Roku SoundBridge M1001 network music player Page 2

Then, trouble: I'd visited www.napster.com to buy October's "Recording of the Month," Keith Jarrett's The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM 1989/90). Once I'd entered my credit-card information, Napster had rapidly downloaded the 13 files that make up the two-CD set and written them to my hard drive as DRM-wrapped, lossless WMA files. Download completed, I browsed my music library, found the album, and clicked on the first track, Part 1. The SoundBridge displayed "Acquiring License"; then, its time display showed that the music was flowing through the M1001. Just to check, I switched from Windows' Media Connect 2.0 server program to Roku's Firefly open-source server program. Not having WMC's DRM option, Firefly could see but not play the Jarrett tracks.

However, when I then switched back to WMC 2.0, I managed to shut out all of the unprotected music files I'd copied from my favorite CDs. While I could see the Jarrett tracks on the SoundBridge's display, all my ripped files had disappeared. Nothing I did persuaded the SoundBridge to recognize the other music files on my hard drive. I felt dumb. Then I felt dumber.

After two days of failing to solve the problem, I e-mailed Dan Sletten, Roku's software engineer. He had experienced the same problem with WMC 2.0 shutting out unprotected files after downloading protected music tracks from MTV's music store, www.urge.com. He advised me to drag all of my digital music files out of my music library's folder and onto the laptop's desktop, then back into my music library again. After WMC was first stopped, then restarted on its "sharing" page, all of my music reappeared on the SoundBridge's display. I was back in business.

Remote control and Web control
The SoundBridge M1001 can be controlled with its remote or through a Web page on a PC. Either way, while playing music through the SoundBridge, you can: browse media; add songs to a current playlist; browse by artist, composer, or album title; fast browse; play Internet Radio via Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), even when your PC is turned off; change the display's text sizes or brightness; control the SoundBridge with a PDA or Crestron system; support iTunes Network Music sharing; and upgrade the SoundBridge's firmware via the Internet. (If the firmware that controls the SoundBridge is accidentally corrupted, the player can be run in a restricted Safe Mode that allows it to download an intact copy of the firmware from Roku.) And once a song has begun to play, the SoundBridge displays a spectrum analyzer.

When I set up the SoundBridge, I accessed its PC Control and Web Control, going through Windows XP's "My Network Places," where I found the SoundBridge's icon. Double-clicking on this icon opens the SoundBridge's Web page (http://192.168.0.103/SoundBridge.html), which is hard-coded into the player's firmware. This Web Control function offers more flexibility than does the handheld remote. For example, Web Control includes a Stop button; the remote doesn't.

Then I took the SoundBridge upstairs to my listening room and placed it atop my Krell KRC-28 CD player. With a 1.5m length of Wireworld Starlight Digital coaxial cable, I connected the Roku's S/PDIF output to the coax input of a Bryston B100-DA integrated amplifier and DAC. I also used my outboard Adcom GDA-700 DAC. When I turned on the SoundBridge, it found my WiFi network and connected to it.

I browsed my music library using the remote's Home, Right, and Select buttons. When I found the album I wanted to hear, I pressed Play or Select. Hitting Select brought up details about the track playing: file format, bit rate, and sampling rate.

Playing DRM-wrapped music tracks
Over the two months that I used the SoundBridge M1001, I discovered the advantages and disadvantages of using Windows Media Connect 2.0. The benefits included the SoundBridge's ability to play DRM-wrapped files and, when I selected an entire album, to automatically play all of the album's songs in the proper order. This greatly eased listening to all four movements of a performance of Beethoven's Symphony 9, which I'd downloaded from iTunes.

The disadvantages of using the SoundBridge were actually attributable to the instability of the WMC software on my PC. First, when I used my laptop to work on photographs with Adobe Photoshop or Photo Mechanic, these programs hogged so much memory that the SoundBridge had to interrupt a song to rebuffer after playing only a few minutes. Second, I had to turn off Windows XP's firewall before WMC 2.0 would connect to the SoundBridge, even though I'd listed the WMC server as an exception. Third, I had to exit all other music servers, including SlimServer, Napster, Rhapsody, and Firefly, before using the SoundBridge. Fourth, I discovered that I couldn't go online while the SoundBridge was running, or it would stop playing. Fifth, every so often my WiFi network dropped its connection to my laptop, which also stopped the music. I began to understand why JA had been so positive about using a music player with a proprietary wireless distribution system, such as the Sonos ZP80.

Playing music
To compare the SoundBridge's analog and digital outputs, I connected them to the digital and analog inputs of my Bryston B100-DA amplifier. This allowed me to switch almost instantaneously between the digital stream and the output of the SoundBridge's internal DAC. It me took no time at all to determine that my downloaded WMA lossless digital music files sounded better using the SoundBridge's digital output mode. There was a decided drop in level when I switched over to the analog output. Even matching the playback level between the digital and analog outputs, I heard more dynamics, felt more impact in the bass, and much preferred the music's increased depth of soundstage and dimensionality from the digital output. With some CDs, the SoundBridge's digital output feeding the Bryston sounded almost as good as that of my Krell CD player.

But despite its superiority to its analog output, even the SoundBridge's digital output was troubled by a subtle noise that I couldn't get rid of by repositioning the SoundBridge in relation to other equipment. I heard this when, at top volume, I played the first 30 seconds of digitally recorded silence in Samuel Barber's "Heaven-Haven (A Nun Takes the Veil)"—track 18 of Cantus' ...Against the Dying of the Light (CD, Cantus CTS-1202). The silence was perturbed by a slight background noise not evident when the same passage was played over the Squeezebox.

Comparison listening to the same selections through the Squeezebox was revealing. I preferred the Squeezebox's analog output to that of the Roku. The SoundBridge's DAC seemed to collapse and flatten the musical soundfield, turning the upper-midrange tones harsh and bright, and dimming the music's transparency and sheen. With levels matched, the SoundBridge's analog outputs had less bass extension, narrower soundstage depth, and less transparency than did the Squeezebox's.

What about the digital output? Even though the Roku's digital output was superior to its analog, it wasn't as sweet, open, transparent, or free of hardness as the Squeezebox's, again feeding the Bryston. Though Patricia Barber's voice on "Too Rich for My Blood," from her Café Blue (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 5 21810 2) was well-defined and stood out from the background, the SoundBridge added brightness and extra dynamics. The timbre of Barber's voice was definitely brighter and cooler when the SoundBridge fed its digital streaming file to the Bryston DAC. Emmylou Harris' thin, delicate, translucent soprano in "Calling My Children Back Home," from Spyboy (CD, Eminent EM-25001-2), had more dynamics and snap than I recalled hearing before playing it through the SoundBridge. And in "A Gaelic Blessing," from John Rutter's The Lord is My Light and My Salvation (CD, Reference RR-57CD), although the different voices in the chorus were well defined, there was an edge to the male voices. Somehow in these selections, the Squeezebox's digital output was more relaxed than the Roku, its timbre smoother.

The SoundBridge fared better with other musical selections, particularly those that were primarily instrumental. I was particularly delighted with the quality of the digital file I'd downloaded of Keith Jarrett's "True Blues" piano solo from The Carnegie Hall Concert, which sounded most open, involving, and lyrical when it was sourced from the digital output of either the SoundBridge or the Squeezebox.

Conclusions
The Roku SoundBridge M1001's low price ($199.99), large display, and ability to play DRM-protected files are all positive factors for an inexpensive network music player. It is less expensive than the Sonos ZP80 system ($999), and betters Slim Devices' Squeezebox in that it can play DRM-wrapped files downloaded from Napster. Roku's manual and website discourage telephone support, so the user must rely on a frustrating web-based fill-in sheet to get tech support, which responds within 24 hours.

However, I was left with some nagging concerns about this otherwise promising network music player. First, while I strongly preferred the SoundBridge's digital output fed to an external DAC over its analog outputs, which improved the dynamics and soundstage depth for orchestra music, I felt that the omnipresent low-level noise lent subtle colorations to vocal recordings. Second, running the SoundBridge with Windows Media Connect 2.0 required too much maintenance from me. Not only did I have to kick-start the music server by moving all of my music files out of, and then back into, my music subdirectory, but WMC 2.0 intermittently slowed and stopped until after I'd shut down all other software running in the background on my laptop. Finally, I couldn't persuade the Windows XP firewall to make an exception for the SoundBridge, so the firewall had to be shut down as well before I could listen to music.

Roku's SoundBridge M1001 will appeal to those who buy most of their recordings from online music stores—such as Napster and Rhapsody—that wrap their files in Microsoft DRM protection. With some caveats, I recommend the Roku SoundBridge M1001, using its digital outputs, as a cost-effective network music player for casual listening.

COMPANY INFO
Roku LLC
399 Sherman Avenue, Suite 12
Palo Alto, CA 94306
(888) 600-7658
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