Music in the Air

Ever the old-schooler, Steve keeps his music collection in fragile circular media stacked in cabinets and CD racks and shelves. Ever the belt-and-suspenders type, Angela keeps hers on an external hard drive connected (usually) to her laptop--along with backup copies of everything in an off-site location. But the lure of convenience and portability has indeed taken her collection entirely digital.

If your collection's more like Angela's than Steve's, you may find yourself wishing the music was even more portable--streamable from your computer across the network and playable just about anywhere. The Duo previously discussed the Sonos Digital Music System, which does just that, but the over-$1000 price tag didn't sit well with either of them. Since that show, two appealing options have made their way through the Duo's testing facilities: the AirPort Express from Apple Computer and the Roku SoundBridge.

The AirPort Express is basically a device that can act as a hub at the center of a Wi-Fi network, or behave as if it were a Wi-Fi adapter on a network that already has a hub. But what it also can do--and there's really nothing else on the market that can--is connect up to just about anything that can play music via a standard cable and stream songs from ITunes on a Windows machine or a Mac, whether or not you ripped it from a CD or bought it from the ITunes Music Store. Basically, anything you listen to from ITunes, including Internet radio stations, you can send to the AirPort Express.

That's the good news. The bad? There's no user interface. None. You want to change songs? Go back up to where the computer is. You can buy an add-on remote, but it mostly lets you pause the audio or move from song to song in a playlist without seeing what's next. (Hello, Shuffle!) And Steve found it extremely hard to set up the AirPort Express on his preexisting Windows Wi-Fi network, which doesn't happen to use Apple hardware. With Macs, it's easier.

The Roku SoundBridge, meanwhile, comes in three sizes that differ mainly in the quality of their screens--and the size of their price tags. The largest model, the M2000, goes for $400. The smaller M1000 is half the price, and there's an even-cheaper model with a screen that's not as nice. The SoundBridges connect to three different music players you might have on your computer: Windows Media Player, Musicmatch, or ITunes, though as tech journalist Dawn Chmielewski pointed out, the devices won't play music you bought from Apple's ITunes Music Store. They will play some purchased Windows Media files but, Angela says, Microsoft's Windows Media Connect software is pretty bare-bones in the way it works on your computer.

Unlike the AirPort, the SoundBridge includes a remote, and you can scroll through your collection to set up a music queue. But what look like fast-forward and reverse buttons will only sort of jump you through the song, and bigger songs give you longer, less-precise jumps. There are all sorts of arcane things you can do with the remote, but the learning curve for those will be high. Steve liked the volume control, though. The sound was fine over his wireless network, and he appreciated the simplicity--the SoundBridge doesn't try to give you slide shows and videos and the rest. His only real quibble, in fact, is that a couple of Internet radio stations forced the gadget to reboot.

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