Many digital audio receivers (DARs) add excessive complexity to the basic task of connecting a PC to a stereo. Motorola has addressed this with the design of the Simplefi, a streamlined DAR that's both user-friendly and powerful. As a smart twist, the Simplefi is wireless, enabling you to listen to Internet audio on your stereo system without introducing more wires into the home or degrading sound quality, as previous DARs have done. Many digital audio receivers (DARs) add excessive complexity to the basic task of connecting a PC to a stereo. Motorola has addressed this with the design of the Simplefi, a streamlined DAR that's both user-friendly and powerful. As a smart twist, the Simplefi is wireless, enabling you to listen to Internet audio on your stereo system without introducing more wires into the home or degrading sound quality, as previous DARs have done.
The Simplefi is about the size of a typical hardcover book at 2 by 11 by 6 inches and sports a sparse design. On the front panel, there's a three-line screen that measures 3.75 by 1.0 inches and displays white text against an attractive, bluish-purple backlight. Unfortunately, song titles are hard to read at a distance of more than four feet--a drawback since you'll probably set up the Simplefi in your home-entertainment rack.
Oddly, there are no built-in front-panel controls. Instead, the small, slightly flimsy, 12-button remote control snaps onto the front of the Simplefi, where it functions as the device's control panel. While this helps keep the cost of the product low, a corner-cutting decision such as this has one main drawback: if you misplace the remote, you can't operate the unit.
Motorola took a basic approach to connectivity, including only the following rear-panel connections: a DC-power jack, a headphone minijack, and a stereo analog RCA output. We'd prefer to have a digital-audio output option as well, but luckily, the analog output sounds clean. Also, a TV output would have helped immensely with display readability since, as mentioned above, the LCD on the unit is too small to read at a distance.
In terms of setup, this unit is easier to attach to your computer than most DARs. First, we connected the supplied USB RF (radio frequency) transmitter for wireless connectivity to our PC--sorry, Mac users--and plugged the Simplefi into our stereo system. Then, we used the included SimpleServe Console software to set up a few Internet radio stations and add MP3s to the PC-based Media Manager library.
Navigating channels, playlists, and tracks with the remote is no problem, provided you've configured the SimpleServe software and the song library properly. Media Manager organizes songs into playlists and playlists into channels, which is great for setting up longer listening programs. Online Guide offers Internet radio options--currently, MP3.com and Shoutcast stations. My Tags lets you flag songs as you listen (more on that below). Finally, Add Device manages the PC/Simplefi connection. All software features are exceptionally well designed and almost fun to use. But if you want to sort music by genre or album, you'll have to set up your own playlists since the Simplefi doesn't generate those tags automatically.
Avid music enthusiasts will thoroughly enjoy the Simplefi's clever TagIt feature, which enables users to tag a song whenever it's playing by pressing a button on the remote. Back at the PC, selecting the Media Manager's My Tags option takes you to a listing of all tagged songs, with deep links to Yahoo's Launch service, where you can view release dates, tour dates, reviews, and discographies, as well as purchase CDs--the most seamless implementation of this concept that we've seen to date.
Motorola says that the Simplefi's range from the transmitter is about 150 feet through walls, but we were somewhat skeptical about the RF network's ability to sound as hiccup-free as a wired Ethernet connection. Luckily, the wireless transmission doesn't degrade audio quality, even through walls. MP3s don't have to be additionally compressed or converted to analog for transmission. Since all previous wireless DARs have used FM or other analog signals that lower audio quality significantly, the Simplefi's use of the digital HomeRF network represents a major step forward for this category of products.
For audio testing, we fired up a 256Kbps MP3 of Dire Straits' "So Far Away." Notably, the snare retained all its crispness, while the sturdy midrange maintained its placement above the sonically tight bass line. To the Simplefi's credit, we played the same song through our Roland digital-to-analog converter (DAC), and the track didn't sound any better than it did with the Simplefi's RF transmission through its high-end, 24-bit Cirrus DAC, which helps preserve sound quality after the wireless transmission.
Occasionally, this Motorola couldn't find the PC, but the problems were easily remedied. Total connection stability was achieved by assigning a static IP address to the unit using Windows networking, though in some networks, the AutoIP configuration will surely perform adequately. Kudos to Motorola for the thorough instructions that made dealing with connection issues relatively painless.
The Simplefi incorporates the simplicity that must be achieved before DARs can really take off. And while it's not exactly cheap at $379, it's still considerably less expensive than its direct competitors. This is one of the few DARs to earn our enthusiastic recommendation for its wireless connectivity, easy operation, and solid sound quality. However, if you're looking for an affordable standalone DAR with a built-in hard drive, check out Perception Digital's PDHercules .