Group Test: Wireless music streamers
Sends songs to your hi-fi with these four systems
Round up The Roku Soundbridge M1001, Logitech's Squeezebox Duet, Philips' Streamium NP1100 and the Sonos Digital Music System all offer ways to get the music on your hard drive to pump out of your stereo.
They do so in various forms with various extra functionalities and at various prices, but at the end of the day they all do basically the same job. All allow you to place your computer, Wi-Fi router and hi-fi in different parts of your house and still indulge in single-minded pursuit of the groove.
Logitech's Squeezebox Duet: smart remote, simple streamer
Physically, the Roku and Philips streamers have the most in common, both having LED screens built into the main units and screen-less remote controls, so you have to be with in sight of the base units to use them.
Roku's Soundbridge M1001: a lovely bit of kit?
The Roku is a lovely and unique bit of kit: a silver tube 60mm in diameter and 255mm in length that sits on a rubber mount to stop it rolling about. The Philips is more work-a-day, being a 195 x 104 x 38mm block of a device with the main housing sitting inside a clear plastic sleeve – this could have been purpose-designed as a dust trap. The foam packing our review device came in had started to disintegrate so the gap between the device and the housing was full of black dust which was none too attractive.
We looked at Sonos' Bundle 150 package, which comprises a ZonePlayer 90 and ZonePlayer 120 and a whizz-bang remote. They look like, well, like Sonos units. Take a look at the picture, it's faster than us trying to describe it all to you. What we have is a slightly tweaked and more “affordable” version of Sonos' established hardware that we've reviewed in the past. The ZP120 sports a built-in 2 x 55W amplifier, so all you need are speakers. The ZP90 is designed simply to feed a hi-fi.
Philips' Streamium NP1100: the biggest screen of the lot
The Squeezebox consists of a pretty cheap looking black plastic receiver, but as you'll be tucking that away from sight, who cares? It's partnerd with a sleek black remote that's the only the bit of system your friends will see at dinner parties.
Though the Philips device has by far the larger screen, the display renders text in a strange pseudo-LCD style that makes some text sizes look very blocky. It also lags rather badly with the result that you often skip past the function you want, thinking the player hasn't acknowledged the command. The Roku's two-line screen is far simpler but also works faster and more fluidly making for a happier experience. The one advantage the Philips system does have is that you can read the Now Playing... screen from across a room with no need to squint.
Sonos' Bundle 150: two room units and a whizz-bang remote
The Roku makes a decent clock when on standby showing the day, date and time as a bright clear one-line display.
We should point out that we suspect Philips device we tested may have had beta firmware. Why? Well, the menu has settings to access both pictures and video, which is a little curious on a music streamer. Philips recently announced a big brother to the NP1100, the NP2500, which offers same basic functionality but with a colour screen and some fancy sound-enhancement technology.
None of these devices are going to tax the old grey matter too much when it comes to setting them up. The Philips and Roku devices are unbelievable simple: plug in, switch on, type in any needed Wi-Fi security codes and that's it. Done. With no need for instructions or an Ethernet cable.
Sonos' Controller Cradle (left) costs £30 extra. Logitech's is free with the remote
To be frank, the Sonos and Logitech aren't much more complex though both require some server software to be installed on your computer – Sonos Desktop for the Sonos, SqueezeCentre for the Logitech - while the Logitech's set-up menus are just a little less self-evident than those on the Sonos. The Logitech's enclosed Quick Start guide is rather poorly written and just a bit confusing, the downloadable full instructions being far more comprehensive and much easier to follow.
Round the back: Sonos' ZP90 (left) and ZP120
Both the Logitech and Sonos set ups come with all-singing, all-dancing wireless remote controls that allow you to navigate your media from anywhere in the house and play different music through different parts of the network.
The Sonos remote has long set the standard in this field, but we found the Logitech unit was easier and faster to use notwithstanding it only having a 2.4in as opposed to 3.5in screen. The Sonos remote lasted longer on a full charge but by way of compensation Logitech supply a stand/charger while Sonos want an extra £30 for the same.
All four devices have Ethernet ports, though the Sonos system comes with two which could come in handy if you want to add a PlayStation 3 or the like to your network. The Roku, Logitech and Sonos come with digital optical and coax, and analogue connectors. The Philips lacks an optical connector but adds a 3.5mm headphones socket. The Roku's analogue audio output actually is a 3.5mm audio port rather than the usual RCA so it doubles up as a headphones jack.
Round the back: the Roku
One major difference between the Sonos system and the others is that it relies on a bespoke wireless mesh technology rather than on good old 802.11 Wi-Fi to communicate with itself.
Round the back: the Philips
The short and tall of this is that if you live in a mansion the Sonos system's units can be expanded ever outward to cover a huge area. For those of us who live in three-bedroom semis and don't regularly feel the need to have Springsteen in the lounge, Mahler in the loo and Dido in the master bedroom, all at the same time, this is perhaps overkill.
Round the back: the Squeezebox Duet
More to the point, to expand your Sonos network to the far reaches of the ancestral pile you're going to need seriously deep pockets. Each new ZP90 will set you back £250, while Logitech only want 99 of your hard earned pounds for an extra Squeezebox receiver. Fair enough, the Sonos bundle will play music in two rooms out of the box, but to do the same with the Squeezebox will still only cost you exactly half as much.
When it comes to making sense of your music library, all four systems take a slightly different tack. The Roku impressed us by being able to hook up to both the iTunes and SqueezeCentre servers on our PC as well as Windows Media Centre. Being able to run off iTunes also means that although the Roku still won't play your DRM-protected files at least it lets you know they are there. The Logitech will only run off SqueezeCentre, but as this does a very solid job of reading ID3 tags.
Sonos' wireless remote: cumbersome but fully featured
The Sonos server software looks directly at your music folders and does a pretty good job of translating that into a friendly form the wireless remote control can display while you're perambulating. But its ability to compile a usable catalogue from an iTunes library didn't quite match that of SqueezeCentre. Bottom line, if iTunes is your everyday music software - and for many, many folk it is - the Logitech and Roku devices do the best job.
Philips' remote, Logitech's and Roku's (left to right)
The Philips depends on good old UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) which is fine if you're using a compatible media player to organise your files or have everything laid out in folders but a bit hit and miss if you are an iTunes user, keep all your music tracks in a single, gargantuan folder, and simply add your music library to a UPnP server for the sake of streaming.
As SqueezeCentre will run on the majority of Linux distros, the Logitech and Roku devices are self-recommending to the open source community.
How the server software sorts your files in only part of the story - the ability to navigate through your tracks is at least as important. Here the remote controls that show colour album artwork - the Sonos and Logitech devices - have a clear advantage. Both allow you to navigate through even the largest media libraries with ease and speed from anywhere in the house. The Sonos' iPod-style scrollwheel is particularly handy here.
The Roku's display: bright
Neck and neck between the Sonos and Logitech players here with both supporting MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, Flac, Apple Lossless and WAV. The Sonos also supports AIFF and Audible, while the Logitech has WMA Lossless. The Roku and Philips players restrict themselves to the basics: WMA, non-DRM AAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, MP3 and AIFF for the Roku, and MP3, WMA, non-DRM AAC and PCM on the Philips.
The Streamium screen: big but blocky
Now let's be honest, crushing audio bores and Pipistrelle bats aside, sound quality is not a reason to buy any one of these devices in preference to the others. Fill your hard drive with 64Kb/s files, play them back through a 2.1 active speaker system you picked up in Asda for 20 quid and the results are going to sound horrible. Play decent bit rate files using a quality home cinema system or Hi-Fi and the DACs in all four devices will do just fine. Even the Roku, which makes do with pumping its audio out via a 3.5mm audio jack, proved more than competent.
Looking at our test notes from a day spent swapping back and forth between an LG 5.1 home cinema system and Cambridge Audio amp with B&W speakers, all we really discovered is that the Roku is the loudest of the bunch, but not by much; that the Logitech produced a sound with a slightly greater sense of warmth - presumably down to its fancy 24-bit DAC; and the Sonos had a firmer bass when playing loud rock. But that is, frankly, splitting hairs - the bottom line is all four perform more than acceptably.
The Sonos screen: clear and intuitive to use
Radio and Other Services
For internet radio fans, the Roku is a joy to use. It quickly found 11,712 stations and lets you sort through them by first letter of station title before you have to scroll through the list to find what you're looking for. It's easy to add stations to a Favourites list too. The Streamium quickly found a host of BBC Real Audio “listen again” streams but alas couldn't play them, though hopefully this will be fixed by a firmware update down the line. It shouldn't count as a negative as the other three devices couldn't even see those BBC streams let alone play them.
The Duet screen: small but colourful
The Squeezebox accesses the net through the SqueezeNetwork service, which allows it to dovetail with such online music services as Rhapsody, MP3tunes' Music Locker and Live Music Archive.
This may well the defining factor for many purchasers. The Sonos, in the form the new “cheaper” starter pack, still costs a pretty eye-watering £699. The Logitech is a more real-world £279. The Roku device can be picked up for around the £125 mark, and we expect the Philips player to be about the same or maybe a little less when it becomes generally available. Of course, the Roku and Philips devices lack the multi-room add-on functionality of the two more expensive devices or the remote controllers that allow you to navigate through your media from any place in the house.
If it was our money we'd go for the Logitech. It does all we want and does it well, all for a reasonable price and with a remote that's a joy to use - even more so when compared to the rather large and cumbersome Sonos remote. If cash is tight, and you only plan on using the device in one room, the Roku has a lot going for it especially in the looks department and the ability to get chummy with your iTunes server.
The Philips Streamium doesn't really do anything that the Roku doesn't, and of the two the Roku is the nicer looking and easier to use. The Sonos rig is fantastic, but it's expensive and we have serious doubts as to how many people want to actually going to fork out £700 for a music streamer albeit such capable one. We also can't help feeling that charging £30 for a charging cradle for the remote is taking the pee.