Sugg. Retail: US $499
(Reprinted from the Fall 2005 Issue)
I’ve long suspected that Wired magazine, although ostensibly a general interest technology publication, harbors at least several audiophiles on its staff. How many mainstream magazines occasionally feature little blurbs on Grado headphones, tube powered MP3 car audio head units or exotic plexiglass horn speakers? Of course they also cover a lot of IPod type portables, home theater in a box systems, and other devices related to music and computers, which, as it happens, is how I first laid eyes on the Roku SoundBridge.
Like the Creative Soundblaster Wireless Music system the SoundBridge is a digital link between your audio system and your computer, designed to stream audio files over a home network. Unlike the Soundblaster the SoundBridge can do this wirelessly or via Ethernet connection and features a large display right on its face instead of on the remote.
It’s the size and quality of this display, in fact, which has helped the SoundBridge attract quite a bit of praise and attention since being released this fall. One of the major stumbling blocks with media players like this one has been the problem of navigating through thousands of tracks, a problem Creative Labs tried (unsuccessfully) to address with a menu driven, LCD screen on its remote, and Apple largely ignored with its Airport Express (which forces the user to use the interface of an Itunes enabled computer to select tracks and start streaming). The Roku M2000 addresses this issue with a 12″ wide, 512 by 32 pixel vacuum fluorescent display, making menu navigation and track identification a snap, even from across the room. The smaller, cheaper (US $249.00) M1000 features a 280 X 16 display.
In what is probably an unintentional irony, especially for a product which transmits data throughout a building, the SoundBridge is shaped very much like a pneumatic tube cartridge (or carrier, as they’re called), which, for those of you beyond a certain age, may jog your memories back to an era of analog networks, where documents circulated around office buildings or grocery stores in pressurized pipes (in some mailrooms and hospital pharmacies these systems are still in use).
The Tube Knows Where to Go
The Roku is a very stylish piece of design, even before it’s powered up. It’s sleek shape and undeniably cool display should appeal to the growing legions of Ipod owners and Mac cultists out there (myself included). The tube is covered in a sliver brushed
aluminum finish with black plastic end caps which neatly hide all the connections. Most people will likely place the unit on a shelf or desk, and Roku provides a simple rubber footer, flat on the bottom side and semi circular on the other, to keep the M2000 from rolling around. There is also a wall mounting kit available as a US $29.99 extra.
Speaking of connections, the M2000 is also better spec’d in this department than most of the competition. On one end of the tube you’ll find a standard Ethernet jack and a slot for the Compact Flash 802.11b wireless card. Both the Ethernet jack and the wireless card feature activity lights, which can be handy if you’re trying to troubleshoot connectivity issues. The other end of the tube covers the audio side of things with two digital outputs (optical and coax) and a pair of RCA stereo outs. Another nice feature is that all audio outputs are live all the time, should you want to run the signal to more than one spot in your house from the same SoundBridge.
While the digital outs are good news to audiophiles, they wouldn’t mean too terribly much if, like the Creative Labs unit, the box didn’t stream uncompressed audio files. In this case both WAVs and AIFFs are supported, along with a host of compressed formats, including AAC, MP3, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, Apple Lossless and FLAC. While the latter three formats require the use of a free 3rd party software application called SlimServer, the Roku does its MP3, AAC, and WMA streaming via Apple’s Itunes or Windows Media, rather than a proprietary software suite like the SoundBlaster from Creative Labs. One caveat: the Roku will not play AAC files encoded with Digital Rights Management, like those sold through the Itunes Music Store. This, by the way, is Apple’s decision, not Roku’s, the files being “limited” in how they can be moved, copied and played. Also, those of you who may have high resolution WAVs or AIFFs are out of luck for anything beyond 16 bits and a 48 kHz sampling rate).
Crossing the Soundbridge
Basically the M2000 behaves like a computer accessing a shared Itunes library running on any machine connected to the network. As such setup is blissfully easy, the M2000 automatically finding any shared music libraries and making them available for playback. If you’re using the Ethernet connection it’s pretty much plug and play, assuming your router assigns it an IP address and Itunes is running on a machine somewhere on the network. In wireless mode you’ll need to give the Roku your encryption password (if you’re even using encryption), but that should be about the extent of it. I had the M2000 up and running in a matter of minutes.
Although some may gripe about being “forced” to use Itunes or Windows Media with the Roku (remember there’s always SlimServer too), the benefits of Apple’s protocol are immediately apparent when you start to use the M2000 with Itunes (since I used the Roku exclusively with my Mac, I used it only with Itunes). Unlike some of the proprietary software used to stream songs with other media servers, Itunes is consistently fast and smooth in operation. It also features the best interface in the business, a model of simplicity and functionality. It runs on both Macs and Windows PCs and costs nothing more than the time to download it.
Tracks can be accessed on the Soundbridge the very same way they are on your PC, so those familiar with Itunes or Windows Media Player will be up to speed with the Roku in no time. Since there’s no keyboard text searching is a little more cumbersome, requiring quite a few button presses to select letters from a menu in much the same way you would on a cell phone. The best way to get around this is to create a playlist of tracks you want to hear ahead of time on a PC, or setup Smart Playlists which can, for instance, update themselves automatically as new tracks are imported.
Loading up a playlist, or a particular artist or album is dead easy, and the SoundBridge always responds quickly to commands (although more quickly when connected via Ethernet). In fact, even though it is, in effect, a simple computer, the Roku doesn’t really feel like one, since it never freezes, crashes, needs excessive time to boot up or otherwise behave irrationally. Nor does it ever drop a stream or hiccup in any way, at least in my experience. Loading a particularly large playlist (ie my 11,000 track monster) could take ten seconds or so, but otherwise commands were completed pretty much instantly. It’s stable too. The SoundBridge could run in random mode indefinitely without ever missing a beat, whether streaming internet radio or MP3 files.
The only functionality problem I ran into was in trying to stream large, uncompressed AIFFs or WAVs from my laptop to the Roku via wireless connection on both the laptop and the SoundBridge. The SoundBridge would need to stop and “rebuffer” the stream every minute or so, something Roku attributes to my wireless router being overburdened by having to both receive the signal from my laptop wirelessly and also re-send the signal to the SoundBridge wirelessly at the same time. Connecting my laptop via Ethernet to the router solved the problem, and the Roku streamed uncompressed files flawlessly. One other odd bug did crop up however: when running wirelessly the Roku would invert the left and right stereo channels. When running off Ethernet channel assignment would be correct. A Roku representative claimed this was a “rare bug” and that it’s something they’re working on.
What will also prove useful in many applications is the Roku’s remote volume control; for instance if you’re driving powered speakers. Another caveat, however, is that the volume also controls the digital output level, and, as such is what’s known as a “bit trimming” volume control. When listening through the digital outputs it should be at its highest setting since volume attenuation in the digital domain will reduce the bit depth, and therefore the sound quality of the signal.
And how about that big, bright display? It’s certainly a big, big selling point and can be configured in a number of different ways (including brightness) and with several different text sizes. Assuming I had my glasses on, I had no trouble reading the artist name, track info and timing, not to mention the little animated audio spectrum graphic at far right, from 10 or fifteen feet away. The unit can also be set to repeat a track or playlist as well as play tracks randomly from any playlist. It will also stream internet radio stations, but these have to be added to an Itunes playlist before they can be accessed by the Roku. Unfortunately neither Itunes nor Slimserver will stream Real audio radio streams, which means stations using this protocol are also off limits to the Roku.
The Sound of a Digital Tube
With products like the SoundBridge starting to hit the market it’s just about a foregone conclusion that CD players are going to be a pretty tough sell to the mainstream market in the coming years (not that they aren’t already). How big a niche market remains in high end players aimed at serious audiophiles will depend partly on how good a device like the SoundBridge can sound. When playing uncompressed files from its digital out, can the Roku compete with a good CD transport?
This was the big question I set out to answer with this review, and one made all the more pressing by the fact that the SoundBridge had already proven itself ergonomically and functionally far superior to any CD player. First, however, I should talk a little about the sound from the unit’s analog output.
Sadly the Roku’s analog out sounded a lot more like a computer than a hi-fi component. At work I drove the Swans T200A powered speakers from the analog out of the Roku and compared the sound with the analog output from the Echo Indigo sound card (both the Swans powered monitors and the Indigo are reviewed in the Fall 2004 issue). Up against the Indigo the SoundBridge sounded a little grainy and rough in the top end with substantially less composure and authority in the bottom end, vaguer imaging and less overall detail and presence. It wasn’t a dramatic difference, especially for casual listening at work, but it was noticeable.
At home I listened to the Roku through Bryston’s new BP-25DA preamp, comparing the analog output of the SoundBridge with its digital output through the Bryston’s internal DAC. The differences here were not subtle, and they highlighted the same issues noted above, but this time under the microscope of a much higher quality system. Imaging and overall smoothness really suffered from the analog out by comparison, the sound reminding me of the bright, edgy and grainy sound of early CD players.
Listening through the coaxial digital out, however, was a different story. With two coax digital inputs switched by a toggle on its front panel the Bryston BP-25DA proved to be the perfect tool for comparing the Roku’s digital output to that of my Rotel RCD-951 CD player. Most importantly from a practical standpoint, I could flip between the two sources instantly, without any cumbersome cable swapping. Not only that, the Bryston is as transparent a preamp as I’ve heard, with an absolutely superb DAC section to match. The sound was stunning, and I knew I was hearing everything the Roku had to offer.
And it does indeed have lots to offer from its digital out. I listened to lots of different music and was consistently impressed with the detail, solidity and rock solid imaging. Casual flipping back and forth between the Roku and the Rotel didn’t leave me with the impression that the SoundBridge was leaving anything out of the music. It was clear, with the Roku or the Rotel supplying the bitstream, that the BP25DA was an absolutely stunning sounding component, communicating detail and nuance, exquisitely subtle shading and inflection, and just bang on rhythmic drive in a way I have seldom heard (more on that in the forthcoming review of the BP25DA).
The fact that the Roku could sound so good as a source in a serious system was good news, but I still had to do some careful comparative listening against the CD player. I ended up using Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, ripped to both AIFF and WAV for the Roku, for some serious head to head with the original CD playing in the Rotel. Careful listening, both on headphones and speakers, revealed slight but repeatable differences between the two. The Rotel CD player had a consistent, but slight edge in terms of transparency, smoothness and musicality. The CD source seemed to have a touch more resolution and, as such, a hair more detail and subtlety. This manifested itself in a greater sense of air and a little more soundstage depth and spatial believability. By way of reduction I’d say that the Rotel sounded just a little more natural or analog-like.
Why they would sound different is an interesting question. We’ve lived with digital long enough to know that just because an audio signal is digital doesn’t mean it’s incorruptible, despite what the “perfect sound forever” hyperbole machine argued. Digital audio may be more resistant to contamination during its journey through the audio chain than analog, but once mysterious phenomena like clock jitter have demonstrated that things can go wrong. Dealing with jitter in the dedicated and relatively simple circuitry of a CD player is no small endeavour in itself, and has taken quite some time to accomplish successfully. Addressing jitter in the far more complicated chain of a PC connected to a home network, and then, in turn, to the Roku is another kettle of fish entirely. An audio obsessive could be driven mad thinking about the different combinations of variables between hard drive, software, computer, router, Ethernet cable or wireless card(s) and the SoundBridge itself.
Some audiophiles have claimed superior sound when playing digital audio files rather than CDs by virtue of the fact that the signal is not locked to the speed of a CD transport but read by a drive and buffered in random access memory. This, some claim, reduces or eliminates jitter and is supported by the fact that similar “re-buffering” processes have been used in high end audio gear like the Genesis Digital Lens (which, in 1997, cost US $1800). In this case, however, this did not seem to give the Roku an edge.
Still, the fact that the Roku sounds good enough through its digital out to be highly competitive with a good CD transport is the icing on the cake for a product that can fundamentally change the way you access music with your audio system. Like many I’ve fallen hard for that kind of random, instant access to my CD collection and the Roku is the first product to elegantly wed that kind of functionality with a great interface and audiophile grade sound. At US $499, especially with that seductively cool display, it’s very good value too. Yes, you also need a computer and home network, but there’s a good chance (if you’ve read this far) you’ve already got those things anyway. Their M1000 for only $249, identical save for the size of the display, is a steal. I had been thinking of getting an Airport Express for some time, but Roku has managed to out-design Apple on this one, which is no mean feat, and the SoundBridge is staying right where it is on my audio rack.