Philips Streamium MC-i250
Back in 2002, Philips launched the first microsystem capable of streaming audio files from networked PCs and the Internet. An innovative, well-implemented feature set and surprisingly good sound earned the high marks even though it was tethered to an Ethernet cable. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Philips is back with the Streamium MC-i250, an updated microsystem that offers the superior convenience of wireless-network connectivity along with many of the same features that made the MC-i200 a success. The digital media receiver category is much more competitive today, but the MC-i250 ($329) fares well under scrutiny despite not supporting WMA files or a mainstream on-demand music service such as Rhapsody. Highlights include MP3 CD playback, automatic CDDB lookup for audio CDs, an AM/FM tuner, and compatibility with a hearty selection of Internet radio services. Featuring an attractive, iPod-like, white-plastic front panel along with a gray top and sides, the main unit of the Philips Streamium MC-i250 is complemented by two matching speakers with shiny silver drivers. The speaker cables are hardwired to the speakers, but each has one bare wire end that connects to spring clips located on the main unit. The six-foot-long speaker cables provide some, albeit limited, setup flexibility. The entire system is approximately 10 inches tall and 21 inches wide. One caveat: because the main unit is 14 inches deep, it may not fit on your bookshelf.
The MC-i250 has a full complement of front-panel controls and a six-line front-panel text display that's readable from up to approximately six feet away as long as you're not off-axis or in a room with bright sunlight. The respectable, midsize remote control has a four-way keypad that facilitates straightforward navigation of menus and tracks, but it lacks Page Up and Page Down keys. As a result, the only way to skip around in track lists is by using the alphanumeric keys, which are less convenient in some situations.
As far as microsystems go, the MC-i250 boasts an impressive assortment of drivers. Each speaker has a 5.25-inch aluminum-cone midbass driver, a 1-inch cone tweeter, and a 5-inch top-firing woofer with a slapstick name: wOOx. Philips rates the system power at a respectable 50 watts per channel. Individual treble, bass, and wOOX controls allow customizing the sound to your favorite musical styles.
Unfortunately, the MC-i250 doesn't have any digital audio jacks. It does include a stereo analog input and output, as well as an output for connecting an optional subwoofer.The Philips Streamium MC-i250's file-format support is quite limited. Although the unit plays MP3 and MP3Pro files, it doesn't support WMA files. Like many digital media receivers, it doesn't support rights-managed (DRM) files, such as the AAC files you'd purchase from the Apple iTunes Music Store. The AM/FM tuner automatically programs its 40 presets. The built-in CD player handles both audio and MP3 CDs. Unlike Philips's far pricier Streamium MX6000i HTIB, this unit uses Gracenote's Internet database to retrieve and display album information, such as track titles, when playing an audio CD. To play PC-based audio files over the MC-i250, the PC where the files are stored must be on the same network as the receiver and be running the Philips Media Manager application.
The MC-i250 supports a wide array of free and fee-based Web music services, which you configure at the myphilips.com portal. Selections include the Andante on-demand classical music service, Playhouse Radio (for children), RadioFreeVirgin, Launchcast@Yahoo, Live365, and Musicmatch. Only Andante requires a subscription ($10 per month), whereas optional Musicmatch and Live365 subscriptions provide access to perks such as a larger choice of stations. Users can play individual, nonaffiliated Internet radio stations by plugging specific URLs into their MyPhilips.com account.
The Andante service and its sound quality are good, but because the catalog is limited to classical music, I found myself wishing the MC-i250 also supported Rhapsody, a mainstream on-demand subscription music service. The Linksys ($179 list) is the only competitor with integrated speakers that supports Rhapsody, but that model is generally inferior to the MC-i250.