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Editors' note: Due to changes in the competitive marketplace, the rating on this product has been lowered from 8.3 to 7.7.
With its unique tubular design, easy-to-read front-panel displays, and attractive brushed-chrome finish, Roku's SoundBridge series of digital audio receivers turned a lot of heads when it first appeared in 2004. At one point, the line encompassed three models, but Roku has since discontinued the M500 and the larger M2000, though you may be able to get a good deal on either one as retailers liquidate the remaining supplies. Only the M1000 remains, but Roku has improved the chassis (fixing just about every complaint we had with the original version), integrated the wireless networking function, and expanded its compatibility via several firmware upgrades--all while lowering the list price to an affordable $200. Setting aside a couple of remaining caveats--such as its inability to stream DRM music files purchased from the iTunes Music Store--the Roku SoundBridge M1001 is an easy recommendation for anyone looking to stream Internet radio or computer-based digital music files to a home stereo. In a world of drab or purely functional consumer electronics, the Roku SoundBridge M1001 is something of a revelation. Its artfully styled chassis is a silver, pipe-shaped metal segment with an embedded text display and two black plastic end caps. In the previous iteration of the SoundBridge, those end caps were removable and covered the audio outputs, the network ports, and the power jack. In addition to the cramped access and tight cable management, the plastic tabs keeping those end caps in place sometimes snapped off. Thankfully, the upgraded M1001 (the older M1000 version had connection jacks under the left and right endcaps, and couldn't be upgraded to WPA wireless encryption) moves all the connectivity jacks to the rear, leaving the end caps strictly for cosmetic flair. The unit comes with a low-profile rubber stand that allows tilting the unit to optimize display readability. An optional wall-mounting kit ($29.99) is also available.
The M1001 uses a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) that delivers bright, sharp text. The 280x16 screen can be toggled from a two-line mode (40 characters per line) to a single-line mode with larger text that makes it easier to read from longer distances. The larger option still won't be visible from, say, across the room. For that, you'll have to step up to something like the Logitech Squeezebox Duet, which has a nifty iPod-like remote with a color screen--and costs twice as much. Still, the front panel display is a step up from older network audio devices that provided no visual feedback whatsoever--and required you to run back to your computer whenever you wanted to access a specific song or playlist. By comparison, the Roku SoundBridge provides you with a remote window into your music collection, even if it's on the other side of the house.
Because the SoundBridge doesn't have front-panel controls, you must operate the unit with its basic 18-key remote. Although its four-way keypad and Select button make menu navigation intuitive, the remote could use a few more buttons. For instance, it lacks common conveniences such as artist, title, and genre shortcut keys. You can use the remote for text-based music searches, but entering titles is a chore because of the lack of an alphanumeric keypad. Fortunately, the Fast Browse feature lets you skip through long track lists with relative ease.The Roku SoundBridge M1001 packs a full degree of audio and network connections into its tiny frame. A stereo analog minijack provides connectivity to virtually any stereo system, boombox, headphones, or even powered PC-style speakers--just use the included Y-cable (which breaks out to standard RCA red-and-white jacks) or provide your own minijack extension cable, depending upon your needs. Alternately, the two digital outputs (one coaxial, one optical) provide an interface to more upscale A/V receivers. To get music to the SoundBridge, connect it to your home network with the included Ethernet cable or wirelessly. The previous version of the M1000 needed a snap-in wireless card, but Wi-Fi capability is built into the current model. With the latest firmware, the SoundBridge can login to nearly any Wi-Fi accessp point, including those that are encrypted with WEP, WPA, or WPA2.
To enable streaming audio files to the SoundBridge from your computer's hard drive, the computer must be running a compatible server application. Roku strongly recommends using either Windows Media Connect (Windows XP only; supports WMA, DRM WMA, MP3, and WAV files) or Apple iTunes (PC/Mac; supports MP3, AAC, WAV, and AIFF files). The applications' respective playlist formats are supported as well. Other compatible server applications include Musicmatch Jukebox, Slim Devices' Slim Server, and Winamp. Roku doesn't supply a software CD-ROM, but all of the aforementioned applications are free downloads.
Windows Media Connect is the only server application that enables streaming protected WMA files from your computer's hard drive to the SoundBridge. (To clarify, the SoundBridge's Plays For Sure certification covers both sides of the DRM fence: you can stream individual songs purchased from online retailers, as well as those "rented" on all-you-can-eat subscription plans, such as Napster To Go.) Like all but Apple's own network media products (such as the AirPort Express, the SoundBridge cannot play DRM songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store--but it will play the non-DRM "iTunes Plus" purchases.
The SoundBridge provides robust access to free and fee-based Internet music, including the Yahoo and Rhapsody subscriptions services (though you'll need to keep those applications running on your PC). The SoundBridge can also tune hundreds of free Internet radio stations listed in the iTunes interface. The unit can stream any MP3, WMA, or Shoutcast stream. Up to 10 Internet radio station presets can be programmed into the SoundBridge's memory to facilitate playing the stations without powering up the computer.
If you like what the SoundBridge offers but are looking for something with built-in speakers, check out the Roku SoundBridge Radio R1000. It costs $100 more, but packs the SoundBridge experience into the form factor of an upscale clock radio, and it adds a standard AM/FM radio to boot.Setting up the Roku SoundBridge M1001 is exceptionally straightforward. After downloading, configuring, and installing the server application(s) of your choice, you connect the unit to your home stereo, power it on, then follow onscreen prompts to complete device configuration and connection with your wireless network (or simply plug in an Ethernet cable for a wired connection). The printed user guide that shipped with my review sample was significantly outdated, but Roku's Web site contains an up-to-date version.
During testing, we were able to simultaneously run the Apple iTunes, Windows Media Connect, and Rhapsody server applications on my 2.1GHz Pentium 4 PC. The SoundBridge displayed respectable stability when used with all three of the aforementioned server applications, though we did once have to reboot the server PC and the SoundBridge to reactivate a dead iTunes communication link. But glitches were much more the exception than the rule; overall, the SoundBridge exhibited excellent stability, with wireless connections delivering solid, drop-free performance. Sound quality was equally impressive. With the SoundBridge passing digital bits to our A/V receiver's coaxial input, the sound was every bit as good as the source material. The same was true of analog hook-ups--tracks such as Buena Vista Social Club's "Chan Chan" sounded crisp and clear. Navigating the onscreen menu was a bit challenging at first, but we were soon be able to zip in and out of the menus with relative ease using the comfortable remote.