Creative Sound Blaster Wireless Music
From PC to hi-fi via Wi-Fi
Review With so many PC owners now having large collections of music on their hard drives, it's no surprise that we're seeing more and more devices designed to get that music off the computer and into the living room. Creative's Sound Blaster Wireless Music attempts to do all of this without the hassle of network cables, instead using a Wi-Fi network to stream audio data, writes Dave Cusick.
For your money, you get a Wi-Fi receiver box which sits next to your stereo, and a chunky remote control with a built-in LCD screen. The remote communicates with the receiver using radio waves rather than infrared, so there's no need for a line of sight to the receiver. The idea is that you can have your PC and wireless access point in one room, your receiver and stereo in another, and you and your remote in a third room.
On the back of the receiver, there are stereo analog audio output sockets, a digital output socket, a power input socket and a USB socket (for use during initial configuration). On the front, there's nothing apart from a circular status light and a Find Remote button which causes the remote control to beep - handy if you're the sort of person who regularly loses things down the back of the sofa.
The audio cable supplied in the box has stereo plugs at one end (to plug into the receiver) but a single jack plug at the other end. That's great if you're connecting it to a Creative speaker system, but if you're connecting it to a stereo then you'll need to buy a cable with stereo plugs at both ends. On the plus side, three AA batteries for the remote are supplied in the box.
There's a CD of software which needs to be installed on your PC in order for the system to work. At the centre of this is Creative MediaSource, a digital music organiser. You have to add your MP3 and WMA audio files to MediaSource's music library in order for them to be available through the Wireless Music system, though this is a quick and painless process. The job of actually streaming data over the wireless network to the receiver is handled transparently by a little server program, and once installed this will quietly start itself every time you boot up your PC.
If your wireless network uses standard, out-of-the-box settings (such as assigning IP addresses using DHCP, and not having WEP activated) then you can pretty much plug everything in, turn it all on and go. Otherwise, you'll need to hook the receiver up to the PC using the supplied USB cable, and work your way through a configuration wizard. This requires you to know details such as the SSID of your wireless network, the IP address the receiver should use, and the network WEP key (but note that shared key WEP is not supported).
After turning everything on, it takes a few seconds for the components of the system to find each other, and then you're ready to start playing tunes from your digital music library.
The menu on the remote's LCD screen is simple and intuitive, and will seem familiar if you have used any of Creative's portable MP3 players. You can pick individual tracks from your library, sorted by artist, album or genre, or you can play entire playlists that you've created using the MediaSource software. You can also listen to "Smart Playlists", generated by the software based on your listening preferences - for instance, Most Frequently Played, or Old Favourites (highly rated songs you've not played in the last month).
There's much to like about the Wireless Music system, but there are some failings too. For a start, there can often be big gaps between tracks - five or six seconds isn't uncommon. Nothing breaks the musical mood quite like having a long wait while the next tune is cued up.
What's more, the system's unique selling point - its feature-packed remote control - doesn't work as well as it should. Part of the problem is that navigating through an extensive music collection involves lots of button-pressing and scrolling. For example, to list all your Led Zeppelin tracks, you'll have to press Library, click OK, choose Artists, click OK, scroll through every letter of the alphabet down to L, click OK, then scroll through all the artists beginning with L until you finally reach the band you're after. The system is crying out for a Music Search feature, perhaps with the number keys on the remote doubling up as alphabetic keys. (In fact, the number keys are used solely to select playlists, which seems like a real missed opportunity).
Of more concern though, the remote isn't nearly as powerful as we'd like. It has a stated range of 32 feet in open space, but in real-life conditions you won't see this kind of performance. If there's more than one wall in the way, it usually doesn't work.
The receiver's range seems disappointing too, especially compared to some other wireless music devices we've seen. (Incidentally, when the reception fails with wireless audio devices, the sound quality doesn't deteriorate as it would if you were listening to a radio programme with poor radio reception. Instead it stops altogether for a few seconds, because the data stream has been interrupted).
How does the Wireless Music system compare with what's already out there? Well, let's take a quick look at three alternative offerings - the Linksys WMA-11b Wireless Media Adapter, the Netgear MP101 Music Player and Slim Devices' Squeezebox.
The Linksys WMA-11b uses an infrared remote control and a Wi-Fi receiver that is designed to sit next to your television. Your TV is used to display the menu system. While this limits your placement options, there's a benefit too: as well as music, you can access digital photos and videos from your PC, so that you can enjoy them in the lounge.
The Netgear MP101 has an infrared remote control and a Wi-Fi receiver with a small built-in LCD screen. At around £100, it's two-thirds of the price of the Creative device, though in terms of features and usability there isn't much between them.
The Squeezebox consists of an infrared remote control and a Wi-Fi receiver with a large LCD screen. It's a beautifully built device, with superb software which means that, for instance, you can sit in your armchair and add songs to the end of the current playlist, or generate a new playlist on the fly. You can also add to the system's functionality with free software plug-ins. It's also cross-platform (for more on the Squeezebox, see our review).
While the Wireless Music system certainly isn't bad, it lacks the multimedia versatility of the Linksys WMA-11b, and the flair and usability of the Squeezebox. It also costs much more than the functionally similar Netgear MP101. The Wireless Music's remote control does bring a couple of nice new ideas to the table, in the shape of the LCD screen and radio wave communication, but in practice they don't provide the benefits that they promise. Ultimately, the Wireless Music system isn't bad, but it's not as good as it could have been.
Wireless media adapters are getting pretty common these days, but the Creative Sound Blaster Wireless Music system does try to bring something new to the party. The RF remote control would have been a huge bonus, but the range isn't what it should have been. Overall, this is a solid system for streaming music wirelessly, but it had the potential to be so much better. ®
|Creative Sound Blaster Wireless Music|
|More info||The Creative site|
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