Linksys by Cisco Conductor (DMC350) Music Streamer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009; 12:19 AM
The $700 (as of 8/27/09) Linksys by Cisco Conductor (DMC350) is the flagship product in Cisco's awkwardly branded suite of networked audio devices. But if you expect the Conductor to use your Wi-Fi network to control and deliver radio-quality audio streams throughout your home, you could well find the device disappointing--as I did in my tests.
All components of the Linksys by Cisco wireless digital audio suite allow you to choose your audio sources and where to play the files, either via the free bundled Cisco Media Player PC software, through an infrared remote provided with each device, or on an optional ($350) Wi-Fi touchscreen remote device called the Controller; on the Conductor, you can also select music by tapping the unit's 7-inch touchscreen display. But Linksys's system is no Sonos killer--in no small part because the Linksys depends on Wi-Fi, which is subject to interference. The pricier Sonos uses its own wireless technology, making it less susceptible to such problems.
The Conductor is a stand-alone device with its own amp and speakers (other devices in the line, namely the Director and the Player, require connections to powered speakers or amps), so you can place it anywhere in your home within wireless range of your network (or on a hard-wired ethernet connection). It even has its own CD player.
The unit is large for a home entertainment center--measuring a little over a foot tall, a bit under a foot wide, and 8.2 inches deep--and it weighs about 8.5 pounds. The 800-by-600-pixel touchscreen is easily visible from several feet away (and eminently usable with the provided remote). Though the speakers won't satisfy the most discriminating audiophile, they produce good, pleasing sound for casual listening. You can even play your iPod music through the Conductor by using an optional $80 dock.
Unfortunately, I ran into a few problems. The detailed quick-start guide provided clear instructions for configuring the Conductor for wireless use (during setup you attach it to an available ethernet port on your router); but after the setup software advised me that I'd successfully input my network's settings, the program failed to detect the device when I removed the cable (even though it showed up as a networked device in Windows Vista). A tech support representative said that Cisco was planning on moving to different setup software, and in fact the device did appear in the Cisco Media Player software on my PC following setup.
However, while at various times I was able to listen to Rhapsody, Internet radio, and local content on the Conductor, I wasn't always able to get the device to play what I wanted through the Cisco Media Player software or the Controller remote. In the former, sometimes the device didn't show up at all, and when it did appear in the interface, often it did not respond to my commands, failing to stop playing a tune or to switch to different content. Several times the device simply stopped in the middle of a playlist. I had better luck controlling the Conductor with its infrared remote, but of course that requires line-of-sight proximity, which isn't always feasible.
I suspect that the control and audio-quality problems I experienced stem at least in part from issues with the Wi-Fi network in my densely populated downtown San Francisco neighborhood, even though I set it up to use the 5GHz variety of draft-2 802.11n (the device supports all popular Wi-Fi standards), which is supposed to be less prone to the channel overcrowding that plagues 2.4GHz draft-n networks. Reinforcing that conclusion: When I connected the Conductor to my network with a wired HomePlug AV ethernet adapter, performance improved (though it still wasn't flawless).
I love the idea of playing music stored on my PC or on Internet services anywhere in my home. But given the Conductor's high price, I expected terrific performance, and the Conductor was unable to deliver it. Cisco may not be to blame for network issues (especially when you're getting music from the Internet), but until someone comes up with a better way of dealing with those problems, I wouldn't recommend paying this much money to put up with them.