With wireless and computer-based digital music revolutions in full tilt, the need for streaming to alternative devices has exploded over the last two years. In response to this enormous demand, home audio manufacturers have scrambled to build hardware to fit a variety of consumer listening needs and preferences. Whether it’s free internet radio, computer-based MP3 collections,iPod/iPhones or paid services such as Napster, Rhapsody and Slacker Radio, finding the perfect piece of equipment for your home situation requires a bit of investigation. Important factors to consider when making comparisons include: audio quality, file/service compatibility, built-in speaker options versus the need for external speakers, cost, and portability.
Below you’ll find our list of the major players in the audio streaming field, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Read on to make your own assessments of each, and broaden your understanding of which hold the potential to finally free your music from its PC shackles.
Music Streaming Devices: Guy Gear
Based on the huge success of their iPod compatible Sound Dock series, it was only a matter of time before Bosecreated a device to compete in the digital music streaming spectrum. However, unlike much of the competition, Bose’s strategy with the recently released SoundLink is clearly focused on two things: ease of use and portability. Instead of mimicking the strategy of competing players, which seek to provide stand-alone access to digital music content without a computer, the SoundLink relies solely on its plug-and-play USB dongle or auxiliary connected device to output tunes through its wireless speaker. With a battery life of three hours at maximum volume, and a transmission range of 60 feet, it’s designed to appeal to users looking for a hassle-free method of streaming a variety of PC-loaded music to other locations in their home. A hefty price tag of $550 does make it one of the most expensive solutions on the market though; so potential buyers must place a high premium on ease of use and sound quality to justify buying it over other options that include more functionality. Pandora: Yes SIRIUS: Yes Internet radio: Yes Retail price: $550
V-Tech IS9181 Wi-Fi Internet Radio
Positioned as the next evolution in desktop radios, the V-Tech IS9181combines access to thousands of online radio stations, an FM tuner, PC music streaming, and five-day weather forecast information via AccuWeather, into an attractive case with great bass output. Surprisingly, despite its well-rounded connectivity, the IS9181 does lack basic support for Pandora and podcast streaming, meaning music discovery fiends and news junkies will have to look elsewhere get to their fix. Accessing music off of a networked PC is also a complex affair compared to the plug-and-play USB dongle solution found on the Bose SoundLink. Instead of running a uPNP server, the V-Tech uses shared music folders to access remote PC-based content and has a reputation for improperly displaying artist and track information on the units stylish color LCD display. Its navigation, however, is intuitive and uses a top-mounted rotating “disc” to navigate through menus and stations. The ability to save favorite internet radio stations, power the device with 6AA batteries, and listen to an auxiliary connected music device such as an iPod, are also nice touches that round out the unit’s features. Overall, the V-Tech IS9181 is a great option for those seeking a stand-alone wi-fi radio who don’t view alarm functionality or Pandora compatibility as must-have features. Pandora: No SIRIUS: No Internet radio: Yes Retail price: $146
Considering its role as a high-end, dual-room wireless digital audio system with expansion capabilities for to up to 32 rooms in total, the Sonos BU250 stands apart from other alternatives on this list both in functionality and price point. This basic setup includes three components: Two are ZonePlayer base stations, which are designed to provide music playback from all manner of digital sources. However, both require external speakers for audio output and only the ZP120 contains a built-in 55-Watt per-channel Class-D amplifier capable of powering external speakers on its own. The ZP90, on the other hand, is intended for streaming use in rooms where there’s already an audio system in place such as a home theater or tabletop radio. The real show stopper, though, is the CR2000 color LED touchscreen remote, which mimics the iPhone to place complete control of the system in the palm of your hands. Despite being a fully wireless system, ironically one base station must still be hardwired to an internet router to provide internet access to the system as a whole. Connecting one base station to the other only involves pressing a few buttons to pair units together, as opposed to dealing with wireless networking hassles. Each operates on a secure peer-to-peer 802.11 mesh network known as SonoNet, meaning it won’t slow down other devices in your home network. Streaming the majority of internet-based content through the system does not require a computer either, and accessing networked storage devices on a computer media library only requires a quick installation of Sono’s proprietary Desktop Controller software. Costing nearly $1,000, this easy-to-use, incredibly flexible system does have a price that matches its robust functionality. Pandora: Yes SIRIUS: Yes Internet radio: Yes Retail: Approx. $1,000
Philips Streamium NP25000
Philips’ take on digital music streaming appears to seek middle ground between functionality, style and price. Sleek and monolithic, the Streamium NP25000’s flat 9.9-inch black face is punctuated by a bright 3.5″ color LCD with album art display capabilities and a full graphical user interface. Like the previous models discussed, this device can stream all manner of internet radio stations, as well as Rhapsody’s premium subscription-based service. Accessing PC-based media is also a relatively straightforward affair thanks to the TwonkyServer software included in the bundle. It even provides support for high-end lossless audiophile song formats such as FLAC and OGG. Pandora, Last.fm and Slacker radio, however, are not compatible with the device. Unlike the Squeezebox Radio or V-Tech IS9181, the Streamium NP25000 does not have onboard speakers, making it totally dependent on external setups to play music. Combined with a fully sized wireless remote, this device is a good choice for audiophiles in search of an attractive home theater component to add lossless streaming from their computer. Anyone not in that bucket, however, will likely be better suited by alternative products. Pandora: No SIRIUS: No Internet radio: Yes Retail price: $200
Popcorn Hour A-110
While all of the other devices on this list can rightly be characterized as out-of-the-box streaming solutions for the non tech-saavy to moderately gadget proficient, the Popcorn Hour A-110 can make no such claims. Built as the ultimate tinkering machine for die-hard geeks, its streaming potential is nearly limitless, for those advanced enough to use it. Whether you’re looking for video or audio streaming at all quality levels from both online and networked sources, BitTorrent downloading or a massive media library storage device accessible through your home theater, the A-110 can make it happen. Unfortunately, one should be prepared to hack and read enthusiast forums until late in the night to get it all up and running. It’s also not portable, and really meant to serve as a component-based networked media tank. Thus most interested in seamless integration with online music services and casual side table portability will not be served by owning this device. However, for ambitious souls bothered by pre-imposed limitations on their media consumption, this device represents the key to unlimited media streaming possibilities. Pandora: Not out of the box SIRIUS: Not out of the box Internet radio: Yes Retail price: $215
Going directly head-to-head with other wi-fi radios such as the V-Tech IS9181, Logitech has drawn upon its impressive streaming history to create possibly the best wi-fi radio on the market today. Capable of playing computer-based MP3 collections, along with a variety of free and premium music services — Rhapsody, Napster, Pandora, SIRIUS, and Last.fm — the Squeezebox aims to handle just about every piece of digital music content under the sun. This all comes with a price though. Listed at $200 for the base unit, Logitech will nickel and dime you for an extra $50 to buy a supplement pack that includes a wireless remote and battery pack for cordless operation. Its external aesthetic combined with details like the ability to display album art and Flickr slideshows on its color LCD screen, in the end, may make it worth the added premium for true gadget hounds. Pandora: Yes SIRIUS: Yes Internet radio: Yes Retail price: $200 + $50 for battery pack and remote.
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