Rolling a dial through a handful of FM stations seems like an ancient exercise, compared to the nearly limitless variety of free music available through Internet radio and other Internet music stops. Perhaps that’s why Internet radios have become an essential add-on for stereo buffs with even the most impressive CD collections. Nothing can quite match the variety.
Squeezebox and Sonos may the most common names to crop up on this streaming audio frontier, but Philips’ own low-flying Streamium line delivers many of the same features on a much lower price scale. While the top-of-the-line NP2900 acts a standalone box with built-in speakers, the cheaper NP2500 works in conjunction with an existing stereo, piping in music from a PC, Internet radio, and Rhapsody. Priced at $229, it’s significantly less expensive than competing systems from the big guys, but as we found out, Philips makes a number of serious sacrifices to get there, too.
Features and Design
Goodbye, monochrome LCDs. Unlike most competing Internet radios, including models from Logitech, Grace Digital Audio, and Sonoro, the NP2500 uses a full-color screen set into its narrow rectangular profile, allowing it to show off detailed menus, full album art for songs, and even pictures.
To accommodate the screen, it also adopts more of a vertical orientation than the typical slab-like stereo components meant to stack nicely in an A/V cabinet. From the front, the NP2500 looks a bit like a shoe-sized iPhone on a pedestal – especially with Philips’ use of aluminum banding around the edges and copious gloss black cropping in the 3.5-inch screen. Though we didn’t care for the reflections from all the shine, Philips didn’t skimp on the quality of the plastic, and even went for solid metal on the leg propping it up.
The only hard buttons strung along the top of the unit control power, the mute function, and volume up and down. On the back, the NP2500 has RCA analog and digital coaxial output jacks for feeding a conventional stereo, RCA input jacks for bringing in an auxiliary source, and a mini headphone jack (which seems rather inconvenient to place on the back). Connectivity comes from either 802.11b/g Wi-Fi (you won’t be slinging HD video, making 802.11n admittedly unnecessary) or a hard line strung into the Ethernet jack.
While the NP2500 will pull music from your PC, Internet Radio, or Rhapsody, we couldn’t help but notice some glaring holes in its capabilities. Popular free options like Pandora, Slacker and Last.fm are all missing, essentially roping you into Rhapsody’s paid service if you’re hoping to get any control over what music gets dragged in from the Web. That might be excusable if other manufacturers also offered the same constraints, but Sonos will do Last.fm, Pandora, Napster, Sirius Internet Radio and Rhapsody. Logitech’s Squeezebox devices will play Pandora, Slacker, Sirius, and – again – Rhapsody on top. For users truly hoping to unlock the possibilities of music via the Internet (not just through a network), these other players offer far more flexibility.
Testing and Usage
Sit down in front of the NP2500 and one of its biggest shortcomings becomes immediately evident – that screen is tiny. A 3.5-inch screen may be massive on a smartphone, but for a piece of A/V equipment viewed from the couch, you’re going to endure some squinting. We found it comfortable to use from about 6 feet away, difficult but bearable at 12, and impossible at 15. That means you’re out of luck if you have an MTV-Cribs-sized media room, and still probably straining to see it if you don’t. The narrow design of the screen also severely limits text length, to the point where even familiar albums may be so loaded with ellipses that you might not recognize them.
Though the sheer number of black buttons speckling the included remote might suggest an elaborate navigation system, almost all of it can be done with the standard directional pad, OK key, and back button. You’re basically clicking through one list of options at a time, navigating deeper or filling search boxes when necessary. The amount of text entry actually made us wonder why Philips didn’t just break down and include a full QWERTY keyboard. Using a numeric pad for entering letters severely bogged down the frequent searches we performed, and we didn’t once need to enter an actual number.
After tapping into an active Wi-Fi connection, Internet radio and Rhapsody both work out of the box. You don’t even need a computer to sign up for the included 30-day Rhapsody trial, it just activates when you first click on it. After dipping a toe into Rhapsody, it quickly becomes the de facto service to use on the device, delivering channels just like Internet radio, along with all the choice you typically get from a private MP3 collection, with none of the effort. Of course, you’ll pay $13 a month for the privilege when the trial ends.
We only reverted to Internet radio for picking up terrestrial stations from different cities for the news, but the seemingly limitless number of stations will also churn up something for every palette with the right search string, and most play quickly with minimal buffering.
Access to media on a PC takes a bit more finagling, including installing the included TwonkyMedia software. The name TwonkyMedia almost makes fun of itself, which is convenient because it will spare us the effort: This is by far one of the wonkiest software packages we’ve had to deal with lately. After setup, we had to immediately break out documentation just to figure out how to add media to the library, then again and again for every non-obvious function, like pushing music to the player.
Having to reboot the NP2500 to get it to recognize our uPNP server was irritating, but the crashes it encountered when attempting to push music to it were even more alarming. While we could access tunes on our PC without issue on the player, attempting to tell it what to play from the PC side consistently caused hard lockups on the device within seconds or minutes, requiring us to unplug it just to revive it. An upgrade to the latest version of Twonky and the latest Philips firmware didn’t resolve the issue.
Though the NP2500 technically works as a photo viewer, the tiny screen pretty severely limits the function useless for all practical purposes. A 3.5-inch print may look fine in the hand, but 10 feet away, you’ll need a telescope to make out anything of substance.
When stacked next to Sonos and Squeezebox units that cost either $300 or $400 (respectively), there’s no question that the $230 Streamium NP2500 stands out as a value in its segment. But the low price shines through in the details. Both high-end alternatives offer far better compatibility with online music services. And though the NP2500 is the only unit to boast a full-color LCD, we found its small size to be quite impractical during actual use – give us a larger monochrome display any day of the week. The aggravation of using the TwonkyMedia interface, made us further question whether it’s worth cheaping out, and crashes on the device side sealed the deal. (Though keep in mind there are many uPNP server alternatives, including Windows Media Player 11.) Unless you’re looking for the cheapest device to stream Rhapsody and the occasional Internet radio station into the living room, we think you’re better off saving up a bit more change and climbing one more rung up the quality ladder.
- Full-color LCD
- Classy design
- Relatively cheap
- Small, hard-to-read screen
- Pushing music from PC causes crashes
- Unintuitive software
- Slow text entry
- No Pandora, Slacker, Last.fm support