Review summary The Roku SoundBridge Radio is the first hi-fi AM/FM clock radio that's also a full-featured digital audio receiver that's capable of wirelessly streaming music from networked PCs and from the Internet. Offering stereo sound augmented by a built-in minisubwoofer, the SoundBridge Radio is a totally self-contained box that delivers vast access to network music while at the same time functioning as a stand-alone clock radio that won't go down with your Internet connection. If Roku had somehow been able to throw in a few bonuses such as satellite-radio capabilities, an integrated CD player, or at the very least, an audio input for iPods and other portable music devices, it would be the ultimate tabletop radio. As it stands, it's still a very good one, but its price tag will limit its appeal. Measuring 6 by 11 by 6.5 inches (HWD), the Roku SoundBridge Radio is smaller than the competing Bose Wave Music System in all dimensions except for its height. It will easily fit on a typical bedside table or office desk and delivers stereo output through two 1.65-inch drivers powered by 20 watts per channel RMS. An integrated 2.36-inch integrated sub driver ratchets up the bass with its 30 watts of allotted juice.
The front-panel has the same 5.5-by-0.75-inch two-line bright green vacuum fluorescent (VFD) text display you'll find on its cousin, the Roku SoundBridge M1000 digital audio receiver. You won't be able to read it from across the room, but it is viewable from a few paces off--unless you have poor eyesight--so you don't have to come right up to the radio to determine what's playing (MP3 ID3 tag info is displayed) or to see what the time is.
All of the SoundBridge Radio's controls are situated on the device's top panel. They include a volume/on/off dial, a large snooze button that you'll be able to find in a sleepy stupor, six Internet radio/AM/FM preset tuning keys, a selector that toggles between any of the three banks of six programmable presets, a source-selector button, and up/down navigation buttons.
As for the smallish 5.5-by-2-inch black remote, it's pretty basic, with up, down, left, and right arrow keys as well as enter and exit buttons that you use to navigate lists and menus. Because the remote's buttons are labeled exclusively with icons as opposed to text, some of their functions aren't immediately clear. We weren't overly impressed with the clicker (which is identical to the M1000's), but it's certainly adequate and compares favorably to the remotes of other tabletop radios.
Overall, we were pretty pleased with the unit's interface. The main menu lists any compatible PC-based music server applications that are currently running, as well as options for playing AM, FM, and Internet radio. When accessing your stored digital music, you can generally navigate by all the usual categories, including artist, song title, album, genre, and playlist, although the exact functionality varies depending on the PC audio-server application to which the SoundBridge Radio is connected. Navigating the unit with the remote control is intuitive for the most part, but we don't like the fact that the exit button is disabled when playback is active. As a result, you can't simply back up the desired number of menu levels from the Now Playing screen. Instead, you have to press the home key and start over.
Another great thing about the Roku SoundBridge Radio is that it's really easy to set up. After powering up the unit, you're guided through a wizardlike series of screens in which you select your language, time zone, and geographic region. If your wireless network isn't encrypted, the SoundBridge Radio will automatically connect to it. Otherwise, you'll need to enter the network's WEP encryption key (WPA isn't supported). Roku says it's in the process of adding support for Windows Connect Now, which would automate the process of connecting to an encrypted wireless network by transferring the necessary settings from your PC to the SoundBridge Radio. That would be nice. The Roku SoundBridge Radio gives you several ways to access music. Naturally, you can play FM, AM, and Internet radio stations without firing up your PC. However, if you want to stream tracks from your PC's hard drive, you'll need to run a compatible PC-based audio-server application such as iTunes, Windows Media Connect, Musicmatch Jukebox, or Slim Server. All of Roku's SoundBridge products offer very smooth integration with Rhapsody's subscription-based on-demand music streaming service.
The SoundBridge Radio automatically appears as a mapped drive in your PC's My Network Places menu (it offers robust Mac support as well, but we didn't have an Apple on hand to test). Clicking the SoundBridge Radio icon opens the device's Web-browser-based interface from which you can configure various settings, remotely control playback, and change the radio presets. You can use the Web browser interface to configure the Radio to tune in MP3- and WMA-format Internet radio selections of your choice, expanding the SoundBridge's database of approximately 70 preprogrammed selections. The only catch is that user-added Internet radio stations must be attached to one of the 18 programmable AM/FM/Internet radio presets, which restricts the total number of Internet radio stations you can add. Roku's custom database of preprogrammed Internet radio stations does span a wide range of styles, and all of the preprogrammed stations that we checked offered better-than-FM sound quality.
For streaming from your PC, the Radio's natively supported file formats include MP3, DRM and non-DRM WMA, non-DRM AAC, WAV, and AIFF files. To play subscription WMAs, you have to use either Windows Media Connect or Yahoo Music Engine as your audio-server application. With Yahoo Music Engine, the device can also stream tracks that you've bookmarked but not downloaded. Playback from an inserted SD card includes the aforementioned formats except for DRM WMAs. Unlike the Logitech Wireless Music System, the Apple AirPort Express, and the Linksys WMB54G Wireless-G Music Bridge--all of which lack displays--the SoundBridge Radio can't play protected AAC files such as those purchased from iTunes.
The SoundBridge Radio's connectivity options didn't wow us. In addition to a side-panel headphone minijack, the unit has jacks for its included AM and FM antennas, but that's about it. Unlike most digital audio receivers, the Radio doesn't have an Ethernet jack that you can fall back on if things get spotty with its 802.11b wireless connection. Furthermore, because the unit doesn't have any audio inputs, you can't connect an iPod or any other external audio source. Also unlike comparably priced hi-fi clock radios from Bose and Cambridge SoundWorks, the Roku lacks an integrated CD player, though it does have an SD card slot from which you can play audio files.
It's also worth noting that with the exception of the AM/FM radio, built-in speakers, and topside controls, you can get nearly all of the Roku SoundBridge Radio's features in the half-as-expensive Roku SoundBridge M1000. That model retains a higher rating over the SoundBridge Radio because of its lower price and its superior connectivity, including Ethernet, analog, and digital outputs not found on the Radio model. With Annie Lennox's Bare and other recordings, the Roku SoundBridge Radio demonstrated impressive soundstage depth, with backup vocals and guitar lines distinctively placed behind the lead vocal. Bass response was certainly strong and fairly punchy, considering the system's diminutive physical size. In the midrange and treble frequencies, the sound was good but not the fullest or most natural we've heard. Hey, it might not put your home stereo to shame, but the truth is that the Roku SoundBridge Radio sounds pretty darn good for a tabletop clock radio. In terms of wireless audio streaming, the Radio rose to the high level of the other SoundBridge products, delivering largely dropout-free performance.
Navigation with Yahoo Music Engine was sluggish--we frequently had to wait while the SoundBridge Radio transferred menu data from YME. Some screens--such as the main artist list--often took as long as 10 seconds to load. We're not sure what the problem is, but we've encountered similar issues with Yahoo Music Engine's slowness on other networked devices. We suspect Roku isn't the bottleneck, especially when you consider that SoundBridge Radio screens load nearly instantly with other servers such as Windows Media Connect, Rhapsody, and iTunes. On the average, the SoundBridge Radio started playback within a second after we made selections--that's faster than most digital media receivers.
In sum, while the SoundBridge Radio doesn't have every feature you might want, the numerous features it does offer have been well implemented. Some products aren't especially fun to test, but this one was--and that's a good sign.