By Gerry Blackwell
March 16, 2004
The latest in a new class of products that stream music from your PC to your home stereo system works well overall but isn’t terribly flexible.
Pros: Works as advertised
Cons: Only supports MP3 and WMA, and none with DMA encoding.
Creative Labs announced its Sound Blaster Wireless Music player last fall, but we were only recently able to get our hands on a review unit.
In the meantime, more than a few wireless products that do the same thing — suck digital media off your computer hard drive and play it through a home entertainment system in another room — have appeared and been reviewed here.
Linksys, Gateway and Prismiq, among others, also have Wi-Fi devices that play either audio files or both audio and video files, and sometimes streaming media from the Internet, too.
The Creative product is a pure audio player that plays only stored files. It uses 802.11b, which provides ample bandwidth, though of course the product also works on 802.11g networks.
The Sound Blaster Wi-Fi player’s key differentiator is the slightly oversized but very functional remote control, which includes a backlit six-line monochrome display.
The remote communicates with the player over 900MHz RF spectrum. The player relays data from your host PC about digital music available, which is then displayed on the remote’s LCD screen.
Using the remote, you can browse your PC music library and select individual tracks, whole albums or favorites lists. Most other Wi-Fi media players include infrared remotes with no display; you need either a PC or TV screen for display.
The Creative approach means you can listen to music in any room with remote speakers attached to the main entertainment center, even in rooms with no TV or PC for displaying selection screens.
The remote also has volume control and mute buttons, so you now have local control of volume in rooms with remote speakers connected to a central system.
Given the relative complexity of what this product does, it was astonishingly simple to set up and configure.
The first step was installing software on the host PC. You can set it up on multiple PCs if you have more than one with stored digital media.
The software manages communications between the PC and the Sound Blaster player and also includes an Organizer module that lets you set up your library and play lists — something you do before setting up the hardware.
The one snag was in creating the library. When I imported previously ripped albums, which were stored in separate sub-folders on the hard drive, they ended up together in one big music library folder in the Creative MediaSource Organizer.
This was a little confusing, but on the remote control LCD, they were displayed correctly, as separate albums, and even automatically organized alphabetically by either artist name or album titles.
With most home networks, once the software is set up on a host PC and a library created, the hardware setup is very simple.
My network includes a Netgear 802.11g Wireless Router in my ground floor office and two PCs wirelessly connected, including one on the lower level.
My main stereo listening room is downstairs, but I set up the Sound Blaster system in my living room, attaching it to an old stereo receiver which I hid behind a chair along with the Sound Blaster unit. This is something you can do when the remote uses RF, which requires no line of sight, rather than infrared.
Using standard RCA audio cables, I connected the Sound Blaster receiver outputs to the auxiliary inputs on the stereo receiver. You could use just an amplifier or even powered speakers.
The unit ships with an RCA-to-miniplug cable. I had to supply the RCA-to-RCA cables needed for my installation. The Sound Blaster receiver also has an optical port for connecting to newer digital receivers but no optical cable (they cost too much to throw in).
Finally, I plugged the player into a wall outlet, turned on the remote and held my breath. The Sound Blaster equipment did exactly what it was supposed to do, first time.
The receiver and PC found each other automatically and communicated over the Wi-Fi network. The remote connected to the receiver automatically. After a brief pause, the remote displayed the music library information from the MediaSource Organizer.
Installation can be more complicated. If you have more than one wireless network nearby or are using WEP encryption, you will need to first connect the Sound Blaster receiver to your PC via the included USB cable and do some configuration.
If you have more than one Sound Blaster receiver, you may also have to manually assign the remote to the one that is nearest, though this is easy to do.
You can have as many as four of the Sound Blaster receivers connected to one Wi-Fi network. This is useful if you have separate sound systems around the house and want them all to have access to the digital music.
The Organizer software also lets you set up play lists. One of its very cool features is the ability to create “smart playlists” that automatically select tracks for you to listen to based on various criteria and change the track selections each time you use them.
Some smart playlists base their track selections on your ratings of tracks or your past music listening behavior. The pre-configured playlists include ones for new songs recently added and various old favorite categories, including one for “songs I used to listen to.”
There are also Moods categories: slow, moderate tempo and up tempo. To use these, you must activate the one-time music analyzer utility. It analyzes every track in your library for information about volume levels and tempo.
It uses the volume level information to automatically normalize volume levels when playing tracks, and analyzes the tempo information to create the Moods lists. You can also create your own smart lists, selecting parameters and preferences.
The Sound Blaster Wi-Fi media player is by no means the cheapest of its ilk — it sells for between $200 and $250 — nor is it the most flexible in terms of what it can do. What it does do, however, it does extremely well. It also sounds very good, at least for non-critical listening (MPEG data compress does remove data and thus digital files can suffer in comparison to CD fidelity sound, after all.)
We were a little disappointed that the Sound Blaster product only plays back MP3 and WMA (Windows Media) files — a bit limiting in these days of iTunes. Even worse, it won’t play any MP3 or WMA tracks that are encoded using Digital Rights Management (DRM), such as those you purchase online. That means you’re stuck with tracks you rip from CDs or that you downloaded in a perhaps less than legal fashion.
Despite some issues, the Sound Blaster Wireless Music product gives you the flexibility to listen to tracks anywhere in the house, which is still more than your PC can do alone.