TECH & YOU PODCAST
Like many folks who have plunged into digital music, I have a large collection -- nearly 30 gigabytes -- stored on a hard drive, and I treasure the freedom to dip into it wherever I choose. So I was eager to try two new products, the Roku SoundBridge Radio and the Apple (AAPL) iPod Hi-Fi, that offer relatively inexpensive ways to enjoy digital music with high-quality sound.
The $400 SoundBridge Radio looks a bit like an oversize version of those big clock radios you find in hotel rooms. And like them, it can play music to put you to sleep as well as to wake you up. But in addition to AM and FM broadcasts, a SoundBridge connected to a Wi-Fi wireless network plays Internet radio stations -- Web sites that stream programming -- as well as any music stored on a Windows PC or a Mac on the network.
The beauty of the SoundBridge is that it looks and feels a lot like a radio, even when it's playing tunes from your own collection. Nearly 100 Internet stations are preloaded, and they can be selected either by presets or by scrolling through a list on the big, bright display. The SoundBridge also searches your network for iTunes or other music collections, such as Musicmatch or Rhapsody. Choose a collection, then select the song, artist, album, or playlist that you want to hear, using either a remote or buttons on the SoundBridge. Getting this to work the first time may require changing some security settings, for which Roku provides clear instructions. The SoundBridge will play purchased or subscription music protected by Microsoft's (MSFT) PlaysForSure but not songs bought from the iTunes Music Store because Apple doesn't allow use of its copy-protection technology.
ROKU KEPT THE SOUNDBRIDGE SIMPLE by having you use a computer to do any complicated administration, especially anything that involves entering data. For example, you add more Internet stations by typing in their addresses on a Web page you can access from a computer on your network. But in one important respect, the SoundBridge is too simple. It supports only Wi-Fi's outdated Wired Equivalent Privacy security scheme, not the much stronger Wi-Fi Protected Access, and this requires you to use weak security on your entire network. Roku promises to fix the flaw.
Of course, none of this means much unless the player provides solid audio, and the SoundBridge delivers. Its two speakers and subwoofer are a good size. It's true that the volume won't rattle your windows, and for the best stereo effect, one might wish to separate the speakers by more than the 11-in. width of the radio. Still, the sound is just fine for a bedroom, study, or cozy kitchen.
Apple has also moved up to true high fidelity, exhibiting its usual flair. The iPod brought simplicity to digital music, and products don't come any simpler than the $349 iPod Hi-Fi. It's a big box, 17 in. wide and about 7 in. tall and deep. It has no buttons, not even a power switch. Plug it in and set any iPod made in the last couple of years (except the Shuffle) into a slot on the top.
Playing music through the Hi-Fi's speakers is just like listening to an iPod through earphones. A tiny remote is included -- the same one used with Apple's new Macs -- but all it does is control volume and let you move to the next or previous song in your playlist. (Sorry, no way to access the full menu from your couch.) The Hi-Fi has the best sound quality of any iPod speaker unit, including the popular $300 Bose SoundDock. In fact, one ironic drawback is that the Hi-Fi will show up flaws in your music that you would miss with cheap ear buds.
These products share a refreshing simplicity. Like good consumer appliances, they don't try to do too much, and the things they focus on they do well, with a minimum of fuss. If only the PC industry would take this approach to heart.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm
By Stephen H. Wildstrom