One of my all-time favourite products has been a tabletop Roberts radio. I loved it not only for the excellent sound quality but because it was a solid, “honest” product that knew what it was meant to be (www.robertsradio.org), unlike many devices today.
I now hope I have found a similarly uncomplicated product. Roku’s SoundBridge Radio (www.rokulabs.com) is the newest of the Roku digital music player family, which makes listening to internet radio stations and other digital audio content almost as easy as traditional radio.
Roku’s first product, the SoundBridge M500 Network Music Player, impressed me when I tested it, but the SoundBridge Radio takes the concept of simple and standalone wireless access to networked (and internet-worked) music to the next level.
The device, which will cost $400, looks like a standard tabletop radio on the outside. But inside it is a clever WiFi-enabled (802.11) device ready to hook up to almost any wireless home network.
At its most basic, it is a high-performance AM/FM clock radio with dual alarms and built-in sub-woofer (bass speaker). More significantly, it is a standalone digital music centre that can play back music and other audio content in a range of formats, pulling it from your hard drive-based collection, online subscription services or streaming internet radio stations.
In internet radio mode it comes preconfigured for push-button access to 80 radio stations. However, I would like access to a wider selection of stations and to be able to “tune in” to them from the SoundBridge unit without needing a personal computer. As it is, you need to know the URL or web address of stations you want to listen to and use a standard web browser running on a PC on the same network to reconfigure one of the SoundBridge Radio’s “presets” to the station. The 18 presets can also store other content including playlists, albums and tracks of a particular artist or genre.
The SoundBridge Radio takes just a few minutes to set up and most of the time you probably won’t need to touch a PC or any of your network settings. The basic set-up involves plugging in the power cord and following on-screen prompts to configure settings such as language, audio sources and network settings.
The SoundBridge Radio configured itself for my home network automatically. If you do need to track down an SSID (network name) or password, the set-up guide explains how for most WiFi routers and access points.
The other configuration most users are likely to want to set up is access to digital music stored on a PC, network hard drive or media server. This, too, is easy. The SoundBridge Radio supports most digital music “server” software including Apple’s iTunes, Microsoft Media Player, MusicMatch and Rhapsody and the manual explains how to tweak the software settings so the SoundBridge can detect and access content stored this way.
I set up my unit to access my digital music collection via Microsoft Media Player 10 and my Rhapsody online subscription service. The SoundBridge does an excellent job playing back content stored in most Mac or PC music libraries and can handle all types of digital music files, with one exception: you cannot use it (or any other non-iPod device) to play the protected music downloaded from the Apple iTunes online music store.
There are, however, other neat touches that show the thought that Roku has put into the design. The remote control makes it easier to use when you are not sitting in front of it, and the SoundBridge also has an SD (secure digital) slot that lets you play unprotected audio files directly from an SD flash memory card.
Overall, despite a few small drawbacks and a relatively high price tag, the SoundBridge Radio is an innovative device that is quite simple to operate and potentially provides access to a huge variety of internet radio stations and other audio content. It is also one of the very few digital music systems that comes with its own high-quality, built-in speakers and can operate most of the time without
ROKU SOUNDBRIDGE RADIO
Pros: High performance digital sound system and radio alarm clock that makes access to internet radio stations easier.
Cons: Pricey for a radio alarm; limited internet radio ‘presets’; may require some network configuration.