Creative Labs Sound Blaster Wireless Music
By Gerry Blackwell
March 16, 2004
The latest in a new class of product that streams music from your PC to your home stereo system works well overall but is not very flexible.
Price: $ 199.99
Advantages: Works as advertised
The inconvenients: Only supports MP3 and WMA formats, and none with DMA encoding.
Creative Labs announced its Sound Blaster wireless music player last fall, but it wasn’t until recently that we were able to get our hands on a review unit.
In the meantime, several wireless products that do the same thing – suck digital media out of your computer’s hard drive and play it back through a home entertainment system in another room – have popped up and been reviewed here.
Linksys, Gateway, and Prismiq, among others, also have Wi-Fi devices that play audio files or both audio and video files, and sometimes streaming media from the Internet.
The Creative product is a pure audio player that only plays stored files. It uses 802.11b, which provides high bandwidth, although the product also works on 802.11g networks.
The key differentiator of the Sound Blaster Wi-Fi player is the slightly oversized but highly functional remote control, which features a six-line backlit monochrome display.
The remote communicates with the reader over a 900 MHz RF spectrum. The player relays data from your host PC to available digital music, which is then displayed on the remote’s LCD screen.
Using the remote control, you can browse your PC’s music library and select individual tracks, entire albums or favorites lists. Most other Wi-Fi media players include infrared screenless remotes; you need PC or TV monitor for display.
The creative approach means you can listen to music in any room with remote speakers connected to the main entertainment center, even in rooms without a TV or computer to display the selection screens.
The remote also has volume control and mute buttons, so you now have local volume control in rooms with remote speakers connected to a central system.
Considering the relative complexity of what this product does, it was surprisingly easy to install and configure.
The first step was to install the software on the host PC. You can set it up on multiple PCs if you have more than one with digital media stored.
The software manages communications between the PC and the Sound Blaster player and also includes an organizer module that allows you to set up your library and playlists, which you do before setting up the hardware.
The only catch was in the creation of the library. When I imported previously ripped albums, which were stored in separate subfolders on the hard drive, they ended up together in a large music library folder in Creative MediaSource Organizer.
It was a bit confusing, but on the remote’s LCD screen they were displayed correctly, as separate albums, and even automatically organized alphabetically by artist name or album title.
With most home networks, once the software is installed on a host PC and a library is created, hardware setup is very straightforward.
My network includes a Netgear 802.11g wireless router in my downstairs office and two wirelessly connected PCs, one of which is downstairs.
My main stereo listening room is downstairs, but I installed the Sound Blaster system in my living room, attaching it to an old stereo receiver that I hid behind a chair with the Sound Blaster unit. This is something you can do when the remote uses RF, which requires no line of sight, rather than infrared.
Using standard RCA audio cables, I connected the outputs of the Sound Blaster receiver to the auxiliary inputs of the stereo receiver. You can just use an amplifier or even powered speakers.
The unit ships with an RCA to mini plug cable. I had to provide the RCA to RCA cables needed for my installation. The Sound Blaster receiver also has an optical port for connecting to newer digital receivers, but no optical cable (they’re too expensive to throw away).
Finally, I plugged the player into a wall outlet, turned on the remote, and held my breath. The Sound Blaster gear did exactly what it was supposed to do the first time around.
The receiver and the PC found each other automatically and communicated via the Wi-Fi network. The remote control connected to the receiver automatically. After a brief pause, the remote displayed information from the MediaSource organizer music library.
Installation can be more complicated. If you have multiple wireless networks nearby or are using WEP encryption, you will first need to connect the Sound Blaster receiver to your PC using the supplied USB cable and perform some setup.
If you have multiple Sound Blaster receivers, you may also need to manually assign the remote to the closest one, although this is easy to do.
You can have up to four Sound Blaster receivers connected to a Wi-Fi network. This is useful if you have separate audio systems in the house and you want them all to have access to digital music.
The Organizer software also allows you to set up playlists. One of its very cool features is the ability to create “smart playlists” which automatically select the tracks to listen to based on various criteria and change the track selections each time you use them.
Some smart playlists base their track selections on your track notes or past music listening behavior. The preconfigured playlists include those for newly added new songs and various old favorites, including one for âsongs I listened to beforeâ.
There are also Moods categories: slow, moderate tempo, and high tempo. To use them, you need to activate the one-time music analysis utility. It analyzes each track in your library for information about volume levels and tempo.
It uses the volume level information to automatically normalize volume levels when playing tracks and analyzes the tempo information to create the mood lists. You can also create your own smart lists, selecting settings and preferences.
The Sound Blaster Wi-Fi media player is by no means the cheapest of its ilk – it sells for between $ 200 and $ 250 – nor is it the most flexible in terms of what it can. to do. What he does, however, he does extremely well. It also sounds great, at least for non-critical listening (MPEG data compression removes data, and so digital files can suffer compared to the faithful sound of CDs, after all.)
We were a little disappointed that the Sound Blaster product only plays MP3 and WMA (Windows Media) files – a bit limiting these days on iTunes. Worse, it doesn’t play any MP3 or WMA tracks encoded using Digital Rights Management (DRM), like the ones you buy online. This means that you are stuck with tracks that you rip from CDs or that you may have downloaded in a less than legal way.
Despite some issues, the Sound Blaster Wireless Music product gives you the ability to listen to songs anywhere in the house, which is even more than your PC can do on its own.