Digital audio streamers generally come two ways: cheap solutions like the Airport Express that lack convenience, or expensive systems like Sonos that put all your music at your fingertips. Philips has always tried to find a middle ground; last year's NP1100 offered much of the performance of the Squeezebox Classic for considerably less. The NP2500 is Philips' successor to the NP1100 (although the NP1100 is still available for sale) and it offers several improvements, most notably more file format support, including audiophile-friendly FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. The biggest change is obviously the NP2500's color LCD screen, but we found it a bit of a mixed-bag in practice; we loved the album art eye candy, but browsing the 3.5-inch screen from across the room is a pain. If you can live with its quirks, the NP2500 offers much of the functionality of the Squeezebox Classic for less money and in a pretty package, but die-hard music fans looking for a wider variety of online audio service offerings will prefer the Squeezebox's perks despite its Spartan design.
The NP2500 has a long, 9.9-inch rectangular shape and positioned right in the middle is a 3.5-inch color LCD screen. The screen is capable of displaying a couple lines of text, album art, and a full graphical user interface. It's a reasonable size on its own, but it looks comically small in the midst of the faceplate. The design makes more sense viewed in the full Streamium product line; the NP2500 essentially uses the step-up NP2900's design, with the speakers removed.
Still, the NP2500 would greatly benefit if the screen filled up more of the faceplate. Yes, it's easy to navigate if you're close to the unit, but the NP2500 is designed to be connected to a separate stereo or home theater system. If you're sitting on the couch, 8 feet away from the NP2500, the screen is tiny. Competing products like the Squeezebox Duet and the Sonos BU250 get around the problem with a remote that features an LCD screen, but those systems are more expensive. Meanwhile, the Apple TV is a more direct competitor that lets you browse your music collection using either the HDTV screen or via the Remote app available for the iPhone/iPod Touch. The Squeezebox Classic has a similar design, but it's text-only and is easier to read from afar.
The only buttons on the NP2500 are located on the top of the unit, and there are only four of them: power, volume up and down, and mute. That means you can't navigate your music collection using the controls on the unit; instead you have to use the remote. We would have at least liked a clickable wheel on the unit for times when the remote goes missing, or when you're standing right over the unit.
User interface and setup
The basic user interface is well-laid out, with simple menu options like Music, Internet Radio, Rhapsody, and Aux showing up on the home menu. When you start playing a song, the artist and song information show up on the display, with the album art in the background. We're meticulous about updating our album art and it was a treat to see the NP2500 automatically display it when it started playing our tracks. Album art is also available on Rhapsody tracks.
While the NP2500 zips through the standard menus quickly, it's not quite as quick to sort through a large library of music. The competing Squeezebox Classic is much more responsive in this regard, where as the NP2500 chugs along at a slower--sometimes frustrating--speed, even when its SuperScroll function kicks in. It's not unbearable, but a bit more speed would really help the NP2500 with large libraries.
As mentioned before, the only way to navigate the NP2500 is by using the included remote. It's a full-size clicker, which we like, but we did run into some issues. For example, the directional pad doesn't work exactly as you'd expect it to. Counterintuitively, the right and left directions won't move you right and left in the menus; you need to press "OK" to move right and the back button to move left. We got used to it, but occasionally we'd revert back to the more intuitive controls. Some people may also be annoyed that there's no option to fast-forward or rewind, which can be a minor annoyance, especially on podcasts. On the other hand, the remote does a good job of separating important functions like the volume rocker and playback controls, while the full number pad makes it easier to enter in search terms.
Like all network music players these days, the NP2500 can tune in to the thousands of free Internet radio stations, instead of the standard AM/FM fare. If you can't stand what's available on AM/FM (neither can we) and don't want to pay for satellite radio (neither do we), there are plenty of great stations available online for just about everybody. Philips doesn't disclose what service populates its listings, but we found plenty of quality stations across several genres. If your favorite station isn't listed, you can register on Philips' Web site and add it yourself.