After extensive comparisons of the surprisingly small number of inexpensive, quality options for listening to my digitized music on my hi-fi audio system, I went with Roku’s very reasonably-priced SoundBridge M1001 network music player. The latest SoundBridge model uses wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi (including WEP or WPA security) to stream music from my hard drive to my stereo. While my stereo set-up is far from audiophile, it still sounds a lot better than my laptop or plug-in speakers.
Following months of ripping the thousands of CDs in my collection, I now have more gigabytes of music on my laptop than even the largest iPod can hold, so plugging an mp3 player into my stereo wasn’t an option. I also find it too much trouble to tote the computer from my desk to the other room where my stereo sits to connect it with an audio cable. Plus, then I can’t use the computer while it sits tethered up on the shelf next to the receiver.
As a universal jukebox, the SoundBridge gives me convenient access to all my digitized music. It also offers built in search for the countless Internet radio stations out there, which expands my music choices nearly infinitely. The device itself is small and very attractive, and installation was mostly easy. SoundBridge found my home wireless network and connected instantly as soon as I entered the password. The manual is clearly written, and I was able to learn the device’s menus and functions pretty quickly. I refuse to use iTunes because it is a system hog on my Windows machine. I rely on WinAmp instead, but the Firefly Media Server (offered by Roku as a free download) works fine, as will the media server built into Windows Media Player. Both server options (and the others detailed on Roku’s site) quickly read the tags on my audio files and provide a seamless browsing and searching opportunity, with support for all the playlists I have created, too. Just to be clear, the SoundBridge does NOT connect to a computer’s soundcard, so it can’t be used to stream the sound from a DVD being played, for example.
All of the set-up and navigation is done with a small infrared remote control that comes with the SoundBridge device. While shaped nicely for my hand, the remote is actually the least impressive element of the system. I find it a bit flimsy and the squishy buttons give little tactile (or aural) feedback, so I may eventually replace it with a universal remote. That said, I am immensely happy with the system, and I’m free to listen to music but still use my laptop wherever and whenever I want.
[As of March 2010 the Roku SoundBridge is no longer available. If you can recommend a similar product, please do so in the comments or through our submit form.--es]