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Product Review
 

Roku SoundBridge M1000 Network Music Player

May, 2005

Sumit Chawla

 

Specifications


● Codecs: WMA, AAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF, Lossless
    (WMA, Apple, FLAC)

● Music Servers: Windows Media Connect, iTunes,
    Slimserver, Rhapsody, Musicmatch, and Others

● Platform Support: Windows/Mac (depends on
    choice of music server)

● Network: 10 MBit wired Ethernet or Wireless
    (802.11b)

● Audio outputs: Coax/Optical Digital; Stereo
    Analog (RCA)

● DAC: Cirrus Logic CS4344

● Processor: 400 MHz Blackfin Processor

● Vacuum Fluorescent Display: 280 x 16 Pixels

● Dimensions: 10 Long x 2.37 Diameter

● Weight: 1.5 Pounds

● MSRP: $249.99 USA

Roku

www.rokulabs.com

Introduction

A while back, I reviewed a receiver from Integra which had built-in Ethernet support and capability of streaming compressed audio files over the network. I really liked that capability and wished that something similar could be used with products from other manufacturers. Certainly an external box somewhere between an SSP and a computer would be a welcome solution.

Recently, I was talking to a colleague at work about network music players, and he told me to look at the SoundBridge product family from Roku. I looked at the feature list on their website, and it seemed to have what I wanted. So I sent an e-mail to their PR agency requesting a review sample, and they kindly obliged. The M1000 was sent on its way.

The Parts

The M1000 can be used in either wired or wireless mode. An Ethernet jack and a CompactFlash card slot for the wireless adapter are located beneath a removable cap on the left-side of the M1000. My review unit came with an 802.11b card. (Note: 802.11g is not supported at this time.)

Inputs and outputs are located at the ends, with the audio outputs being on the right end of the M1000. The jacks are covered by a removable cap, and include optical/coax digital and RCA stereo analog. The digital and analog outputs are active at all times. The first photo below shows the input array, on the left end of the unit, while the second one shows the outputs on the other end.

At the heart of the M1000 is a 400 MHz Blackfin microprocessor, a DSP chip from Analog Devices. Future firmware updates can be used to support additional audio compression formats and/or improve the user interface.

The M1000 uses an excellent Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD). The display has a 280x16 pixel array, for up to two lines of text, with a 16 pixel font being the maximum size that can be displayed. The text is bright and readable even from wide angles. If a bigger display is desired, the M2000 is the other SoundBridge model to consider; its display uses a 512x32 pixel array.

The supplied remote is small and fits into the hand quite easily. The buttons are well laid out, which is good since there are no hard buttons on the SoundBridge itself. The remote is not backlit, and this is something that I missed having. (A photo of the remote is shown at the top of this review.)

Installation

Installing the M1000 for use in wired mode is a breeze. Simply attach an Ethernet cable from your router to the M1000 and you are ready to go. For wireless operation, a few simple steps may be required depending on how your wireless network has been set up. If your setup has no security key set (not recommended, since this allows anyone to connect to your network), then nothing needs to be done. If a security key has been set up, then one must enter the SSID and WEP key into the M1000. This is accomplished by scrolling/selecting the characters/numbers using the remote control. My network was set up to use WPA, which is not supported at present, so I had to change the router to use WEP and then change the wireless settings on my laptops. This required some time, but once done, the M1000 connected to the wireless network without any problem.

One added benefit of having the M1000 connect to the network is that, it can download firmware updates over the network. There is a simple menu item to check for updates. Once selected, it communicates with the Roku site to determine if an update is available. If it is, it downloads it and installs it. Unlike other products which require you to first download an update on a computer, then connect the unit to it and then typically install some program to install the update over a serial connection, the Roku does the job direct from the Internet to the M1000.

Music Server

The M1000 connects to a music server installed on a computer to play music files or request information (list of music files, playlists, search results, etc.) about the music library. The unit itself has no hard-disk and as such does not store any music. Once the user selects a track to play, the music server streams the contents of that file to the M1000 which it then plays.

The M1000 is extremely flexible in terms of the music servers that it supports. Some of the supported servers include: iTunes, Windows Media Connect, SlimServer, and Rhapsody. Chances are good that you may already be using one of these servers to manage and play music on your computer. Being able to continue using a familiar environment with the M1000 is certainly an added bonus. Moreover, support for iTunes and SlimServer add the Macintosh platform to the mix. Note that all the servers do not provide the same functionality. For example, some support keyword search, while others do not.

The Roku site http://www.rokulabs.com/products/soundbridge/servernotes.php has a very good table comparing the features supported by several servers. Also, using SlimServer (not officially supported by Roku) results in the M1000 emulating a different device with a different user interface. It takes a little getting used to if you switch between using SlimServer and iTunes.

Multiple SoundBridge units can connect to a single server. With Windows Media Connect, one can use up to 10 SoundBridge units. You can connect 5 SoundBridges when using iTunes.

Lossless Compression

MP3s have certainly been the rage. Perhaps the main reason is that high compression allows plenty of music to be stored on portable players with limited hard drive space. The compression format is, however, lossy, meaning that the reconstruction is different (not as good) than the original. The higher the compression, the greater the difference between the original and the reconstruction. A lossless compression format has the advantage of yielding a bit-perfect reconstruction. The disadvantage, however, is that the compression ratio is far less than using the MP3 compression algorithm. Note: The data rate on a CD is about 1.4 Mb/s (2-channels, 16-bits/channels, 44.1kHz sampling). Typical MP3 file sizes are: 128, 160, 192, 224, 256, 320 kbits/s. Lossless compression typically gives a file size reduction by a factor of 2. FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and Meridian Lossless Compression are examples of compression codecs that allow reduced file sizes without losing the quality contained in the original recording file. If one is archiving their CD collection, lossless compression certainly makes a lot of sense. One can always transcode the original to an MP3 or any other format, to play on a portable player at a later time, but the original is always preserved.

The nice part about the M1000 is that playback of several lossless formats is supported. WMA Lossless files can be played back using Windows Media Connect. Apple Lossless and FLAC files can be played back using SlimServer. In all cases, the lossless file is decompressed on the computer and transmitted as LPCM to the M1000. Multi-channel tracks can be transmitted to an SSP by compressing them using a lossless codec; in this case the raw bitstream will be sent to the digital outputs. I asked Roku if it would be possible to do the decompression on the Blackfin. They told me that they could do that. It was simply a matter of finding and licensing an appropriate codec, and they were looking into that.

Wireless Signal Strength

The manual recommends a signal strength of 20+ for the M1000 to work without any hiccups. When I first powered on the M1000, the signal strength measured in the mid-teens. Playing music with this low signal strength resulted in repeated breaks in the music. After each break, the data would get re-buffered and the music would resume.

The main reason for the low signal strength had to do with the distance between the wireless router and the M1000. So I did some searching on the net to find some solutions to boost the signal strength. Several possibilities showed up: use a higher gain antenna, use a wireless repeater, use an 802.11g wireless game adapter, or use a pair of adaptors to send the data over a power line. I opted for the higher gain antenna, since that was going to be the simplest solution to try. A visit to Frys showed a shelf full of antenna options. I picked one up with a 6dB gain for close to the same price as the router itself! Using this antenna and relocating the router to another part of the room I was able to attain signal strength in the low twenties. I was now in business. Playing MP3s from here on out was not a problem. Playing lossless files uninterrupted, however, was still a problem. According to Roku, the signal strength had to be 30+ to play lossless files. I opted to get the required signal strength by placing the M1000 and the router in the same room in close proximity.

I hope that the next generation models from Roku include support for 802.11g and that the units themselves have an external antenna. This should add robustness to the M1000s operation in wireless mode.

In Action

Listening to music over the M1000 turned out to be a lot of fun. I was searching for music, creating playlists, and monitoring the bitrate of the track being played. The playlists in particular can be really handy for a reviewer. Typically when I evaluate some equipment I play several tracks that span several disks. With the M1000, I could just create a playlist containing all such tracks. No more disk swapping!

During the course of the review, I tried three different music servers on my Windows XP laptop: iTunes, Windows Media Connect, and SlimServer. I also installed SlimServer on an old Windows NT desktop, and that worked as well. When multiple servers were running concurrently, the M1000 displayed a list of all the servers it could connect to. I could select a server from this list and get access to its music library.

I spent most of my time listening to MP3, since playing lossless tracks required that I place the router in the family room with a long wire running across the hall to where the modem was. This had to be done to boost the signal strength into the mid 30s, without which there was frequent re-buffering. Even with this high signal strength, I got breaks in the music as the M1000 re-buffered. This was most likely because both the M1000 and the machine running the music server (Windows Media Connect) were in wireless mode.

When I used the M1000 in wired mode while leaving the laptop running in wireless mode, I did not run into any issues. Roku recommends that the computer running the music server be wired (to the router) when playing lossless compressed tracks. So if the machine you are running the music server on is wired and the signal strength on the M1000 is 30+, you should be good to go. When using Slimserver to play Apple Lossless tracks, however, I had to have both the M1000 and the machine running the music server wired. If either one ran wireless, the M1000 would occasionally crash and it then had to be power cycled.

Prior to having the M1000, I had not heard much Internet Radio. With the M1000, I spent a good deal of time listening to some Internet radio stations. The good part about listening to these stations was that unlike listening to your personal music collection, the M1000 received the data directly over the broadband connection. The computer did not have to be turned on.

To evaluate the quality of the M1000s onboard DACs, I connected both the optical and analog outputs from the SoundBridge to my Lexicon MC-12 SSP. I set up two inputs on the MC-12, one digital and one analog bypass, which allowed me to switch between using the DACs on the M1000 and the MC12. Comparing the two, my preference was clearly for the DACs in the MC-12. The bass was tighter, the treble sounded more open, and the midrange was smoother. Of course, the MC-12 is 50 times more expensive than the M1000.

I ran into a couple of operational quirks when using the M1000. One issue was that the channels occasionally swapped when I would skip forward/backward a few tracks. In addition to the channels being swapped, the relative levels between the channels changed as well. Power cycling the unit fixed the problem. The good part is that Roku has issued a firmware fix for this. It was made available after I returned the review unit, so I was not able to test this.

The other issue I ran into was when I used the digital outputs with a B&K AVR307 receiver. Using either the coax or optical output resulted in no sound. The analog outputs worked without any hiccup. I searched for this issue on the Roku forum, and sure enough I saw this same issue reported by another user. The source of the problem appears to be old firmware on the B&K. I had been having lockup problems with the optical connection using my DISH 921 DVR as well. Incidentally, Roku had been using a B&K SSP in their lab without any problem, so I think that the old firmware is the culprit.

Besides the B&K receiver issue, there is a wealth of other information on the Roku forum. If you own a Roku product, I highly recommend that you frequent their forum site.

Conclusions

The SoundBridge is an excellent product, and a delight to use. The support for multiple music servers, multiple platforms, and support for both lossy and lossless compression formats makes this an extremely flexible product. The presence of DSP coupled with the ease of updating firmware means that new features can be added with ease. My only word of caution has to do with its performance in wireless mode. If your signal strength is low, you will either have to investigate means of boosting signal strength or look elsewhere. If your signal strength is good or you plan to use the M1000 in wired mode, then invest in a nice hard-disk to archive your CDs on, and let the fun begin!


- Sumit Chawla -

Copyright 2005 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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