Dueling Music Boxes

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This week I've been playing with three new products designed to bring your digital music library into your home stereo system.

In this corner is Apple's AirPort Express, which lets you pipe iTunes into your stereo.

In another corner are two standalone players, the updated, graphical Squeezebox from Slim Devices, and the new SoundBridge from Roku Labs.

I've still got a lot of work to do before I can decide what I think of the Soundbridge and how it compares to the Squeezebox. And I've still got digest just what I think of Squeezebox's new graphical display.

But an e-mail interaction today made me ponder the AirPort Express's place in the world. A friend of mine had his old base station die, and was considering what products to buy in order to extend his wireless network and extend his music collection into his living room, which is downstairs from the offices where he and his wife work.

I told him he could indeed use the AirPort Express, but I also felt I needed to point out AirPort Express's most notable flaw: its reliance on a Mac running iTunes. If my pal Aaron wanted to listen to music downstairs, he'd either have to tote a PowerBook along with him or set his music going upstairs and run downstairs to listen -- not to mention running back upstairs everytime he wanted to change playlists or skip a particularly unpleasant song.

In contrast, devices like the Squeezebox and SoundBridge seamlessly interface with iTunes, but come with bright displays of their own, not to mention handy remote-controls that let you navigate through your library, pick and build playlists, and pause and skip tracks at will -- even if no computer is nearby.

I'm not saying that AirPort Express isn't a cool idea, and won't be perfect for people for whom the lack of a remote-control interface isn't a problem. (If your iTunes Mac is within Bluetooth range and you've got a Bluetooth device, Salling Clicker is a great workaround.) I'm just saying that for people who don't want to be tethered to a computer in order to listen to their music collection, products like Squeezebox and SoundBridge make a lot more sense.

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