About five years ago I started phasing CDs out of my life entirely. I digitized my entire music collection and moved the jewel boxes into the garage. I stopped buying new CDs and committed to only acquiring new music in a digital format (eMusic helped tremendously). Then I began looking for the perfect stereo component that would play my digital music collection through a traditional home entertainment system. Ultimately, I bought a Turtle Beach AudioTron.
The Audiotron fits into a stereo rack and connects to a receiver like a normal audio component, but it also has the ability to connect to a home network and play audio stored on a PC or media server. The AudioTron was an amazing innovation in its day, effectively liberating digital music from the PC and bringing it back into the living room where it belongs.
My AudioTron served me well over the years, becoming an integral part of our household, until last week when it suddenly died. In our home the death of the AudioTron qualified as a stage-one emergency. All other activities ceased while I considered my options.
As far as I can tell, Turtle Beach no longer manufactures the AudioTron. Which is probably just as well, considering there are a number of new products that surpass the AudioTron in features. While I loved my AudioTron, it had its quirks and was clearly a first generation product.
Evaluating The Current Options:
From the beginning of my search I was determined to avoid media extenders like Apple’s Airport Express or the Linksys Music Bridge. While media extenders will transfer music from your PC to your home entertainment center, they lack a display that shows you what you’re listening to, and they provide no interface for controlling playback of your music. Instead, you’ll find yourself running back to your computer to queue up a playlist or find out the title of a long forgotten song. Not my idea of a good time.
Instead, I limited my search to component devices that plug directly into a receiver, include a built-in display, and are controllable via remote. These requirements narrowed the field considerably to the following products:
The Sonos is widely considered to be the ultimate network music player. Its state-of-the-art remote includes a color display and scroll wheel that provides an iPod like interface to your music collection. The modular design allows you to expand your coverage by connecting up to 32 Sonos players wirelessly. The Sonos is a digital music geek’s dream come true. It’s also somewhat expensive. Which is why I quickly eliminated it as an option for this round of upgrades.
We’re currently starting the process of remodeling our home and it’s likely that a Sonos system is in our future, but for this iteration I limited my search to products that met my immediate needs at a lower price point. Which left me to choose between the Squeezebox and the SoundBridge.
While both players are more than adequate replacements for the Audiotron, I ultimately selected the SoundBridge for the following reasons:
- The SoundBridge is widely available. I was able to run down to the nearest Best Buy and make my emergency purchase without delay. The Best Buy clerks had never even heard of the Squeezebox. Although they did try to sell me a Slingbox – which is not the same thing.
- The SoundBridge is about $100 less expensive than the Squeezebox. Although, as I’ll note below, the SoundBridge has some limitations that come along with the lower price, it was more than adequate for my immediate needs.
- The SoundBridge is capable of using iTunes as a music server and playing music directly from your iTunes library. While I’m not an iTunes fan, all of my music is currently loaded into iTunes. The ability to listen to iTunes playlists (including smart playlists) through the player has a certain appeal. One of the Audiotron’s main shortcomings was the complexity involved in creating and managing playlists. Unfortunately, as I’ll note below, the SoundBridge’s iTunes integration is not nearly as seamless as I had hoped it would be.
The SoundBridge is a tube shaped device with analog and optical stereo output, built-in wireless networking, and an ethernet port. The unit has an extremely bright 280×16 vacuum fluorescent display. The display shows current track information and can also be used to control the player, select playlists, browse your library, etc.
The SoundBridge can play most Internet radio streams and supports MP3, WMA, WAV, AIFF, and unencrypted AAC files. However, it won’t play songs purchased through the iTunes Music Store — which isn’t a problem for me since I don’t buy music from iTunes and don’t plan on buying iTunes anytime soon. If you have a large collection of songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store this is not the player for you – you’ll probably want to use the Airport Express or the soon to be released iTV.
The SoundBridge is PlaysForSure compatible. That means it should be able to play the current generation of Windows DRM’d songs – but probably not Zune DRM’d music. The unit is also compatible with subscription music services like Rhapsody, Napster, and Yahoo Unlimited. I don’t consider this feature to be much of a selling point since I don’t buy DRM’d music, and even Microsoft is abandoning PlaysForSure.
- Setup couldn’t be easier. Plug the SoundBridge in and it’s on your network in a matter of seconds. If you plan to use the built-in WiFi you’ll probably need to enter your WEP key with the SoundBridge remote, provided your wireless network has WEP encryption enabled. I bypassed this step by plugging the SoundBridge into the WiFi bridge that I had previously setup for my Audiotron. Once the SoundBridge is up and running it offers to upgrade itself to the most recent firmware. While firmware upgrades can occasionally be tricky, the SoundBridge upgrade was quick and painless.
- Once the SoundBridge is up and running it’s accessible via Apple’s Bonjour protocol. If you’ve got a Mac, just open Safari and you’ll see the SoundBridge listed in your the Bonjour bookmark group. Select the SoundBridge bookmark for immediate access to the player’s web interface.
- Bonjour and iTunes DAAP support allows the player to connect to your iTunes library, giving you the ability to search and browse your music collection using the SoundBridge’s remote. The ability to select and listen to playlists created iTunes is a major plus.
- Browsing through a very large collection of music is surprisingly easy. Much easier than it was with the Audiotron.
- Startup is also significantly quicker than the Audiotron. With the Audiotron, the player had to scan the network and read in all of the available music one track at a time. With a large collection of music it could take 30 minutes before the Audiotron was ready to play after a reboot. After powering up, the SoundBridge is ready to go in a matter of seconds.
- In addition to iTunes, the SoundBridge can use other music servers, including Slim Devices SlimServer – the same music server the SqueezeBox uses. SlimServer provides a bit more flexibility, and support for a few more audio formats, including FLAC and Ogg Vorbis.
- My shared iTunes library was visible immediately after setup. Unfortunately there was just one problem. I was unable to browse or play music from the library. A quick trip to the Roku support forum revealed that the SoundBridge’s iTunes integration was broken with the release of iTunes 7. A firmware upgrade is in the works, but there’s no timetable for its release. Fortunately there’s a workaround. Roku suggests using an open-source music server called Firefly. Firefly has the ability to read the iTunes library’s XML file, then share music from the library via Bonjour. Firefly setup was straightforward and the server works as advertised. It can take a few minutes for the Firefly server to register changes that are made in iTunes, but that’s preferable to the alternative, which would be no iTunes integration at all.
- Wireless networking is 802.11b only. If you have a faster 802.11g network you may need to switch your access point to mixed mode to use the SoundBridge. Since my SoundBridge is plugged into a 802.11g wireless bridge this isn’t really an issue for me.
- Wireless security supports WEP only, not the more secure WPA standard. Again, this isn’t a problem for me because I’m using the devices built-in ethernet to connect to a wireless bridge.
As I’ve noted, the SoundBridge does have a few limitations, but they have almost no impact on my music listening experience. The SoundBridge is a more than capable replacement for my Audiotron. I expect this player to provide a least a couple years of service until I’m ready for a Sonos system.