While plenty of digital media receivers can stream music from your PC's hard drive or the Internet through a wireless network connection, the Linksys WMLS11B is one of just a handful that includes its own pair of speakers. Its diminutive all-in-one design begs you to perch the unit bedside or take it to the backyard barbecue, but the absence of an alarm clock feature and the mandatory power cord put a damper on those applications. Regardless of its unfulfilled potential, the WMLS11B ($179 list) is a decent digital media receiver that's highlighted by compatibility with , an on-demand music streaming service. What's more, the WMLS11B can be connected directly to a home stereo system if the integrated speakers don't ring your bell. If you want a slicker-looking boombox with Wi-Fi capability, however, check out the .
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The WMSL11B's physical design is a mixed bag. The unit's svelte profile (16 inches wide by 3.4 deep by 8.5 inches high, including the speakers) makes it easy to set up in virtually any room of the house. The removable speakers can be set farther apart for better stereo imaging or detached altogether if you prefer to connect the WMLS11B directly to your existing audio system. But the unit's unusual dimensions mean it will occupy about as much vertical space in your home-theater rack as an A/V receiver, and you can't stack other gear on top of it.
Unlike some digital media receivers, the WMLS11B also has front-panel controls. A considerable drawback for track hoppers, the 3-inch, five-line backlit text display is difficult to read off-axis or from any distance greater than a few feet. Overall, the system's build feels somewhat flimsy and low budget. Although its design is uninspired, the remote gets the job done with a four-way keypad and page-up and page-down buttons that simplify the navigation of long track lists. While the WMLS11B doesn't offer extensive file format support, it covers all the bases you'd expect. The WMLS11B plays WAV files and home-ripped WMA and MP3 files, and it supports M3U playlists as well as other playlist formats that are supported by Musicmatch Jukebox. One catch: As reported in a CNET user review, the WMLS11B doesn't support playlists that are longer than 12 tracks; when the unit reaches the end of track 12 in a playlist, it restarts playback from the beginning of the playlist. Like all other network media devices to date, the WMLS11B can't handle secure WMA files, including those from online music stores such as Napster 2.0 and , and unlike Apple's own , it can't stream AAC files purchased from the .
Those limitations notwithstanding, the WMLS11B's support for Rhapsody's streaming-on-demand music service is a major plus, because you'll never get stuck repeatedly listening to the same old tunes. A Rhapsody subscription currently costs $9.95 a month or $24.95 a quarter after the free trial period; the monthly subscription fee provides unlimited streaming access to Rhapsody's tracks (approximately 725,000 are available) and Internet radio stations. As a bonus, the WMLS11B incorporates Vtuner technology, automatically providing access to more than 1,000 free Internet radio stations that can be navigated by useful categories such as Country and Favorites. You can manually add more Internet radio station URLs, as long as the stations are broadcast in MP3 format.
The WMLS11B uses 802.11b wireless networking rather than the faster 802.11g standard, but the bandwidth is adequate for this audio-only device. (It also features an Ethernet port for interfacing with wired networks.) To enable a flexible connection with a home stereo, the WMLS11B has both a stereo analog output and an optical digital output. But there's a catch: Rhapsody content plays only through the analog output, although PC-based tracks play through both outputs. Setting up the WMLS11B was fairly straightforward despite the absence of a printed user guide and a half-baked quick-start sheet. After installing the required Musicmatch Jukebox server and Rhapsody application, we configured the unit to work with our network, powered on, and began using the device. When we tired of the built-in speakers, we connected WMLS11B's to our A/V receiver.
The WMLS11B's integrated, one-way speakers pretty much sound like crap. Every style of music we played sounded stripped down and brash, and bass was virtually nonexistent. What's more, the integrated speakers couldn't play very loudly. When we connected the unit to our A/V receiver, the sound greatly improved. Although we could play only hard drive-based tracks through the digital output, they sounded great. Rhapsody content and other music was crisp and clear playing through the WMLS11B's analog outputs. In comparison to some digital media receivers, such as SMC's EZ-Stream, the WMLS11B's wireless reception was very stable, only rarely suffering playback dropouts. Furthermore, unlike some competitors, the WMLS11B was able to rapidly scroll through long track lists without any noticeable snags.
Poor-sounding speakers and unfulfilled potential notwithstanding, the WMLS11B is one of the more versatile digital media receivers we've tested, and it's reasonably priced. Although it's not our favorite digital media receiver, the WMLS11B can hold its own. Linksys says a speakerless version, the WML11B, will be released later this year.