Like all Wi-Fi radios, the NP2900 can tune into 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.
The NP2900 also offers access to the premium streaming-music service Rhapsody, which is a subscription service ($13 a month). Rhapsody allows you unlimited streaming from its gigantic catalog of music. We're fans of the service and the NP2900's integration is nicely done. All the albums you've stored in your library are available and you can search for new music, although it's a bit tedious with the remote. With the subscription cost, Rhapsody certainly isn't for everyone, but you can take advantage of the 30-day free trial to see if it's worth it for you.
In addition to media streamed off the Internet, the NP2900 is capable of streaming media off of a connected PC. The NP2900 comes with TwonkyServer software included, and our experience setting it up was fairly painless, which is quite a feat for a network music player. Our testing scenario included a networked-attached storage drive filled with music, and we were easily able to point the TwonkyServer software at the applicable folders to create our music library.
Between Internet radio, Rhapsody, and your own music collection, the NP2900 can deliver tons of music options, but it's worth pointing out that the competing Squeezebox Boom has even more functionality. In addition to the NP2900's features, the Boom adds Pandora, Last.fm, Slacker, Live Music Archive, and MP3Tunes functionality. That might be overkill for most people, but hard-core music enthusiasts may prefer the Boom's incredible array of options.
Around the back of the unit, the NP2900 offers up a few inputs and outputs if you want to use it with other equipment. There's a headphone jack for late-night listening, as well as a coaxial digital-audio output if you want to connect the NP2900 to a home theater receiver. (If you don't need the built-in speakers of the NP2900, you can opt for the step-down NP2500.) There's a stereo-analog auxiliary input, which consists of two RCA jacks, rather than the more common minijack input. Rounding out the connectivity is an Ethernet jack.
The NP2900 has several optional sound modes designed to enhance audio quality. The best of the bunch is Living Sound, which utilizes two speakers in the back of the unit, plus some additional sound processing to create a more room-filling sound. We're usually skeptical about sound-altering effects, but Living Sound is well-implemented and really helps the NP2900 sound bigger than its diminutive size. Full Sound purportedly "restores" the lost information from compressed music, but we found it mostly boosted the bass, which occasionally led to distortion, so we turned it off. DBB (Dynamic Bass Boost) is another bass-boosting option, and we turned it off, too.
At this price level, high-quality sound isn't a perk; it's a requirement. With Living Sound on, we played through tons of tracks, spanning a bunch of genres. We kicked it off with Deerhunter's melancholy "Microcastle" and the lush mix was a good match with the NP2900's room-filling Living Sound effect. The sound was detailed and warm, exactly the opposite of what we usually find on Wi-Fi radios. We wanted to see just how hard we could push the little unit, so next up was Black Sabbath. We expected the NP2900 to fold under the hard rock sound of "Jack the Ripper," but it held its own and Geezer Butler's bass sounded nimble and tight. We switched gears and put on jazz guitarist Pat Martino's "Live at Yoshi's" and the NP2900 didn't skip a beat, with Pat's guitar clearly in the center of the mix and Billy Hart's hi-hat firing out of the back speaker, nicely widening the mix. The NP2900 gets surprisingly loud, and yes, if you push it too hard, the sound will distort, but our medium-size living room was comfortably rocking with the volume at halfway.
Next, we put the NP2900 right up against its main competitor, the Squeezebox Boom. We played a similar selection of tunes, but even with the units right next to each other, it was tough to pick a favorite. The NP2900's Living Sound feature is impressive directly compared with the Boom, as the NP2900 did a much better job at creating a wide soundstage. On the other hand, we thought the Boom was more faithful to the original recordings and was able to rock out just a little bit more, even if it did sound less immersive. If we were forced to make a pick, we'd go with the Boom, but both radios offer very good sound quality for the size and you're best off auditioning them yourself to see which sound suits you better.
Apart from sound quality, we did run into a couple snags that dampened our experience a bit. The NP2900 isn't nearly as good as the Squeezebox Boom at playing back albums seamlessly (without gaps between tracks), on Rhapsody tracks, or songs from your PC. That might not matter to most listeners, but if you're listening to "Abbey Road" and there's a three-second gap between "Sun King," "Mean Mr. Mustard," and "Polythene Pam," it can really take you out of the moment. Our other issue was that we had some difficulty getting the included TwonkyVision software to play back our albums in the correct running order. Upgrading to the latest version of TwonkyServer fixed the problem and luckily the included software worked with the updated software. Lastly, the NP2900 froze up on us a few times, sometimes taking a few minutes to finally wake up, but twice requiring us to unplug it and plug it back in. It didn't happen enough to really frustrate us, but we're hoping Philips updates the firmware to iron out some of these occasional hang-ups.
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