Netgear Wireless Digital Music Player

By Gerry Blackwell

July 21, 2004

This capable player's price savings over the competition means you can afford to subscribe to the pay music services it supports, since MP3 playback is sub-par.

Model: MP101
Price: $149 MSRP

Netgear's 802.11b/g Wireless Digital Music Player (MP101) may not be perfect, but it's a solid, well-designed product and worth considering along with the myriad other similar wireless media players to come on the market in the last 18 months.

The MP101 manages to do one thing better than competing products. It makes Web radio work reasonably well, which is a very attractive feature -- although you do have to pay for the best of the radio services Netgear makes available.

At around $125 street price, the MP101 is significantly less expensive than some of the other products we've looked at, which are priced closer to $200.

The MP101 receiver, a hardware device, connects to a home entertainment system by standard RCA cables and uses an existing Wi-Fi wireless network to communicate with media server software installed on a host computer on the network. In this, the MP101 is the same as all other wireless media players.

The wireless receiver generates menus and file lists based on data sent from the server. It also does digital-to-analog conversion of media files -- and Internet streams -- sent over the Wi-Fi network, and plays them through the entertainment system.

The Netgear product is a little more flexible than some. It has a headphone jack, for example. You could carry it from room to room and listen anywhere using headphones. It also has an Ethernet jack so you can plug it in to the network hub for a more reliable and higher-speed connection -- though this somewhat defeats the purpose of its being wireless in the first place and isn't really necessary.

Unlike some of it's competitors, the MP101 cannot play video files. It is, as its name implies, exclusively an audio device. It's designed to play most MP3 and WMA (Windows Media Audio) files, plus M3U (Winamp MP3) and PLS (Winamp-Shoutcast) music play lists, and MP3 Internet radio stations.

One big disappointment: it would not play some variable and high-bit-rate Windows Media Audio (WMA) files created using the latest version of Windows Media Player, including files ripped using lossless mode -- even though the specs claim the hardware and software will accommodate WMAs up to 320 Kbps. To my ear, these formats provide the closest thing to true CD quality.

One problem all wireless media player designers face is how to display menus and text about the music library stored on the remote host PC so users can select tracks and control the music.

Some devices, especially those that also play video files, logically enough use your TV for display. Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Wireless Music comes with an over-size 900 MHz RF remote control with a 2x1-inch monochrome LCD for displaying this information. cd3o has a product that uses an automated-attendant-style text-to-speech interface -- it reads the menus transmitted from the server.

Netgear went a slightly different route. Much of the front face of the boxy 10.7x8.7x1.4-inch receiver is taken up with a back-lit, four-line 4x1-inch LCD. This could be a problem in some media room set ups. If the receiver is too far away from your listening position, you won't be able to read the menus.

I placed the Netgear receiver on a shelf beside my stereo receiver, about 7.5 feet from where I sit to listen. The text on the screen is just big enough that I could read it most of the time, although sometimes I had to lean forward. Younger eyes might not have such a problem.

As with all of these products (save the Creative product already mentioned), the package includes an infrared (IR) remote control for navigating the menus and making track selections. This one is reasonably well designed -- intuitive, with good hand-feel.

The server software installed cleanly and fairly quickly. You install two pieces of server software on the host PC: one, from Netgear, for serving stored media files and MP3 radio stations, and one for serving streams from Rhapsody, an online digital music service owned by Real Networks.

The Netgear server software is one of the best I've seen for scanning your PC to find useable music. It gives you the flexibility to search only certain drives and folders and it's very fast.

The hardware set-up was also easy and uneventful. The device searches for a network on start-up and if it finds just one -- the usual situation in a home installation -- it associates with it automatically. I like the way the display tells you at each step what the receiver is doing -- searching for a network, associating, receiving an IP address, searching for servers and so on.

You can only connect to one server at a time -- either the Netgear or the Rhapsody. If both are running on the host, the receiver presents you with a choice on start up and you select the one you want. To change servers, you go into a Setup menu and select a different one.

When the Netgear server wouldn't play my high bit rate WMAs, I tested it with 192-Kbps MP3s. To my ears, on my mid-range hi-fi system built around an NAD A/V receiver, they sounded thin -- it was very obvious how much information the file lost in the MP3 compression process.

The sound stage was also much smaller than when listening to the same music on the CD player -- the MP3s all appears to come from the middle, as with monaural recordings.

The Netgear server lets you play preset MP3 radio stations supplied by vTuner, a company that provides a selection of Web radio stations from around the world. The vTuner software is integrated into the Netgear server. The MP101 package includes a two-month trial of vTuner's Super Service, which provides over 1,300 stations. The free basic service provides only 50.

The bad news: so far as we can tell, there is no way using the MP101 to listen to Internet radio stations you find and set up yourself -- a major disappointment.

The organization of the vTuner radio stations is somewhat haphazard -- in one case, Canadian stations appeared under the European heading, for example. The selection is also not as big as it sounds -- most you'll never listen to. Many are not high-bit rate (128 Kbps or better), and they sound it.

Rhapsody is also a for-fee service. The Netgear MP101 package includes a free seven-day trial, but you have to sign up to pay for the service first, giving your credit card number. You can cancel at any time, including before the seven day trial period is over. The question is, will you remember to do it if you decide the $5 or $10 a month for Rhapsody isn't worth it.

You may decide it is worth it. The sound is remarkably good -- better in some respects than the 192 Kbps MP3 files from the Netgear server. I'm assuming this is because of better designed server software.

Despite the problems pointed out here, the Netgear product is good value at $125. One can hope that upgrades to server software and receiver firmware in future will allow the playing of higher-bit rate WMAs -- and you can use the money you save by buying this product rather than one of its more expensive competitors to subscribe to Rhapsody

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