Music Streamers Compared

Once you’ve transferred your music collection onto a computer or an iPod, and gotten used to the freedom of having your entire music library at your fingertips, it’s hard to go back to using your stereo’s primitive CD changer. CDs don’t afford you the luxuries of an MP3 library — for example, shuffling through an artist or a genre. Music streamers such as Slim Devices’ Squeezebox and Roku Labs’ SoundBridge bridge the gap between your hard drive and your stereo, giving you control over your music from a remote-driven stereo component.

Squeezebox

Like its predecessor, the excellent SliMP3, the Squeezebox ($199; $279 with built-in wireless networking) has no moving parts or hard drive. Instead, you run the free Slim Server software on the computer that holds your music collection — Mac, Windows, or Linux. If you’re running iTunes, the software automatically links to your iTunes library and playlists. With its bright fluorescent display and infrared remote, the Squeezebox fits right in as a home stereo component, letting you navigate its iPod-style interface by remote control. (You can also control the Squeezebox via a Web browser.) The device’s standard display size is a bit too small, but its double-size mode works fine when you’re all the way across the room.

The Squeezebox will please casual users and audiophiles. Its built-in support for 802.11b wireless networking is great for people who don’t have Ethernet jacks behind their stereos. Slim Devices also sells the $249 Squeezebox Wired, which offers only Ethernet connectivity. Connecting to my home network was easy.

The Squeezebox comes with many audio-out options, from the standard RCA stereo plugs to coaxial and optical digital outputs. It even includes a minijack for headphones or powered speakers. (Unfortunately, we found that the beginnings of some audio tracks were cut off when we connected the Squeezebox optically. Slim Devices says it’s working on a fix.) Audiophiles will thrill at the Squeezebox’s support for raw uncompressed audio, which means it can play back AIFF or WAV files natively, without any compression artifacts. Slim Server can also convert other formats, including AAC and the lossless FLAC, for playback on the Squeezebox, and will play Internet radio streams in MP3 format. However, like all music streamers save Apple’s display-less, remote-less AirPort Express, the Squeezebox can’t play encrypted files from the iTunes Music Store, and you have to edit a text file hidden deep within Slim Server’s package if you want to change its format-conversion preferences (another issue Slim Devices says it will address in a future release).

When Roku Labs originally announced the SoundBridge in January, it had one feature that Squeezebox couldn’t match: a 280-by-16 pixel dot-matrix screen. Hampered by an old-style character-based screen, Squeezebox couldn’t display graphical visualizers, offer multiple fonts, or generate truly readable large-size type. But Slim Devices recently updated the Squeezebox with a 280-by-16 pixel dot-matrix display. Thanks to the new display, Squeezebox’s display is much easier to read than either its previous iteration or the SoundBridge. And a variety of add-on typefaces have already appeared for use with the graphics-enabled Squeezebox. (Owners of the character-based Squeezebox can swap their old display for a new one for $69.)

Then there’s the Squeezebox’s shiny color palette — silver, blue, purple, and orange, in addition to basic black — which provide several fun choices for the style-conscious.

SoundBridge

Unlike the Squeezebox, which interfaces with iTunes via an additional piece of software, SoundBridge connects directly to iTunes via iTunes’ Sharing feature. You can play music from any Mac or PC on your local network that’s got Share My Music selected in iTunes’ Sharing preferences. (The newly released SoundBridge 2.0 software adds support for Windows Media Player 10, MusicMatch Jukebox 9.0, and WinAmp as well, if you're not an iTunes user.)

The SoundBridge comes in two different variations: the $500 M2000 is 17 inches wide and features a 512-by-32 pixel dot-matrix display; the $200 ($250 with included Wi-Fi card) M1000 is 10 inches wide and has a 280-by-16 pixel dot-matrix display. The dot-matrix screen makes it possible for SoundBridge to display visualizers, such as a waveform, while it’s playing music.

Both SoundBridges have the same interesting design — they’re anodized silver metallic tubes with black plastic endcaps. You pop off the right endcap to attach the SoundBridge’s power cord and attach audio cables of the RCA, coaxial, or optical variety. Behind the left endcap you’ll find networking options: an Ethernet port and a Compact Flash slot for a wireless networking card.

The placement of all the ports beneath plastic endcaps makes it somewhat inconvenient to attach or detach cable, but once you plug everything in and put on the endcaps, the SoundBridge has an undeniably clean design. (To keep it from rolling away, Roku Labs provides a small rubber stand; for $30 the company sells a wall-mounting kit.) SoundBridge’s display is fairly easy to read from close up, although it’s hard to read the text on the small model from a distance. For twice the price, the M2000’s display can’t quite be spied from aboard the International Space Station, but it’s certainly readable from across a room.

SoundBridge plays several music formats natively: MP3, unprotected AAC, protected and unprotected WMA (when interfacing with Windows Media Player 10), and uncompressed AIFF and WAV. (iTunes Music Store Files won’t play on SoundBridge, just as they won’t play on any hardware device other than the iPod and AirPort Express.)

SoundBridge also supports the file formats supported by the Squeezebox, but only connecting to a computer running Slim Devices’ own Slim Server. Once SoundBridge connects to Slim Server, its menu system changes to match that found on the Squeezebox and SliMP3, which is quite a bit different from SoundBridge’s native menus.

By connecting to the robust and mature Slim Server, SoundBridge can take advantage of features that Roku engineers haven’t managed to write into SoundBridge’s own software yet, including support for file formats such as FLAC, Apple Lossless, Ogg Vorbis, and WMA. (Slim Server does this by converting those other formats on the fly into MP3 format.) Slim Server also provides several other good features you can’t get in native SoundBridge mode, including a Web-browser interface for controlling the player, a clock that displays when the player is turned off, and support for browsing for Internet radio streams.

The Lowdown

If you want to listen to your digital music in a computer-free location, you should seriously consider a networked music player. Both Squeezebox and SoundBridge are good device for anyone who wants a seamless stereo-component experience from an iTunes music collection. Their support for wireless networking reduces a major hurdle in bringing MP3s to the living room, and their digital outputs and ability to play uncompressed audio make them must-have products for audiophiles.

So which music player is better? In a squeaker, I prefer the Squeezebox, which has much more robust software and more file-format options, as well as new fashion colors. If you're a user of protected WMA files, though, SoundBridge is the answer. If you're an iTunes user, the SoundBridge isn't quite as compelling, but it does feature impossible-to-screw-up iTunes support and that distinctive metallic-tube design. Still can’t decide? Both companies offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try them both out if you don’t mind paying some extra shipping charges.

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