With its unique tubular design, its easy-to-read front-panel displays, and its attractive brushed-chrome finish, Roku's SoundBridge series of digital audio receivers turned a lot of heads when it first appeared in 2004. The line has since been updated to include a third, more affordable model (the M500) and support for Windows Media DRM downloads and Rhapsody's subscription-based, on-demand streaming music service. All three SoundBridge models--the $199 M500, the $249 M1000, and the larger, $499 M2000--wirelessly stream audio from a networked computer or the Internet to your home stereo system and automatically interface with iTunes software. However, the SoundBridge line shares the same Achilles' heel as all other non-Apple digital audio receivers: it can't stream music purchased from the iTunes Music Store. If you can live with that caveat--and with paying a premium for the slick looks--any one of the three SoundBridge models is a great choice for streaming digital audio.The Roku SoundBridge M500 and M1000 share the same physical dimensions and basic design, measuring 9.75 wide with a diameter of 2.5 inches and weighing 1.5 pounds; the M2000 is nearly twice the size and weight (17 by 2.75 inches, 2.75 pounds). Its artfully styled chassis is a silver, pipe-shaped metal segment with an embedded text display and two removable, black plastic end caps. Under one of the end caps, you'll find an Ethernet port for wired networks plus a CompactFlash card slot for adding the included 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless networking adapter. Under the other end cap resides a power jack and an impressive assortment of audio jacks: along with the standard analog stereo outputs, the SoundBridge packs optical and coaxial digital outputs. After making the necessary connections, you reattach the end caps, fishing the wires through holes located on the caps' backsides. The end caps give the SoundBridge a tidy appearance but complicate accessing the jacks hidden underneath. The unit comes with a low-profile rubber stand that allows tilting the unit to optimize display readability. An optional wall-mounting kit ($29.99) is also available.
Because the SoundBridge doesn't have front-panel controls, you must operate the unit with its basic 18-key remote. Although its four-way keypad and Select button make menu navigation intuitive, the remote could use a few more buttons. For instance, it lacks common conveniences such as artist, title, and genre shortcut keys. You can use the remote for text-based music searches, but entering titles is a chore because of the lack of an alphanumeric keypad. Fortunately, the Fast Browse feature lets you skip through long track lists with relative ease.
The M500's bright yellow, two-line, 40-character text LCD proved legible from a maximum distance of approximately eight feet. Unlike the M1000 and M2000, the M500 doesn't have a single-line, large text mode to make the display readable from longer distances. Furthermore, the M1000 and M2000 use a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) that delivers a brighter, sharper image--resolutions are 280x16 and 512x32, respectively. Visualization modes on all models are limited to a couple of basic-level meters.
All three SoundBridge models include 802.11b wireless networking rather than the faster 802.11g standard. Although 802.11b is perfectly capable for audio applications, adding an 802.11b device to your 802.11g network may slow all the wireless devices on the network down to 802.11b speeds.To enable streaming audio files to the SoundBridge from your computer's hard drive, the computer must be running a compatible server application. Roku strongly recommends using either Windows Media Connect (Windows XP only; supports WMA, DRM WMA, MP3, and WAV files) or Apple iTunes (PC/Mac; supports MP3, AAC, WAV, and AIFF files). The applications' respective playlist formats are supported as well. Other compatible server applications include Musicmatch Jukebox, Slim Devices' Slim Server, and Winamp. Roku doesn't supply a software CD-ROM, but all of the aforementioned applications are free downloads.