Wireless Internet Radio Shoots for Mainstream

By Eric Griffith

May 19, 2004

Is adding speakers to Wi-Fi media adapters enough to ignite the passions of tech-savvy audiophiles? Linksys hopes so.

Home networking leader Linksys, a division of networking powerhouse Cisco Systems , today made official a new product in the world of wireless media playback -- an area that has yet to take the home networking world by storm. This new product can play digital audio over the wireless LAN without any help from the stereo receiver in your living room.

Use of wireless for playback is all the rage with products out from almost all the major (and many minor) vendors in home networking. All take audio and sometimes video from your PC to be played on your living room TV and stereo. Until now, all of these products were for transport only. Linksys is one of the first* to enable music playback without hooking up to external components. In fact, it doesn't even need a PC if all you'll do is play pre-set Internet-based "radio" stations.

Linksys actually split them into two product SKUs. First is the $149.99 Wireless-B Media Link for Music (WML11B), an update for the company's still available Media Adapter.

The previous Media Adapter would hook up to a television, providing a slick on-screen user interface for selecting songs stored on your home network. It could also display stored digital photos as a slide show. It wouldn't play video. The new Media Link continues to eschew the video, and skips the TV part of the hookup altogether.

Instead, the product has a built in 3-inch monochrome LCD screen to display all the song titles, play-lists, and music services available. The screen will also show you strength of the signal with the WLAN. It is controlled by an infra-red remote control.

The Media Link doubles as the core of the $179.99 Wireless-B Music System (WMLS11B) -- it just adds speakers so you don't need to hook it up to a separate stereo system. You can still take the speakers off and use it with your living room equipment. However, with the speakers on you can carry the unit around like a boombox and access Internet radio stations from any Wi-Fi connection to the Web, even at a public hotspot.

The Media Link/Music System supports the slower 802.11b (10/100 Ethernet is also available) which helps keep the cost down. Even with speakers, the Media Link or Music System has a cheaper manufacturer's suggested retail price than the original Media Adapter did ($199).

Another new detail: the products come with a three-month free trial of the Rhapsody Radio Plus, an Internet jukebox service from RealNetworks. Rhapsody lets users create a customized Internet radio station. Standard cost is $4.95. Linksys buyers can upgrade to the "All Access" version to get access to more songs so they can create their own play-lists. Some tunes can be downloaded for $.79 each.

"We didn't want to bring this out without the Internet radio stations available," says Mani Dhillon, product marketing manger at Linksys. The previous Media Adapter would only play files stored somewhere on the home network.

The Media Link/Music System will work with any online radio stream that supports MP3 or Windows Media formats, but not those using some form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to protect files from being copied.

He says the concept of speakers being built is fairly new to the industry, but at least one other company announced a product for the Wi-Fi Internet radio space.

Reciva, a British company, hopes to sell its reference design to other companies. It looks somewhat like a classic transistor radio souped-up for the modern day and would come with a regular FM tuner and 4w amplifier (but with only one speaker, you need to connect another to get stereo sound). It will reportedly support the open source Ogg Vorbis format in addition to MP3, Real Audio and Windows Media Audio formats (the latter three are supported by the Linksys as well). The Reciva unit doesn't use a PC at all -- it can hook up directly to the Internet (through a home wireless gateway/router) to play Internet-broadcasting "radio" stations. No one is selling a version of the Reciva yet.

* After publication, the Philips Streamium product line was brought to our attention, a line which includes the boombox styled MC-i250 that comes with 802.11b and can also play audio streamed from online music services. List price is $499.99, but it sells on Amazon for $265.85.

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