Roku has recently attracted attention with the launch of its HD1000, the first digital media receiver capable of natively displaying HDTV resolutions. Unlike the HD1000, Roku's latest products, the SoundBridge M1000 ($550) and M2000($850), don't connect to a TV. Instead, the sole purpose of the new models is to wirelessly stream audio from a networked PC or the Internet to your home stereo system. Both models offer the same core functionality, but the more expensive M2000 has a significantly larger display than the M1000.
The artfully styled SoundBridge measures 25 by 6.5 by 6.5 centimetres (WHD). Its 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 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.
There are two problems with the side-mounted connections. The jacks get crowded and hard to access once two or three cables are hooked up. But even more distressing in our experience was that two tabs broke off from one of the end caps after we'd removed it only a few times. As a result, the end cap repeatedly fell off the M1000. The SoundBridge can be perched on the included contoured black stand or can be wall mounted with an optional kit.
Because the SoundBridge doesn't have any front-panel controls, you must operate the unit exclusively with the small 18-key remote (very similar to the one that ships with Roku's HD1000). A four-way keypad makes navigation straightforward enough, but the interface was sometimes slow to respond to remote control commands. You can use the remote for text-based music searches, but entering titles feels like a chore since the remote doesn't have an alphanumeric keypad. The SoundBridge's bright green, two-line, 20 cm-wide text display is readable from a maximum distance of only about 1.5 metres in standard mode. Fortunately, the SoundBridge can be toggled to a single line of text that's twice as large, making the display readable from up to 4.5 metres away.
The SoundBridge can interface with both Macs and Windows PCs running either Apple iTunes or Slim Devices' SlimServer, both of which are free downloads. When using iTunes as the server, playable file formats include MP3, WAV, AIFF, and AAC; using SlimServer, the aforementioned formats plus WMA, FLAC, and OGG are playable. The SoundBridge can receive the same Internet radio stations as the iTunes software. However, in order to make an Internet radio station available for playback on the SoundBridge, you must first create an iTunes playlist containing the station link. Unfortunately, like all digital media receivers to date, the SoundBridge can't play protected AAC or WMA files, such as those purchased from the iTunes Music Store. (Only Apple's own AirPort Express can stream purchased iTunes music, but it lacks the graphical display found on the SoundBridge.) If you have a hankering for fresh music, you can download RealSlim, a free SlimServer plug-in that enables streaming music from Rhapsody, a subscription-based music service.
For the most part, the SoundBridge was a smooth performer. When we played the Commodores' track "Machine Gun," the M1000's analog outputs delivered a suitably clean and snappy response. Both of the digital outputs worked equally well, delivering the unfiltered musical bits straight to the A/V receiver. Wireless network playback dropouts weren't a major problem, although playback did stop in the middle of tracks on a few occasions--the same sort of infrequent problems we've encountered with just about all wireless audio devices.One caveat for those who choose to run SlimServer instead of iTunes: During the testing period, SlimServer occasionally crashed, requiring us to cycle the M1000's power. It's also worth noting that Roku doesn't provide customer support for SlimServer-related problems.
In the final analysis, the Roku SoundBridge M1000 is a better-than-average audio-only digital media receiver.It's better-looking and slightly more affordable than the Slim Devices' Squeezebox but not quite as durable or as stable as that model