Taking your music with you used to be as easy as popping the cassette out of your home tape player and into your car, boombox, or Walkman. Not so any more. Though the rise of the MP3 has made it possible to download albums in seconds, share them with your friends, and fit millions of songs in a single box, the actual process of getting it from off a desktop hard drive and playing it somewhere else has taken a step backward in simplicity. But that’s quickly changing, as a plethora of services and gadgets have sprung up to fill the void. Leave Bon Jovi at home no more. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can get your music off your desktop.
Unless you home computer happens to be conveniently located next to your stereo receiver, filling your home with the sweet sounds of Weezer is usually a little more complicated than just stringing a cable from one box to the other. A dedicated home theater PC (HTPC) will do the job, but it’s really overkill for the simple task of pulling audio files over a network. Enter the home media streamer: a device designed solely to connect to a network and play music.
Logitech and Sonos make two of the most popular (and expensive) streaming audio solutions. Logitech’s $299 Squeezebox Classic uses an existing Wi-Fi network to pull all your existing MP3s over, translates them to the analog signal your stereo will understand with a high-quality 24-bit Burr-brown DAC, and output them via standard RCA, digital optical, or digital coax outputs. If you don’t have a collection of MP3s, it also works with the free Pandora and Slacker services, and with paid subscriptions to Sirius and Rhapsody. Sonos uses its own mesh-networking approach to send digital audio, which unfortunately means more pieces to buy, but the consensus seems to be that the quality and style of its units makes up for the price, if you can afford it. A $349 ZonePlayer 90 and $349 Controller 200 are technically all you need to get started, but iPod and iPhone users can install an app to substitute for the controller, in a pinch. A $100 ZoneBridge may also be necessary to link the ZonePlayer to your network wirelessly, if you can’t run Ethernet cables to the Player itself. Sonos supports Pandora but not Slacker, as well as Napster, Sirius and Rhapsody. Philips’s $229 Streamium NP2500 player is one of the most affordable on the market, but we found the small display and lack of support for Pandora and Slacker offputting.
If you’re lucky enough to have an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 in your home entertainment system, those systems can also easily serve as streaming audio centers. Check out our guides to setting up your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 as a home media server.
Getting music to your bedroom is really no more difficult than a living room, save for one important distinction: You probably don’t already have an amplifier and speakers sitting around and ready to go. If you do, any of the products suitable for the living room are also fine. If you don’t, check out some of the more specialized solutions out there.
Logitech’s $299 Squeezebox Boom combines the streaming capabilities of the Classic with a built-in amplifier and speakers. The Boom captured our accolades for its ease of use, build quality, and sound quality, which is surprisingly rich for such a small unit. It even has alarm clock features to replace your bedside clock radio. The $499 Sonos ZonePlayer 120 rolls a built-in digital amp to the features of the ZonePlayer 90, but you’ll still need to furnish your own speakers. With 55 watts of sound on tap for each channel, though, it certainly has the potential to pound out a lot more sound than the Boom. If you plan to listen to Internet radio alone, Sanyo’s $200 R227 will tap into thousands of them for free, includes built-in speakers, and unlike the Boom, plays FM radio as well.