Creative's Sound Blaster Wireless Music (listed at $250) is the first digital media receiver to offer music-file navigation via a remote control with a large LCD. The idea is that once you've configured the small, modem-size base unit to work with your Wi-Fi network, you'll be able to stream music over the system to any stereo or even a set of powered speakers (think party in your backyard). The remote features a 132x64-pixel, blue-backlit display, and since the control uses RF rather than infrared technology, you can hide the receiver and still command it.
So is this wireless music system all it's cracked up to be? Yes, especially if you're an MP3 aficionado with a large and well-organized digital-music collection. Setup is fairly easy: you install some software on your central computer, hook it up to the Sound Blaster with the included USB cable, follow the wizard's instructions, disconnect the machines, and attach the receiver to a stereo or powered speakers. Once you've imported your MP3 and nonsecure WMA files into Creative's music-management program, you're ready to stream. Your network can also include multiple receivers with their own names so that you can place units in different rooms.
The product ships with a robust software suite that includes Wireless Music Media Server; Wireless Music Console; Wireless Music Network Setup; and Creative MediaSource, which should be familiar to owners of Creative's Nomad portable players. But if there's a knock on the system, it's that it makes you deal with too many programs; one well-integrated application would be preferable. Digital-music veterans won't have too much trouble sorting through all the features and figuring out how to best set up their music collection, playlists, and smart playlists, but less-savvy users might initially be intimidated.
Having accurate and complete ID3 tags is critical. When those audio-file attributes are correct, remote-based navigation and playback are really flexible. It's easy to search for and play albums, tracks from a particular artist, and genres (disco or techno, for example). You can also create playlists, and the system automatically generates smart playlists based on songs' playback frequency, import dates, ratings, and various other criteria that you specify. For instance, you can pick out the music you added in the past month.
All in all, we were impressed with Creative's first foray into the wireless-music arena. We hooked up the Sound Blaster to a Denon receiver via the optical output (the only provided cable is analog). The sound was rich and vibrant for MP3, and when we changed tracks or launched new playlists, the lag time between our button-presses and music playback was minimal.
At a list price of $250, the system isn't cheap, especially when you compare it with competitors, such as the Prismiq, that also stream images and video. But an RF remote with a built-in LCD offers a lot of flexibility, making the Sound Blaster an attractive solution for those who want to access and listen to their PC-based music collections in multiple rooms and beside the backyard pool.