Roku wants to replace your bedside clock radio with a gadget that tunes in to Internet radio stations and plays your digital music collection...
Roku wants to replace your bedside clock radio with a gadget that tunes in to Internet radio stations and plays your digital music collection.
The SoundBridge Radio, which Roku announced recently, is one of those rare home-networked devices that was easy to set up and use — just like a radio. And it produced surprisingly rich sound quality that put it on par with Bose or Cambridge SoundWorks.
The SoundBridge Radio works like its traditional namesake — it tunes in AM and FM stations and plays music through its built-in high-fidelity speakers. But it also connects to your home’s wireless network to fetch and play music off your computer’s hard drive or receive Internet radio stations. Those include local stations that stream their broadcasts online or channels that are found only on the Internet.
But Roku will have a tough time competing with the audiophile’s favorite, Bose’s Wave Music System, when it comes to looks.
Roku’s original networked home music player, the SoundBridge, has a distinctive tubular design with a long LCD display that gave it a sleek, futuristic feel. The SoundBridge Radio, on the other hand, bears an unfortunate resemblance to those gigantic home intercoms of the 1960s.
Some people will hasten to note that what’s important is not how a radio looks but how it sounds. Still, if Roku wants a spot on my granite kitchen counter, it better look hot, too. That’s doubly true if I’m prepared to lay out $399 for a clock radio instead of $10.
But enough about looks.
Roku recognized an opportunity in the growing popularity of Internet radio, which now attracts about 40 million listeners. The original SoundBridge let people listen to Internet radio or their digital music collections through their home stereo.
Of course, not everybody wants to invest the effort in modifying existing stereo equipment to liberate the music from home computers. The SoundBridge Radio targets this less-hassle-is-more market.
It took fewer than five minutes to add the radio to my encrypted wireless home network. The LCD screen prompted me to provide the most basic information — language, time zone, country of residence and network password, which I did using the remote control.
After briefly restarting, the SoundBridge Radio was ready to rock. A source button lets you select audio options: AM or FM radio, Internet radio or your digital music collection stored on a computer’s hard drive or a memory card.
I was impressed with how the SoundBridge Radio automatically found the music tucked away inside my Mac’s iTunes folder. The only limitation — and it’s a significant one — is one Apple Computer has imposed. The SoundBridge Radio cannot play music purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store because Apple refuses to license its software to other hardware makers. (Apple, c’mon, set my music free.)
The SoundBridge Radio works with other digital music services, playing music purchased or played in a continuous stream from Napster or MSN Music. It also will play music streams from RealNetworks’ Rhapsody. But given that Apple controls 82 percent of the paid online music market, this will give iTunes music buyers pause.
Roku added some other nice touches worth mentioning. It ships with 50 preprogrammed Internet radio stations, including my personal favorite, the eclectic Radio Paradise. A scan button lets you find new stations, just as you would tune any other radio.
The radio also has six preset buttons along the top, which can be configured to remember 18 channels. Naturally, you can store your favorite radio stations. But what I liked was the ability to store playlists or albums fetched from my computer’s hard drive. For example, I stored Coldplay’s “X&Y” by simply playing the album and touching a preset. The system conveniently and automatically assigns names to each channel, so you don’t need total recall.
One more thing: It’s a clock radio with an alarm and a big snooze button. But don’t toss this across the room when you’re half-asleep. You’ll regret it.