At first glance, the Linksys WMB54G Wireless-G Music Bridge ($100 list, less online) is just another network digital audio receiver. With it, you can hear your MP3s through the big speakers of your home stereo system by streaming the music files from your PC via your wired or wireless home network. But what's the attraction of the Linksys box, which lacks a front-panel display or a remote control, when other network audio devices offer those important interactive features? Simply put, the Wireless-G Music Bridge is one of only a handful of network media devices that's immune to copy-protection or DRM (digital rights management) issues. As a result, it can stream any digital audio that you can play on your PC--including songs purchased from iTunes.
Measuring just 1 by 5.63 by 3.75 inches, the tiny Linksys Wireless-G Music Bridge will reside unobtrusively just about anywhere. In addition to a single Ethernet port, its back panel is crowded with audio jacks; the two stereo analog outputs (red-and-white RCA and a stereo minijack) and the two digital outs (one optical, one coaxial) mean that the Music Bridge can connect to any audio device that includes a line-in port. That includes a wide variety of boomboxes, tabletop radios, or anything with an Aux jack, as well as virtually every stereo, A/V receiver, and home-theater-in-a-box system. Though the Music Bridge pulls in the audio playing on your PC, the computer can be on the other side of the house so long as the Music Bridge is connected to your wired Ethernet or wireless network. The Music Bridge uses the 802.11g Wi-Fi spec, but it's fully backward compatible with older 802.11b wireless networks.
Before you hook up the Linksys WMB54G Music Bridge to your stereo, you need to install the accompanying software on your PC (sorry, Mac users--it's Windows only) and program the Music Bridge to "see" the PC that acts as an audio server. That process requires the Music Bridge to be connected to your home network via an included Ethernet cable. While the software has all the trappings of a user-friendly wizard interface, the automatic settings didn't work for us, and we had to opt for the expert mode. One reason for our frustrating setup experience was that the Ethernet and Wireless lights on the front of the Music Bridge indicate only whether the device is connected to the network, not whether it's actually connected to the server (your PC)--a more important question. Computer geeks and experienced do-it-yourselfers can probably navigate the workarounds, but the setup process will almost certainly involve some tech-support calls for those who aren't familiar with networking lingo such as DHCP settings and the like. Thankfully, the Linksys Music Bridge is compatible with WPA and WEP encryption and lets you enter your passcode during the setup process, so you won't have to downgrade your home network's security just to listen to your music.
Thanks to the vagaries of the setup process, it took us several tries to get the Music Bridge programmed to properly interface with our wireless network. Once we got it working, we moved it from the PC and connected it to our kitchen minisystem, not far from the wireless network access point. We were immediately rewarded with the sound of the same Internet radio station that we'd been running on the PC--even though the computer was two rooms away. We toggled through a variety of music sources, including several that hadn't worked with previous digital audio receivers because of DRM restrictions and other proprietary voodoo. Purchased iTunes songs, personalized online radio services (Pandora and Last.fm, for example), Web streams of Sirius and XM Satellite Radio stations, and even DVD soundtracks all worked perfectly. Over the course of hours-long listening sessions, the Music Bridge maintained a solid wireless connection that was free of all but the most occasional dropouts. And just as important, it was able to reconnect instantly to the wireless network after being powered off (unplugged) for a couple of days.
As good as its performance is, the Linksys Wireless Music Bridge has some notable limitations. It's completely enslaved to your PC: your computer needs to run the control application, which basically enables the Music Bridge to act as a remote sound card. You'll be able to hear whatever audio is playing on your PC, but you'll need to be physically at your PC to have any control over what you're listening to--which is a problem if the Music Bridge is on a different floor or in a different room. As such, you'll probably want to give your favorite music program a long playlist or opt for a real-time online stream that requires little user intervention. Also, keep in mind that the Music Bridge is just passing along the PC's audio, so if someone sits down and boots up Battlefield 2, your tranquil classical music interlude will be immediately transformed into a virtual war zone. Similarly, it's worth noting that the Music Bridge software requires you to hear the PC audio through either the local attached speakers or the remote Music Bridge--you can't listen to both simultaneously, and the software often had trouble toggling from one to the other.
In terms of DRM-free music-streaming solutions, the only real competition for the Linksys is the . That rig offers a much easier setup process and a small remote that can pause and skip certain audio applications running on the PC, but it's more expensive. Alternately, our favorite wireless network audio receiver, the , includes a front-panel display and a remote control, but it costs twice as much and lacks the universal compatibility of the Linksys. In the final analysis, it comes down to what you're going to listen to. For those who have a favorite music service or Web radio station that's broadcast in an obscure or proprietary format, the Linksys WMB54G Wireless Music Bridge is a worthwhile option--only the dodgy setup software keeps us from giving it a more enthusiastic recommendation.