Once again tech gear-makers are pulling ahead of the music industry. Just as the Big Four music publishers are beginning to relax about selling music online, manufacturers are coming up with ways to stream music more easily to more fans.
Consider the three audio extenders under review here. Each one seeks to deliver music in a richer and broader way, and deliver it to more people at once — further trying the music publishers’ patience. No, there is nothing illegal about any of these products, but they seek to move music beyond the one-person, one-licence model the Big Four favour. The only thing holding Big Music back from complaining is the high price many of the new products demand — but how long will that last?
Logitech’s Squeezebox Duet
is an audio-only version of media extenders such as Apple TV; it supports Wi-Fi and Ethernet home networks and provides access to PC-based music files (on Windows, Mac, and Linux machines). Essentially it’s a little brick that channels your music library over your network to an amplifier with speakers (say, through the auxiliary port of your stereo system).
The Squeezebox Duet will handle almost all audio file formats — as long as they’re not protected by digital rights management (DRM), like songs from Apple’s iTunes or Microsoft’s Zune.
The brick is black and unremarkable; the innovation lies in the sophisticated hand-held remote-control unit, called the Controller. It’s designed to look and operate a like an iPod, with a scroll wheel that controls the device. It sports a nicely designed, bright screen to navigate your files and stations without having to get up and go to the brick itself (as its predecessor, simply called the Squeezebox, did).
The Controller includes a replaceable and rechargeable lithium-ion battery and it sits in a sturdy and handsome charger. It also features an SD slot, a standard 3.5-mm headphone jack, an IR transmitter, a small speaker (for menu clicks and other feedback), and a three-axis accelerometer (like the iPhone has). Some of these features have yet to be activated, but their presence suggests firmware upgrades to come from Logitech’s productive developer community.
The Duet is also expandable — you can buy the receiver and controller components separately. The software is also impressive: You get a subscription to the SqueezeNetwork, which shows your subscription information for any of the premium online services to which you're subscribed. It generates a PIN code during setup that allows you to link the two together. You can also make a playlist of favourite radio stations, including podcast RSS feeds.
The Duet’s content is overwhelming. It can deliver your MP3 library as well as thousands of Internet radio stations and two fistfuls of music services: Rhapsody, Sirius, Last.fm, Slacker, MP3tunes, Pandora, Live365, RadioIO, and RadioTime. Not all operate in Canada, and the ones that do offer low-fi broadcasts or limited play lists as advertising for their premium-service subscriptions.
Still, the amount of stuff you can get without emptying the piggy bank for premium services is still overwhelming.
Two annoyances: The battery life is short, and you should always keep it in the charger stand, and you have to be prepared for the pitches urging you to buy premium content.
Aside from these, the Logitech Squeezebox Duet is one slick and impressive product and bound to give its owners a lot of listening pleasure.
At the other end of the price spectrum is Aluratek’s USB Internet Radio Jukebox
, which is really inexpensive and visually unimpressive in the extreme: It’s just a small USB key you stick in a slot in your computer and forget.
But it’s a lot more than that. Aluratek married two simple concepts: It collected and organized some 13,000 Internet-based radio stations from 300 countries with a technology called U3, a platform placed on USB flash drives that runs Windows applications that reside on the USB key but disappear from the host computer the moment the key is removed. In this case, the software on the key serves as the “tuner” for the Internet radio stations. It also lets listeners rank and sort their top 10 channels by genre or by location, which are saved to the flash memory.
It’s the purest form of plug-and-play software; it runs exactly as it would if it were a CD put in the optical drive.
The software allows users to search for radio stations organized by geography, continent or country, and subdivided into 50 different genres, including news and sports. All you need is a computer connected to the Internet; the key does the rest. The product doesn’t need to be registered, and you don’t have to give another unknown company your e-mail address. The best part? It costs all of $39, which would be perfect as a Christmas stocking stuffer were it not for the fact that it’s so small it won’t stuff much.
No, that’s not the best part. The best part is that the stations organized on the USB Internet Radio Jukebox are, indeed, free. And they’re good. Pound for pound — I mean kilogram for kilogram — this is one of the best-imagined audio products I’ve seen in a long time.
Finally, the Aerielle i2i Stream
wireless music streamer is a product that should be acclaimed as a revolution, but falls short. It is essentially a short-distance wireless broadcasting device (good for 10 metres) that can stream audio files between just about any two devices —from computers, MP3 players and stereo systems to earphones, headphones, speakers and other computers, MP3 players and stereo systems.
That description is a little confusing. It’s best to imagine it from its conception as a little device that sits between your ear buds and your MP3 player, and an identical device used by another person. This will eliminate those awkward situations in which you see two people sharing one set of ear buds. Hence, the “i2i” name, which suggests iPod to iPod.
The i2i Stream comes as two units, each the size of a small MP3 player, which transmit and receive signals on the 2.4 GHz frequency (Microsoft’s mice use that frequency). They operate on seven different channels, colour-coded for the technologically adverse. Aerielle likes to conjure an image of seven people taking turns playing DJ (as long as each owns such a device), or for adding music to a party by hooking up an MP3 player to (powered) speakers. Its own power comes from a built-in battery that charges up using a USB cable. And so Arielle’s promotion material boasts a dozen ways it can be used.
The reality, however, is less thrilling. The i2i Stream’s battery charge lasts about five to seven hours, the charging method (via a USB cable) is slow and requires one USB slot for each unit; it also won’t work while it’s being charged. This eliminates permanent setups, such as the TV-to-headphone setup.
The ideal market for the i2i Stream seems, therefore, to be kids who want to listen to each other’s iPods, a little like Microsoft’s new Zune. But for more than $150 in Canada, it’s a pricey product for that kind of market. Aerielle, which makes FM transmitters for Kensington, iRiver, and SanDisk, has scored a big one with the i2i Stream’s technology, which is extremely easy to use and set up; all it needs now is to adjust its price for the iPod-sharing market or beat the recharging issue with the older market.
Put these three audio extenders together and you see the future: Music continues to be meant for sharing. The next move belongs to the music industry.