By Richard Menta 5/01/01
Here are two economic facts about the rise of digital music on the Net. The first is Napster drove the huge demand for CD burners because users realized their hard drives were not a long-term solution for their MP3 collection and a home brew CD can hold 150 songs. The second is 37 million Americans actively download digital music today and the mediocre speakers on their computers now sub for their stereo system, which is usually located in another room.
This means there is another potentially lucrative market out there, developing products that can conveniently connect your PC to your stereo system. Laying 100 feet of speaker cable can do it, but for most that is not practical.
With their new SoundLink wireless audio delivery system modem manufacturer US Robotics is among the first to target this need using radio transmission.
The technology behind the SoundLink system is not new, it works on the same principal that wireless speakers do. A small transmitter plugs into the speaker jack of the music's source and converts the audio to a radio frequency and transmitted. A matching receiver unit picks up the signal and plays it usually through a built in speaker. SoundLink expands on this to better serve the needs of the PC user. The biggest difference here is the stereo goes from being the audio source to audio recipient.
SoundLink comes with two conveniently compact and near identical units, a transmitter and a receiving unit. US Robotics definitely took time and thought this one out as they have incorporated several features in Soundlink to make the transmission flexible to the needs of the user. Both the transmitter and receiver can be powered by AC adapter (included in the box) or from 4 AAA batteries.
The transmitter connects to the PC via a stereo mini cable, simply take the feed from the 'speaker out' on the PC and plug it into the 'audio in' on the back of the transmitter. The transmitter has an 'audio out' where you connect the dislodged PC speakers to finish integrating the Soundlink into your computer system.
Soundlink transmits the audio to the receiver using the 900MHZ frequency range, the same frequency used for the better cordless phones. This gives the unit a healthy 1000 ft range. To avoid conflict with nearby cordless phones, Soundlink offers 4 channels, which are selected through a switch on the back of the transmitter. The receiving unit automatically scans these 4 channels for the correct one when it is turned on, a nice touch. A scan button on the receiver allows the user to re-scan if the channel needs to be changed.
The receiving unit is actually a transceiver that allows you to simulcast the music through your stereo in one of two ways. The first is through direct connection using the RCA jacks on the back of your stereo.
The second way allows you to broadcast the audio through your FM tuner. The way this works is the unit obtains the audio from the Soundlink transmitter through the 900MHZ band and converts it to one of two frequencies on the FM band. The Soundlink receiver then re-broadcasts the audio to any FM radio within a 10 foot range of the SoundLink receiver. A switch in back of the Soundlink receiver allows you to choose either the 88.1 or 88.3 frequency.
Another nice touch of the Soundlink is the LED bar located on both the transmitter and the receiver. These serve as a VU meters allowing the user to set the sound levels for maximum volume with minimal distortion. The user must remember there are three sources of volume control in this setup. The first one is in the PC, the second is on the transmitter itself, and the third is on the stereo. Adjusting all three is necessary to get the best balance.
When we plugged the Soundlink directly to our stereo using the RCA jacks, the unit came through loud and clear. It sounded good but we must point out that user's expectations need to be adjusted when using this technology. That is because the use of radio to transmit the audio from one room to another takes a toll on overall sound quality. This is inherent with radio technology, it will not reproduce sound as good as a direct cable link. For example, the user will notice is a slight hiss during the space between songs. That's normal and to be expected.
These drawbacks become more pronounced when we played the signal via the FM frequencies. That's because the FM band is more prone to frequency interference. During our tests we used an MP3 portable with an FM tuner. We loaded several songs on the portable and then transmitted the same tunes over Soundlink from the PC. The goal here was a direct comparison of the sound quality between FM and MP3. Also a mobile player puts the FM feed through its paces more aggressively than a stationary radio parked next to the Soundlink transceiver.
Under ideal conditions (i.e. standing next to the transceiver) we listened to the music coming over on the 88.1 frequency on the MP3 portable's FM tuner. It sounded OK, but a third of a way through the song we shifted over to the same tune in MP3. The difference was significant, the sound being superior to the muddled tones on FM with far better reproduction in the treble and base frequencies. That said, it is nice to be able to access all the tunes on our PC directly from our little 32MB player. We can live with some degradation in sound quality for that convenience and that is the real incentive to buy this product, to provide convenient listening options.
Next we took a walk around the room with our player, testing out the Soundlink's 10 foot FM range (remember, the transmitter and receiver communicate at the 900MHZ band and thus can be positioned as far as 1000 feet from each other). As we walked, the deeper disadvantages of the FM frequency became apparent as we encountered some spots where the sound was strong even as much as 15-20 feet away, and others where the transmission became significantly disrupted, sometimes within only a few feet of the unit.
Increasing the power of the FM transmission might help this problem, but the FCC may be the culprit here limiting the distance such units may transmit to prevent them from interfering with neighbor's radios, phones, and other electronic devices.
US Robotics' SoundLink succeeds in doing what it was intended to do, free the music from your PC. They deserve points for offering the flexibility to either plug the receiving unit directly into the auxiliary connection of your stereo or to transmit by FM to the portable radio in your shower. If you can accept that freedom sometimes comes at a cost then it is just a matter of managing your expectations. That cost is the quality of the music heard will be of radio quality, lower than CD or MP3, but certainly good enough for most people or else no one would bother to listen to radio. We recommend using the direct RCA connection whenever possible as the FM option gave mixed results.
Audiophiles who want to pump MP3's through their high quality stereo speakers to improve the listening experience will be disappointed with the Soundlink. For them an MP3 rack unit like the Audio ReQuest is a better option as they can transfer up to 17.3GB worth of tunes from their PC to that player's internal hard drive. The Audio ReQuest is a much more expensive option than the $99.00 SoundLink, retailing presently for about $800.00. Another option is connecting Creative's Nomad Jukebox to your stereo. That player holds 6GB of music and is portable to boot. A recent price drop brings that player down to under $300 making it a fiscally more attractive option to the Audio ReQuest.
Bottom line, the SoundLink has its limitations. If you can accept and work within those limitations, the SoundLink will provide a good alternative to jamming in front of your computer. We concluded our test relaxing on our porch while listening to music broadcast by the SoundLink to a mono Sony AM/FM radio. The music provided a pleasant background once we positioned the radio in a good location.
Final Score: B
Copyright 2001 MP3 Newswire
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