Roku SoundBridge M1000 review
There have been all sorts of attempts to find ways of streaming digital music to a hi-fi over a network, including devices such as the NetGear MP101. But the perennial problem with these is the need for proprietary server software.
The SoundBridge is one of the first devices in what’s set to be a new and sizable wave of media control and streaming products. The difference is that it’s a UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) device. Based around standard protocols, primarily HTTP, UPnP really does work – no drivers required. In Windows XP with SP 2 installed, you simply open the firewall ports by clicking on the ‘Show icons for networked UPnP device’ option in the sidebar for My Network Places. Using UPnP makes it compatible with WMC (Windows Media Connect) – a free Microsoft add-on for Windows Media Player that’s in fact simply a UPnP media server – plus, in theory, any other UPnP-compliant media server. It will connect to iTunes too, but Apple’s enforced limitations means paid-for content from the iTunes download site won’t work.
The SoundBridge itself is essentially an extruded aluminium tube fitted with a fluorescent display. The stand is a separate piece of scalloped rubber on which the main unit sits: it’s basic but effective, and means you can rotate the display to the best angle. The connectors and ports are at either end of the unit: the black plastic endcaps pop off for access. One end houses the power connector input and audio outputs – including analog RCA phono, plus both optical and coaxial digital connections – and on the other you’ll find Ethernet ports and a CompactFlash slot for an optional wireless network card. The fact that cables come out of both ends, albeit at the back via holes in the endcaps, means things can get annoyingly messy if you like to keep your hi-fi setup as clean-looking as possible.
The remote control isn’t the highest-quality device in the world either, with rubbery buttons needing a firm press to activate. But it’s more relaxing to sit on the sofa and scroll through your music via the remote control than getting up and prodding at icons with a mouse, no matter how far from ideal it may be. For sofa-bound control, you can set the display to show one line of large-font text instead of the normal two smaller lines. We found the one-line setting – which displays characters 10mm high – legible from about 12ft away.
Setting up the SoundBridge is a simple matter of plugging it into the network and selecting the server you want to use from the list that appears onscreen: that’s it. Wirelessly, setup is a little more tedious because of the need to enter SSID names and WEP keys via the remote control, but it’s a one-time chore.
We tested the SoundBridge with Windows Media Player/WMC and iTunes, and both worked well most of the time. But we found the unit would occasionally, and apparently randomly, lose its network connection (even over a wired network), needing a power-down reboot to reconnect. We also had problems playing some DRM-enabled tracks downloaded from Napster. Although Roku claims the SoundBridge supports all DRM10 content, we were met with an ‘unable to acquire license’ message with many tracks. It’s a shame, because all the elements of a great piece of kit are there. Hopefully, future firmware upgrades will solve the problems.