. Is that really what the online-music industry wants people to do?
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro firstname.lastname@example.org.