Review: Roku SoundBridge Radio
At a Glance
Two types of audio products that have become popular over the past few years are wireless audio players and table radios. The former—such as Slim Devices’ Squeezebox 2 and 3 and Roku’s SoundBridge models—let you listen, wirelessly, to music stored on a computer or network drive or streamed via the Internet. The latter—which include products from such companies as Tivoli Audio, Cambridge SoundWorks, Boston Acoustics, and Bose —provide surprisingly good sound and radio reception in a small package; some include additional features such as CD playback, clocks, and multiple alarms.
Roku’s new $400 SoundBridge Radio () is the first product we’ve seen that combines these two product categories: The SoundBridge Radio puts the functionality of Roku’s SoundBridge players, along with an AM/FM radio and dual-alarm clock, into an 11" by 6" by 6.5" cabinet that includes left and right stereo speakers as well as a small lower-frequency speaker in the rear. The system is compact enough to fit on a desk, a kitchen counter, or even a nightstand, but gives you the functionality of a standalone wireless player combined with a separate speaker system.
Included with the SoundBridge radio is a wireless remote control, power cable, FM wire antenna, AM antenna, and AM antenna adapter (to be used with AM antennas that connect via two wires rather than the Radio’s 1/8" minijack).
Although you don’t need a wireless network to use the SoundBridge Radio—you can still listen to AM and FM radio and use its alarm clock—it doesn’t make much sense to spend $400 on the Radio unless you take advantage of its wireless playback features. And setting up the Radio for such use is fairly simple. When the system first starts up, you’re asked several questions, which you answer using the included wireless remote: language preference, time zone, and geographic region. The Radio then looks for open wireless networks. If it finds any, you’re asked which to use, and the Radio then automatically connects to it; if your network is closed, the Radio walks you through the connection process. The only two hiccups in the latter case are that the Radio doesn’t work with WPA-encrypted networks—only the less secure WEP—and that the Radio requires that you enter a 26-character hex password, rather than the simpler ASCII password used by many wireless routers. (Roku notes on the company’s Web site that WPA support will be added in a future update.)
Once you’ve connected to a wireless network, the Radio automatically sets its clock via the Internet and you gain full access to its streaming audio features. You can use the System Configuration menu, accessible via the Radio’s main onscreen menu, to change system settings—such as the wireless network and UPnP access—as well as to check wireless network status and settings, to reset or restart the Radio, and to check for software updates. (The Radio automatically checks for updates at period intervals; if it finds one, it asks if you’d like to install it.)
You can also use the Adjust Display (a.k.a., Bright) button on the remote to adjust the brightness of the display and the size of the onscreen font; the larger the font, the easier it is to read but the less information that can be displayed. For example, at the largest font size, the display can easily be read across a room, but only one menu item is displayed at a time; at the smallest size you can view four lines. Whichever font you choose, the Radio uses an easy-to-read, 280 by 32 pixel, monochrome, vacuum fluorescent display, similar to the one used by Slim Devices’ Squeezebox models. (The Radio has a built-in light sensor that automatically dims the display at night; you can also turn the display off completely.)
Another set of options—for display scrolling and information, the onscreen visualizer that kicks in when you’re not scrolling through menus, and a few others—is available via the Settings item in the main menu for each audio source. Finally, the Radio includes its own built-in Web server for configuration options that require text entry, more obscure options, and advanced settings. Windows users can access these Web pages via a short procedure explained in the Radio’s manual; Mac OS X users can access it directly from Safari’s Bonjour (nee, Rendezvous) bookmarks item.
Play that funky music, SoundBridge
Most of the SoundBridge Radio’s audio features are accessed using the system’s remote control. It has the expected volume buttons as well as playback controls for streaming audio: Play, Pause, Forward, Back, Shuffle, and Repeat. (Interestingly, when listening to AM, FM, or Internet radio, the pause button acts as Mute.) Menu navigation is performed using Left/Right/Up/Down buttons, a central Select (checkmark) button, and Home and Exit (return) buttons. Similar to an iPod, pressing the Select button chooses the current menu item. Pressing Exit generally moves you up one menu level. (Sometimes it doesn’t; for example if you’re at the top level of an iTunes Music Library—see below—and press the Exit button, you get an error that no songs are selected. Even more confusing, you’re told to “Press MENU to choose songs"—despite the fact that there is no MENU button.) The Home button takes you to the “home” menu of the current audio source, not the Radio’s main menu.
Besides the aforementioned System Configuration item, the main menu lists the Radio’s four audio sources: local music libraries (iTunes, Rhapsody, etc.), AM radio, FM radio, and Internet radio. Choosing a source takes you to that source’s own menu. However, as mentioned above, the remote’s Home button does not return you to this main menu; rather, it takes you to the top-level menu of the current source (iTunes, AM, FM, etc.). To get back to the main menu, you have to use the “Change Library or Configuration” item in the current source’s home menu, which means first pressing Home, then using the arrow buttons to navigate to “Change Library or Configuration,” then pressing Select. Similarly, once you’ve navigated to a sub-menu in a source’s menus, you can’t always press the Exit button to go back one level; sometimes you have to press Home and start over. I found these interface quirks to be both confusing and frustrating. I would have preferred an iPod-like design where you can always return to the top-level menu by repeatedly pressing the Menu (in this case, Exit) button. In fact, when it came to switching sources, I often found it easier to simply walk over to the Radio to press its Source button (which cycles through all audio sources).
To listen to standard radio, you choose Play AM Radio or Play FM Radio from the SoundBridge Radio’s main menu, which begins playback on the last station you were listening to—just like a standard AM/FM radio. However, there are a few things about the Radio’s radio that take some getting used to. The first is changing stations: Unlike most radios, which change the station as you browse, the Radio requires that you use the Up/Down arrow buttons to find the desired station and then, separately, select the station. You do this by pressing the Play button, which changes to the chosen station immediately; you can also press the Select button, but doing so gives you another menu that asks you to either “Tune to [frequency]” or “Get station info.” Not only does this approach require an extra menu selection (or two), but it also makes it difficult to browse stations—instead of just using the Up and Down buttons to channel surf, you have to press two or three buttons for each channel change. Luckily, you can use the forward/back playback buttons on the remote to skip between stations that are actually strong enough to provide a clear signal.
One other quirk with the Radio’s radio tuner is that radio stations are sorted in ascending order rather than descending. What this means is that to change from 102.1FM to 105.3FM, or from 680AM to 1160AM, you have to press the down button, not the Up button. No matter how many times I used the SoundBridge Radio, I couldn’t get used to this. (Over the course of my testing, I handed the remote to at least four other people and asked them to change the station; every person had the same reaction that I did.) Right or wrong, I think it’s fair to say that most people are used to pressing an “Up” button to move up the virtual radio dial and a “Down” button to switch to a lower frequency. (In fact, if you use the Up/Down buttons on the Radio itself, they work as you would expect.) Hopefully Roku will reverse the remote’s behavior in a future software update.
Interface issues aside, AM and FM reception is good. Using the included antennas, I was able to receive most local stations clearly with little static, although FM reception was better than AM. You can also set radio presets for your favorite stations, as described below. Overall, the SoundBridge Radio won’t beat out the best table radios I’ve tested—from Tivoli and Boston Acoustics—in terms of reception, and it doesn’t support RDS (Radio Data System) display, but it’s about what you’d expect as the radio component of a multi-function device like this.
Nothing but ’net
By choosing the Play Internet Radio item in the main menu, you can play streaming Internet radio stations through the SoundBridge Radio. The main menu for this source lists 18 presets by default; pressing the Home button lets you access the Browse menu, which includes a longer list of 50 or so pre-configured stations. You play a “station” just as you do AM and FM stations, but with Internet radio, information about the current track is displayed on the Radio’s screen (assuming the remote server includes such information in the stream). If you find a station worth saving, you can set it as one of the Radio’s 18 presets.
You can also add other streaming “stations” via the Radio’s Web interface. Unfortunately, you can’t such a station to the main Internet Radio listing; it can be saved only as one of your 18 presets.
Borrowing from the library
If you’re not a fan of radio, the SoundBridge Radio’s most attractive feature is likely its ability to play tracks from your computer over your wireless network. Unlike Slim Devices’ Squeezebox products, which require you to install the company’s SlimServer software, the Radio interfaces directly with the music software already on your computer. For example, if you use iTunes on your Mac or Windows PC, enabling iTunes Sharing will allow the SoundBridge Radio to access your shared iTunes Library just as if it was another computer running iTunes. The Radio also supports Windows Media Connect, Rhapsody, MusicMatch Jukebox 10, and Twonkyvision. (It also works with Roku’s own Roku Music Server and Slim Devices’ SlimServer.)
Another attractive feature of the Radio is that unlike some of the other network music players on the market, the SoundBridge Radio can play music tracks protected by a number of different DRM (digital rights management) technologies. For example, PlaysForSure, Rhapsody, and Windows Media Connect DRM are all supported by the Radio. Unfortunately, the most popular music service, iTunes, is not. (Apple has not licensed its FairPlay DRM to third-party vendors.)
To listen to your computer’s music via the Radio, you first launch a compatible music application (Roku calls them “servers”) on your computer. Depending on the application, you may have to configure it to allow the Radio access to your music library; for example, with Windows Media Connect, you need to select the SoundBridge Radio and click the Allow option. In Apple’s iTunes, you need to enable the option to “Share my music.” (Instructions for each application are included in the Radio’s manual.) Once you’ve performed the necessary step(s), your music library will automatically appear in the SoundBridge Radio’s main menu. If you have multiple computers, each sharing its music, each will appear in the Radio’s menu.
After choosing a music library from the source list, you can browse for the desired music. For example, when connected to an iTunes Library, you can choose a playlist or browse by artist, album, song, genre, or composer. If the music is being shared by iTunes or Windows Media Connect, you can also use the Search item to search by song title, album title, artist, composer, or keyword. (If a song appears in the Radio’s menus with a padlock icon next to it, that means the track is using a form of DRM unsupported by Roku, such as Apple’s FairPlay.) While browsing, the remote’s Up and Down buttons scroll up or down one line at a time; the left and right buttons skip forward or back by letters of the alphabet, a welcome touch that makes it much easier (and faster) to browse large music collections. The browse list also cycles around, so if you’re browsing songs that start with “A,” you can scroll backwards to more quickly get to the letter “W."
When you find a song, you can play it immediately by pressing the Play button on the remote. Alternatively, by pressing the Select button, you can get info on the track or add it to the song queue, which means it will play after the current song or, if you’ve already added a number of songs to the queue, be added to the end of the queue. You can also add a track or an entire album, artist, or genre to the song queue by navigating to it and pressing the Add (+) button on the remote. It can take some time to get familiar with the concept of the song queue to if you’re used to “permanent” playlists—for example, if you navigate to a track and begin playing it back immediately, the song queue is cleared, as the Radio assumes you want to start a new queue—but it’s a nice way to create an on-the-spot list of tracks to be played. You can view your current song queue at any time by pressing the Down button on the remote while the Radio is showing the current track. Unfortunately, the song queue is deleted when you turn the Radio off; it would be nice if the queue persisted across listening sessions.
Unfortunately, songs appear in, and can be selected from, the Radio’s menus even if the Radio is unable to play them. For example, songs encoded in Apple’s Apple Lossless format can be selected for playback when connected to an iTunes Library; however, attempting to play such a track results in an error that the “music format is not supported.” Unlike iTunes Music Store tracks, there’s no indication that you won’t be able to play such tracks; hopefully a future software update will either enable Apple Lossless playback or will prevent such tracks from appearing while browsing.
That aside, browsing and searching a music library worked very well. I occasionally saw an error that the Radio “failed to load browse data,” but a second attempt usually fixed it. Given that such occurrences were rare, I chalked them up to glitches on my wireless network.
The SoundBridge Radio actually supports one other type of music source: SD cards. An SD card slot on the right side of the Radio accepts any Windows-formatted SD card containing supported music files. The card will appear in the Radio’s source list; choosing it lets you browse and play the music contained on the card. As I didn’t have any SD cards, I wasn’t able to test this feature. However, Roku notes that one limitation of SD card playback is that DRM-protected files cannot be played from an SD card.
Time is on my side
As I mentioned earlier, the SoundBridge Radio’s clock updates itself automatically via Internet time servers. This is an especially handy feature considering the Radio’s dual alarms—you never have to worry about Daylight Saving Time or running late because your clock is off. To set an alarm, you press and hold the Alarm button on top of the Radio. You then use the Up/Down and Source buttons on the Radio to choose the alarm (1 or 2), time, audio, and maximum volume. (The alarm starts at a low volume and gradually increased to that maximum, a nice touch.) You can wake to any audio preset or to one of three different buzzers. You can view the status of each alarm at any time by pressing the Alarm button.
Wake-up time demonstrates one of my favorite features of the SoundBridge Radio: 30 seconds before an alarm is set to go off, a message appears on the Radio’s screen warning you of the impending alarm; the seconds are counted down on the display. Very cool if you’re already awake and forget that you’ve got the alarm set. And, of course, the Radio has a Snooze button. (Or should I say “bar"—it’s the largest button on the Radio, stretching nearly the entire length of the top edge.) This snoozes the alarm for 7 minutes.
My only real complaint about the Radio as an alarm clock is that its buttons are quite loud. Unlike my Boston Acoustics Recepter—the best alarm clock I’ve ever used—which uses soft rubber buttons to reduce noise when setting the alarm, the SoundBridge Radio’s buttons “clack” loudly when you press them. If you’re trying to set the alarm when your spouse or significant other is already asleep, this clatter won’t be welcome. (Trust me; I say this from experience.)
The SoundBridge Radio also has a few other handy features. I mentioned presets earlier: You can also save up to 18 presets—for any audio source—in three groups of 6 via the A-B-C and 1-6 buttons on the Radio itself; to set a preset, simply begin playback of a source and then hold down the appropriate button for several seconds. You can then quicly access that favorite playback source by pressing its playback button. A preset can be an AM or FM radio station, an Internet radio station, or a particular music file on your computer; the latter is useful mainly to wake up to a particular song via the Radio’s alarm. (If you try to save as a preset a source that cannot be used as a preset—for example, the top level of an iTunes Music Library—the Radio notifies you with a loud error sound and a message on the display.) Unfortunately, you can’t set or access presets via the remote.
I’ve mentioned the Radio’s own controls in various places throughout this review, but they warrant their own mention. The top of the Radio includes a Power/Volume knob; the A-B-C and 1-6 preset buttons; and Snooze, Source, Alarm, and Up/Down buttons. Although you can’t browse a music library without the remote, you can quickly switch between presets, browse Internet radio stations, and scan AM and FM frequencies for strong stations. In many ways, when listening to radio I found the Radio’s own controls to be easier to use than the remote.
The Radio also includes a 1/8” stereo headphone jack on the right side, just below the SD card slot. In another nice touch, although plugging headphones into the jack mutes the Radio’s speakers for music playback, the system’s alarm will still play through the speakers.
Two things I missed while testing the SoundBridge Radio were an auxiliary input—for example, to play your iPod through the Radio’s speakers—and a line-out jack. Roku’s documentation claims that the headphone jack can be used as a line-level out for connecting the Radio to a home stereo system, but I couldn’t find any information on how to set the jack to the appropriate level..
I should also point out that despite the issues noted above, it’s clear that a lot of thought was put into the SoundBridge Radio’s interface. For example, the first time you turn the Radio off, a note appears on the Radio’s screen explaining how to customize the Radio’s brightness and date/time display while in Standby Mode. Although this information is also in the manual, it’s handy that it shows up right before you enter Standby Mode for the first time. This sort of contextual help is found in numerous places in the Radio’s interface as you use it for the first time.
Given that the SoundBridge Radio squeezes three speakers into such a small enclosure, I was pleasantly surprised by its sound quality. The left and right speakers, each located in its own tuned acoustic enclosure on the front of the Radio, are powered by a 20-Watt digital amplifier. A “subwoofer"—I use the term loosely when talking about a speaker less than 3 inches in diameter—is located in a separate ported enclosure on the back of the Radio and is powered by a separate 30-Watt amplifier. Forget Roku’s ad copy, which claims “unsurpassed audio quality” and “unmatched acoustic performance” and touts the “extremely high-powered subwoofer"—talk about creating unreasonable expectations! What you do get is a table-radio-sized system that can fill a small room with enjoyable sound. Treble is detailed and crisp, and midrange is clear if slightly recessed; you also get enough upper bass to give the Radio a bit of “oomph.” On the other hand, bass response is understandably weak—you just can’t get true bass out of such a small speaker. (The SoundBridge offers no way to adjust treble and bass; however, you can improve bass response somewhat by positioning the back of the Radio near a wall.) You also don’t get much stereo separation or imaging—to be expected from a small system with the speakers so close together. Overall, although I prefer the sound quality of table radios from Tivoli and Boston Acoustics, the SoundBridge Radio sounds quite good for its size—and it offers many more options for music listening than those products.
Roku’s SoundBridge Radio is a unique product that combines the functionality of a wireless music player, the convenience of an AM/FM table radio, and the practicality of a well-designed alarm clock into a compact—and good sounding—package. It works as advertised and, even better, the more you use it, the more you want to use it. Although it isn’t cheap, when you consider that a good table radio is going to cost you $200 to $400 and most wireless audio players are $150 to $300, the SoundBridge Radio’s $400 price tag isn’t unreasonable. (If you don’t need the built-in speakers and AM/FM radio, Roku’s SoundBridge M1000 offers most of the rest of the Radio’s features—and a few unique ones—for half the price.)
My biggest complaints about the Radio are related to its interface. People looking for an all-in-one audio system (not to mention those looking for a “clock radio”) want simplicity, regardless of how many features the product has. With its current interface oddities, I wouldn’t feel completely comfortable recommending the SoundBridge Radio to my less tech-savvy friends and family; I’d be concerned that they’d quickly get frustrated trying to navigate the system’s menus. On the other hand, I personally enjoyed using the Radio once I got used to its interface; I’d have no problem suggesting it to my fellow techies as a great option for the bedroom, desk, or kitchen. If Roku can address some of these interface issues via a future software update, the SoundBridge Radio would be a product I could recommend for anyone.