● Codecs: WMA, AAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF, Lossless
(WMA, Apple, FLAC)
Music Servers: Windows Media Connect, iTunes,
Slimserver, Rhapsody, Musicmatch,
Platform Support: Windows/Mac (depends on
choice of music server)
Network: 10 MBit wired Ethernet or Wireless
Audio outputs: Coax/Optical Digital; Stereo
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
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Fry’s 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 M1000’s operation in wireless mode.
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
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
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 M1000’s 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
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.
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 -
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