Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Tuning In to Internet Radio Without a Computer

Internet radio is very cool. It allows you to listen to both traditional radio stations from all over the globe, as streamed through Web sites, and to stations that exist only on the Net. The variety of music and talk these stations offer is staggering, but there’s a problem: To listen to them, you have to be sitting in front of a computer.

Many folks would rather listen to Internet radio in rooms where their computers don’t live, or where they’d rather not lug a laptop. To do so today, you have to buy a device that transmits music from a computer to remote speakers. These include the Squeezebox from Slim Devices Inc., Netgear’s MP101 Wireless Digital Music Player and Roku’s SoundBridge M1000.

None of these devices includes its own built-in speakers. You have to attach them to your audio system, and some require you to manage software on the computer that allows them to work over your network, a tricky process.

But, this week, we tested a new Internet radio product that’s totally self-contained and requires almost no setup. It doesn’t depend on a computer to bring in Internet radio, but does the job itself, wirelessly connecting to your broadband service, just like a computer does. And it doesn’t require an external audio system. It has its own built-in subwoofer and speakers, just like a traditional radio. It even looks like a traditional radio, but it does much more.

This new product is called the SoundBridge Radio, and comes from Roku LLC. It’s due to hit store shelves in a few weeks at around $400, which includes a remote control.

By including speakers, Roku eliminates the intimidating extra step of fiddling with wires to attach the device to a separate sound system. With its own sound system, the SoundBridge Radio can also function as an alarm clock, and it can receive your local AM and FM stations over the air, in addition to Internet radio.

Roku's SoundBridge Radio
Roku’s SoundBridge Radio, priced at $400, includes a remote, built-in speakers and a subwoofer.

And, even though it doesn’t require a computer for radio, the SoundBridge can pull music off your computers wirelessly and play it. It can even play music stored on a SecureDigital memory card.

We rocked out all week, listening to all different types of radio stations, and concluded that the SoundBridge Radio is a decent product, but its user interface could stand some improvement.

In addition to playing roughly 100 preprogrammed Internet radio stations, the SoundBridge Radio also detects and plays music from all libraries within range of your wireless network — without having to install any special software on your Windows or Mac computer. These libraries can include content running on Apple’s iTunes, Real Networks’ Rhapsody, Windows Media Connect and Windows Media 10, as well as services like MusicMatch, Napster, MSN Music and Walmart.com.

To add your own Internet radio stations onto the SoundBridge Radio, you must use a convoluted method involving iTunes. This summer, Roku plans to upgrade its software so as to include many more preprogrammed stations on each device.

The SoundBridge Radio is black and measures 11 inches wide, 6 inches high and 6½ inches deep. Two speakers are built into its front panel, and a subwoofer is built into its rear. A horizontal display with blue-green lettering runs across the front panel, and 13 buttons are built into the top ledge, including a hard-to-miss sleep button and six numbered preset buttons. A headphone jack and SD card slot are positioned on the player’s right side.

We had no trouble setting up the SoundBridge Radio. We plugged it in, and its display screen immediately came to life, asking us a few simple questions, which we answered by pressing the Select button on an included remote. After a few seconds of waiting, we were on our way.

This text in the display screen can be adjusted to one of six different fonts; we chose the average-size type. While the smallest enabled us to see more text, it was impossible to see across the room, and the largest font had to constantly scroll to display song information. Unlike on some other devices, the remote has no built-in little screen of its own.

Navigating through the SoundBridge Radio was confusing at times. A Source menu listed the six sections of the player, including each of our share-enabled iTunes music collections, and read: Play Walt’s iMac, Play Katie’s Music, Play AM Radio, Play FM Radio, Play Internet Radio and System Configuration. The radio itself had a Source button on it that, when pressed, easily retrieved this menu, but the remote had no such button.

The remote does have a Home button (represented by a house icon), but this goes only to the main menu within the current source, not to the useful Source menu itself.

After selecting each of our music libraries, options for how to play the music appeared on the screen, such as by selecting premade playlists or by browsing through and choosing a specific artist. We played a few songs from each of our iTunes libraries, including Billy Joel and Coldplay, and were impressed by the sound.

Music bought on Apple’s iTunes Music Store will not play on the SoundBridge Radio because of Apple’s refusal to license its digital rights management software. Instead, the title of that purchased tune shows up in the display line with a tiny padlock icon next to it; playable music is distinguished with a music note.

But backing out of a song while it played wasn’t as easy as we had hoped — pressing the Back button didn’t do anything. We pressed the Home button, which took us two steps further back than we wanted to navigate.

AM, FM and Internet radio each had its own list of stations. We attached two separate antennas to the SoundBridge so the AM and FM radios could be received, then used seek buttons on the remote and radio itself to find stations. About 100 Internet stations were preloaded on the SoundBridge Radio, but these could be sorted by various categories like name, genre or language.

We listened to various Internet radio stations, including Beatles Radio, Swiss Radio, Smooth Beats, Southern California Public Radio and CNN Radio. But we had trouble with a few stations — like ESPN and Pacifica Radio — that failed to stream content to our radio after five tries. Roku said that this might have been because the stations’ servers were busy.

Without the remote, the Roku SoundBridge Radio functions — but not completely. The six numbered preset buttons are categorized into A, B and C, so there are really 18 places to save a station from AM, FM or Internet radio. You can also use the preset buttons to save specific playlists, as well as lists of search results, by holding down a preset while listening to a song or station in that category. For example, while listening to music from Walt’s iMac, we held down the number six button, and a new label was placed on that button, smartly titled “All songs on Walt’s iMac.”

If the Radio is in standby mode, the time, or the time and full date, can be displayed. Pressing any of the preset buttons will turn on the device and start playing music saved under that preset. Another button brings the Source menu to the screen, but Roku didn’t think to add a select button to the Radio, so we couldn’t navigate far enough to listen to music from the Katie’s Music or Walt’s iMac libraries.

Overall, the Roku SoundBridge Radio is a smart device that needs a little tweaking. If the company really wants to market it as an alarm, it has to understand that users will want to play all of its available music, including computer libraries, without a remote. And navigating with the remote itself needs to be improved so that users don’t feel like they can’t back up out of a menu.

But by designing this receiver with built-in speakers, Roku made it less confusing for average users — a move that might encourage more people to step away from their computers, while still enjoying great music.


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