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Roku SoundBridge M2000 Network Music Player Review

What To Do With My CDs
How many CDs do you own and how many of those do you ever get to play? If your collection is as large as mine, rummaging through hundreds of CDs can be frustrating and time consuming. I have even bought some of the same CDs I already own. I almost forgot gems like Medusa by Clan of Xymox, Mouth By Mouth by His Name is Alive, Spiritchaser by Dead Can Dance, and Bad Brains Live. Unfortunately, I have been neglecting my treasures for too long. Now with free iTunes and the Roku SoundBridge, I have complete access to my music collection anywhere in my house.

The SoundBridge connects directly into your stereo system or receiver just like a CD player. It receives/plays music from your computer through a wireless connection or via Ethernet cable. I had already copied hundreds of my CDs to my Mac, using Apple’s lossless format. I also had been using iTunes for about two years, mainly to listen to Internet radio, and some CDs imported to the AIFF format. Now with the SoundBridge I can listen to all of my music without having to be at my computer.

It should be noted that SoundBridge is also compatible with other music formats and servers, which are mainly for the Microsoft Windows platform.

Startup Setting: Automatic
No need to dwell here. Just plug the SoundBridge to a network hub, switch, router, etc., and it automatically finds the music library in your PC or Mac. The included wireless card takes a few additional steps, namely setting the SSID and WEP passwords, which unfortunately only work with an open system configuration. I also wished the wireless setup were configurable from a web browser like most other wireless hardware.

Because my wireless network uses a shared key configuration, I opted to remove the wireless card and connect SoundBridge to my Mac via an Ethernet cable or a high-speed 108Mbps bridge (D-Link DWL-G810), rather than changing my wireless network configuration. The D-Link bridge works as good as the wired setup when the access point (D-Link DWL-2100AP), which is dedicated exclusively for SoundBridge, is positioned close to the bridge and with no wall obstructions.

SoundBridge Firmware v 2.0.28: Simple to Upgrade
There were some issues with the pre 2.0 version, one of them having to do with obtaining an IP address. The 2.0 version appears to have corrected these problems. Upgrading the firmware is simple, just select the System Configuration from the main menu, check for the latest software upgrade, and find out whether an upgrade is available. This could not be any simpler.

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Choosing File Format
I had already nixed the idea of importing my CDs to the lossy formats, i.e., MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, because of their shortcomings (lower fidelity sound). My goal was to duplicate the original CD sound, not just come close to it. I would have preferred the uncompressed AIFF format, but it’s not practical since AIFF files are too large. Therefore, I imported almost all of my CDs to the Apple lossless format.

I used free iTunes and open source software, called SlimServer for my Mac to categorize and select my music. The SoundBridge works well with either program. However, each program has its limitations, as discussed below.

iTunes version 4.7: So So
SoundBridge can play WMA, AAC (non-protected), MP3, AIFF, and WAV formats, but cannot play AAC protected songs purchased from the Apple Music Store. For me, however, the playability of protected AAC format is not an issue since I do not plan on purchasing any AAC protected songs, purely because they are not in a lossless format.

Browsing and searching by Songs, Albums, Artists, and Composers, as well as keyword searching and browsing by Genres, are all featured here. Also, all the songs in the playlists created in iTunes can be played.

The user interface for iTunes is a bit more intuitive and user friendly than SlimServer. For example, the remote “menu” and “exit” buttons do what they should, respectively bringing the home menu and exiting the current menu selection. I also liked the fast browsing feature. Instead of having to scroll through the items in the list one by one, I could skip to the next or previous letter in the list using the left and right arrow buttons. Although, I did not like the inability to loop to the first/last item in the list. In other words, if the last item was displayed, pressing the down button would not loop to the first item in the list. The loop feature, however, is available under SlimServer.

I am not sure why SoundBridge was unable to play the Apple lossless format under iTunes, while it was playable under SlimServer. This is a big deal for me since my music collection is in the Apple lossless format. For this reason alone, I gave the iTunes option a mediocre grade.

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SlimServer (Version 5.2.1): Good
SlimServer versions 5.3.1 and the latest 5.4 do not work with SoundBridge. However, prior version 5.2.1 does work, and is recommended by Roku. Fortunately, SlimServer supports lossless formats, namely Apple Lossless and FLAC, in addition to the other formats available under iTunes. AAC protected songs are again not playable either.

SlimServer allows browsing by Songs, Albums, Artists, Genres, and Music Folder, while limiting the search by Songs, Albums, and Artists. The saved playlists accessible by SoundBridge can include the combination of the playlists from iTunes and the customized playlists created either from SlimServer or directly from SoundBridge. That’s right, one nice feature, which is currently missing under iTunes, is the ability to create and save playlists directly from SoundBridge. The spectrum analyzer, which is available under the iTunes, however, is not available here. Another feature I liked was the ability to play ShoutCast radio stations. ITunes does have the ability to play radio stations listed under ShoutCast, but requires additional manipulation. Moreover, ShoutCast conveniently categorized the stations by genres, making it easier to surf radio stations.

SlimServer provides more flexibility and control because settings and the home menu can be customized from a Mac/PC using a web browser. The SlimServer interface, however, is not as friendly or intuitive as the iTunes interface. For example, pressing the menu button while playing a song changes the display format rather than going to the home menu. Instead, the left arrow button brings the display to the home menu. Also, the exit button doesn’t exit the current menu, but rather SlimServer. The interface thus adds a minor learning curve. In my opinion, the SoundBridge interface under iTunes has a slight edge primarily because of the faster browsing feature, which I really liked, even though it lacks the looping feature.

I tried putting all of my 7,000 plus songs into the playlist from the web browser. It seemed to take forever. If you have a large list of songs in your collection, be selective and include only the songs you really want to listen in the playlist. It makes browsing a lot easier too.

Sadly, the SoundBridge/SlimServer combination has annoying sound drop glitches during playback. For no apparent reason, sound drops intermittently even though the timer indicates the song is playing. At other times, it will simply stop playing altogether. The sound drops got worse when I simultaneously played iTunes directly at my Mac while playing songs through SoundBridge. If this issue did not exist, I would have rated the SlimServer option higher. The sound drop problems did not occur under iTunes.

Alarm Clock: Excellent
SlimServer provides an alarm clock, which is not available under iTunes. This feature alone is worth getting a SoundBridge. Now I could wake up to any song of my choice in the playlists. Note, however, for the alarm clock to work, my Mac had to be running all the time. So I had set up my Mac to never sleep. This is unfortunate, at least in terms of wasting energy. Perhaps Roku will add the wake-on-demand feature with the next update.

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Remote Control: Poor
I own a great deal of remotes. I would rate the SoundBridge remote as my worst. The ergonomics and controls are in the right place, but the buttons extend out too far and do not provide any feel (in my humble opinion). Moreover, the buttons tended to stick and too often had to be pressed multiple times to get them to work.

Sound Quality: Excellent
I ran subjective “ear” listening tests, toggling between AIFF formatted songs played through SoundBridge/iTunes and the same played directly from iTunes. Sounds from these two sources were indistinguishable to my ears. I know that this is subjective, but the audio output specification appears to support my conclusion that the SoundBridge is a capable hi-fi component.

I listened to the Until the End of the World soundtrack because it contains a wide range of music/dynamics. The soundtrack was imported to iTunes in AIFF format so the same track could be simultaneously played directly from both iTunes and SoundBridge. The output from the iTunes was input to a M-Audio Firewire 410 interface via a Firewire 400 cable, while the output from SoundBridge was input to the M-Audio interface via an optical cable. The outputs from iTunes and SoundBridge were directed respectively to output channels 1/2 and 3/4 of the M-Audio interface using its driver/mixer. Output channels 1/2 and 3/4 were directed to a headphone. These output channels were selectively output to the headphones for comparison.

Support: Excellent
I must say that Roku’s interactive Forum is an excellent way of sharing and resolving problems. The forums are frequently answered directly by Roku’s engineering team.

Conclusion
Would I recommend SoundBridge? Unequivocally yes, in spite of the shortcomings of its remote, inability to play Apple Lossless under iTunes, and sound drops with SlimServer. In fact, I will likely buy several units in the near future. Hopefully by then all of the shortcomings mentioned will be resolved.

Pros
Alarm Clock
Excellent Audio Specification
Big (12″) and bright Display (with dim control)
Open Source Support (SlimServer)
Easily Upgradeable Firmware
Multiple SoundBrige access to a single iTunes.

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Cons
Poor buttons on the Remote
Sound drop with SlimServer
No support for Shared Key for wireless

Wish List
Alarm for iTunes
Loop Scroll with iTunes (like SlimServer)
Fast Forward Capability during Playback
Apple lossless playability with iTunes
Better remote
Wake on demand

Test equipment
Apple Power Mac G4
M-Audio Firewire 410 Interface with driver/mixer version 1.2.4
Sennheiser HD202 Headphones
Until the End of the World Soundtrack

Two models to choose from
Roku SoundBridge M2000 – MSRP $499
Roku SoundBridge M1000 – MSRP $249 (same device, with a smaller display)

by Lyle Kimms
eCoustics Contributing Editor/Technical Writer

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