“Save the money you would otherwise spend on an expensive media streamer and invest it in the Sondigo Sirocco.”
- Easy to setup; reasonably priced; good sound quality; works as advertised
- Software does not support Mac or Linux operating systems; ugly beige color; cheap optical cable
It’s no surprise that people want to stream media from their PC to their home theater system. There are literally hundreds of devices out there that help to make this happen; from audio bridge devices like the Sondigo Sirocco, to full on Media PCs that cost thousands of dollars. Well, we know that streaming video from a PC to your home theater costs a considerable investment, where streaming audio can cost only a couple hundred dollars. The new Sirocco Audio Bridge by Sondigo allows you to stream any audio source from your PC to your stereo system, including DRM protected media, for a mere $150 dollars. So why invest in a thousand dollar Sonos system when you can get good sound quality for a fraction of the price — and that plays DRM protected content. Is there a catch though? Read on to find out.
Features and Design
There are many terms that describe products that transport media from a PC to another source like a home theater system. You have Media Center PCs, Home Theater PCs (often the same as a Media Center PC), Media Streamers, and Audio Bridges. A Media Center PC often needs to be located relatively close to the home theater system since you are streaming both video and audio in most instances; they can also cost up to a few thousand dollars or more – a considerable investment. Media Streamers essentially take the media from a source such as your PC and then broadcasts it either wirelessly or through an Ethernet connection – it is pulling the content. Then a media streamer will re-encode that source and output it to your home theater. The problem with this setup is that many companies need to overcome the issues that DRM protected material present. The Sonos audio system for example states that it supports Real Rhapsody and Apple iTunes, but it will not support Apple, Real or Microsoft DRM-encrypted and WMA lossless formats. So what are you supposed to do with that iTunes library of yours sitting on that PC? This is where an Audio Bridge comes in handy. An Audio Bridge is essentially an extension of your PCs soundcard; it will play whatever is coming through your soundcard be it a music song, movie, or videogame. By doing so, the Sirocco for example, can play protected DRM audio, as long as your PC plays it. We will explain how this works more in detail under the Setup and Use sections.
Sondigo ships the Sirocco with an A/C adapter, digital optical cable, a line-in to RCA cable, Ethernet cable, software and quick start guide. The digital optical cable is really brittle and of low quality, so we recommend that you pick up a nicer one if this is important to you. The Sirocco unit comes in an ugly beige color which reminds us of computer equipment from the 80’s. The good thing is that the unit is pretty small, so you should be able to hide it behind your home theater equipment. There are 7 LED’s located on the top of the unit: Wireless, LAN, Audio, 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital, Reset, and Power. Each LED will light-up with that particular feature is being used.
The back of the unit has you’re A/C adapter connector, a jack used for either headphones or the included RCA cable, surround and center/sub connectors, digital out, Ethernet connector and the Wi-Fi Antenna. There are rubber feet and mounting holes on the bottom. The unit is pretty small measuring in at 1″T x 6″ W x 4″L.
Feature-wise the Sirocco does not do a whole lot of things but it does not necessarily need to. It does support Dolby Digital audio and can turn regular two-channel audio into a simulated 5.1 surround sound output. You can either use the 802.11b/g Wi-Fi connection or the Ethernet port.
Image Courtesy of Sondigo
Setup and Use
When we first opened the Sirocco packaging and saw the quick start guide, we absolutely cringed thinking that either the real manual was on the software CD or they simply overestimated the intelligence of our review staff (which we have been told is easy to do haha). But we quickly found out that setting up the Sirocco is very easy. First you want to plug in the A/C adapter so you have power going to the Sirocco, then you will want to disconnect your Ethernet cable from your PC (don’t worry it’s only temporary) and then connect the Sirocco directly to your PCs Ethernet port. Next you will install the software and run through the wizard. The Sirocco software will ask you for which network workgroup your PC is a member of including the SSID name and WEP password. When you are finished with the wizard, simply unplug the Sirocco from your PC and connect it your home theater. You then control the Sirocco using the software installed on your PC and it will output what you tell it to your home theater system. We were dissapointed to find out that the software only supports Windows XP and 2000. There is no Linux or Mac OS support at this time.
We decided to open up the unit to take a look at the PCB board and found that the Sirocco is basically a soundcard combined with a Wi-Fi and Ethernet card. Below is a picture of what’s inside. The concept is pretty genius. There is an embedded RISC CPU, and a shield to protect the Wi-Fi receiver. If you are worried avout security, Sondigo includes an embedded security engine that supports WEP (64/128 bits), WPA and WPA2 standards. You will not see this level of security on some standalone wireless routers or gateways.
The inside of the Sondigo Sirocco
We will walk you through the software settings and configuration.
On the Audio Link settings, it will show your wireless/Ethernet network information including the MAC address, Owner Name, and whether the link is active or turned off. One of the most important aspects of any media streamer or audio bridge is the Playback Buffer. Usually these are defined by the manufacturer, but with the Sirocco you can choose to use either of the preset configurations, or choose to define your own. Sondigo calls their buffering technology “Dynamic Sync” with “FlexBuffering” technology. Under the user defined settings, you can tune the buffer from 50ms all the way to 300ms depending on your needs.
The Audio Link Tab Settings
We were told by one of Sondigo’s engineers that they are using a proprietary lossless compression (50%) codec loosely based on FLAC. It is sending the music at about 700KB/sec in stereo audio mode and a little more for 5.1. If you place the Sirocco far away from your wireless router, then make sure you set the buffer to the appropriate configuration (a larger ms time) to help compensate for the weaker signal. Under the Audio Link tab you can also connect or disconnect the Sirocco from your PC.
The Digital Audio tab lets you configure your sound output and speaker setup. If you are playing back an audio source that is encoded in Dolby Digital at the source (which would be on your PC) the Sirocco will then encode it using the Sondigo driver. If the source is not 5.1 surround, you can still choose to output the signal in 5.1 using this tab and the Sondigo driver will then produce a a simulated 5.1 surround using the C-Media “Speaker Shift” software. Again you have a lot of control over the sound setup.
Digital Audio Settings
The Mixer Tab is just like the sound settings your sound card gives you. You will be able to manually change the source volume. Nothing very fancy here, its just a graphic overlay of what your PC can already do.
The Effect tab has some very cool user configurations that will let you manually change the “environment” settings or virtual DSP (digital signal processor) settings as well as configure speaker distance. There are 27 global environment effects and a software 10-band equalizer is included to help you tweak your sound settings.
The last tab titled “Information” will include the firmware software version as well as the Sirocco audio engine version. The firmware is fortunately upgradeable and Sondigo will provide an easy way to update the software.
You would think that that there are several factors which influence the sound of the Sirocco, but according to their engineers there is actually only a few factors to take into consideration. First of all, your PC soundcard will not influence the sound output to the Sirocco directly. The audio is losslessly rendered by the Sirocco’s driver and then sent to the Sirocco unit/receiver in a pure digital form. According to one of the Sondigo engineers we talked to, they are using a lossless compression codec loosely based on FLAC. There are a couple ways to output that sound which may affect the quality at that point. If you connect analog speakers or headphones directly to the Sirocco, then the sound quality is determined by Sirocco’s internal digital-to-analog converters (DAC) which according to Sondigo have over 90dB of signal-to-noise ratio. Keep in mind that’s just a specification, it does not guarantee perfect sound.
If you are using the unit’s digital optical connection (48 kHz) then you will get the highest quality stereo sound. Note: We think the digital optical cable that comes with the Sirocco is pretty cheap and would recommend getting a better quality one. At this point when using the digital connection, the sound quality will be determined by your receiver’s DAC rather than the one in the Sirocco itself.
In any case remember that the sound quality will ultimately be determined by the source material. An MP3 that is highly compressed will sound worse than a music file recorded in FLAC or AAC for example. Garbage in, garbage out theory.
For our test system we used the following components:
Receiver Yamaha RSX-1105
Speakers: Orb Audio Mod 2 with subwoofer
Sound quality in its base configuration sounded flat and distant. We were able to tweak the DSP, equalizer and speaker distance settings to get the audio to sound better. Because it’s an audio bridge, not an audio streamer, the Sirocco will basically playback anything that is being played on your PC; whether it’s a game, Winamp, or iTunes.
In order to play DRM-protected content, you must play back your music in its native software. So for example, if you have DRM protected iTunes music; you would open iTunes and play the music through there. Then open tie Sirocco software and tell it to “connect”, which at that point it will stream the music to your home theater. The same applies to any software that outputs sound. This is both good and bad for a couple reasons.
Sound quality is good albeit not audiophile quality and really depends on the source material, soundcard and home theater setup. Plus there is some minor compression going on so it’s not totally lossless even if the source is. For the best sound quality you would want your media server connected directly to your home theater.
Also keep in mind that you do not need to install the Sirocco software on the same system your music is stored, only on the system that controls the music. For example, if you have a media server setup at home, or basically a PC where you store your music, and you access that library from a separate laptop, you would install the Sirocco software on that laptop. If you like to host parties and have an extensive play list, we would recommend installing the Sirocco software on a laptop or a PC close to where your guests would be so you can control the play list on that system. Luxury systems like the Sonos Music System give you a remote control to use so you do not have to go to your PC every time you want to change the music. But keep in mind that the Sonos system will run you about a thousand dollars, so you are paying a premium for that feature.
We did not experience any buffering issues with our Sirocco unit despite having our home theater system on a different floor and through several walls. This is likely due to the external antenna. Media streamers like the Roku SoundBridge or Slim Devices Squeezebox use an internal antenna which could be prone to electrical interference and usually shorten their range unless they have a good buffering system put into place.
You cannot stream music to your home theater and play something different on the source PC and get two separate audio outputs, this is a major drawback if you only have one PC in the house or have a large family which is constantly using that PC.
Sondigo’s Sirocco is not necessarily a sophisticated unit, but it is a product that works as advertised. The Sondigo Sirocco dodges the DRM loopholes altogether and lets you playback any music source from your PC to your home theater. The 5.1 surround is more of a gimmick than a useful feature simply for the fact that you will be using this product for music, not movies; but at least they let you use a feature of their audio processor rather than disabling it altogether.
We wish the Sirocco came in black or a high quality magnesium alloy so it can blend in with the home theater better. We also hope the company will add support for Mac and Linux operating systems. Overall, the Sirocco is a wonderful device to use. Save the money you would otherwise spend on an expensive media streamer and invest it in the Sondigo Sirocco.
- Easy to use and setup
- Reasonably priced
- Above average sound
- Works as designed
- Software does not support Apple or Linux operating systems
- Ugly beige color
- Cheap Digital Optical Cable
- Cannot output sound to your home theater and PC at the same time