Sonic boom, from room to room

Times Staff Writer

THE home computer is increasingly becoming the home music processing center. It's where we rip tracks from CDs, download new selections from the Internet and make our own mixes. Indeed, the computer has given us more control over our listening choices than ever before.

Just one big problem.

The room where you have your computer is likely not your favorite place to listen to music. The challenge is getting that music from your computer to your stereo system, where it can be enjoyed in all its sonic glory.

You can literally carry music from one room to another in the form of CDs you've burned or portable music players onto which you've downloaded your mixes. But the process will involve much burning and downloading and carrying.

The most elegant solution is to go wireless, sending music directly from the computer to the stereo.

I've been doing it for more than a year and have gotten so used to the convenience of wireless that when the CD player on my stereo system broke, I never replaced it. Now I listen to my CDs, music mixes (great for dinner or holiday parties) and even online radio stations on a living room stereo, via a computer that sits in a home office.

Among the products designed to make that setup work are Apple's AirPort Express, Roku's SoundBridge and the Sonos Digital Music System. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but first some basics that apply to them all:

They all require a wireless computer network system, or Wi-Fi, in your home. That's not as big of a hurdle as it used to be. A wireless router, the basic piece of equipment required for Wi-Fi at home, can be purchased for less than $50. The Wi-Fi connects your computer and its music library to AirPort Express, SoundBridge or Sonos, which in turn is connected to the stereo via cables.

The main caveat with any piece of Wi-Fi equipment is that it can be tricky to set up. Don't try it when the help lines are closed. And don't ever try it on the same day you're having a party. It's possible you'll get it done, but I doubt you'll have enough time left over to make the dip.

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AirPort Express This $129 device, not much bigger than a pack of cards, is made by Apple Computer but works with PCs using the Windows operating system as well as Apple's own Macs.

Leave it to Apple to make even the smallest bit of computer equipment look stylish. The AirPort Express, which comes in stark white, plugs into an electric outlet and has a jack for wires leading to a stereo amplifier. It can pick up wireless signals from Apple's own router, the AirPort (on the high-end at $199), or one of the less expensive PC-oriented routers.

AirPort Express works quite well with a major restriction: It is designed to work solely with Apple's iTunes music software. If you use iTunes for your downloading, mixing and ripping (and it's by far the most popular software for these purposes), you'll do just fine. But AirPort Express is not made to work with downloading systems and music subscription services that use Microsoft's digital rights management, including those from Wal-Mart, Rhapsody and Yahoo.

AirPort Express is also not made to work with Web-based audio, including many Internet radio choices. Macintosh users do have a way around that problem. The third-party software program Airfoil, available for $25 at www.rogueamoeba.com , will send any audio coming from a Mac to the AirPort Express.

Another disadvantage of the device: It works with only one sound system at a time. If you send your music to your living room, you can't simultaneously send it to the bedroom or even play it in your computer room.

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SoundBridge The SoundBridge is meant to be seen. That's because the remote control's infrared beam requires a line-of-sight path to the tubular-shaped main console. As long as the remote's beam can reach the SoundBridge, you can change songs or even playlists without being at the computer.

The unit's screen shows the title of the song that's playing, provided that it was downloaded or ripped along with the tune. Roku has three units ranging from about $150 to $400. The more you pay, the bigger the screen. None is exactly handsome. They share an affinity with a digital clock, and I wouldn't be crazy about having one in my living room.

But the SoundBridge does have its advantages, including the ability to play music from the subscriptions services Napster and Rhapsody. (For monthly fees, you can play music from their huge number of choices.)

SoundBridge can play songs you load from a CD into your iTunes library, but it can't handle music bought from the iTunes Music Store. It also won't play songs that were ripped using Apple's Lossless recording format (though most folks use the MP3 format anyway).

This device does allow the computer and one of its remote units to play music at the same time, but not in sync.

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Sonos Digital Music

With a two-room starter package priced at about $1,200, Sonos is the Rolls-Royce of wireless systems, as it should be.

The system's main units are gray and white boxes that are quite handsome compared with most stereo components. They are operated via a remote — also nicely designed — that does not require line-of-sight and is quite agile in its controls. The readout is easy on the eyes and makes you feel like you're music master of the whole house.

Which leads to the main advantage of Sonos: It allows music from a computer to be played in any room in the house, simultaneously or separately. In other words, you can have Sonos units in various rooms all playing the same song or Internet radio station, or you can select different music for each room.

Though it can play music from Rhapsody, Sonos can't play music bought on iTunes or Napster, and it can't play online radio from some sources — shortcomings that might make those of us who can't afford this system feel not quite so bad.


David Colker writes the weekly Technopolis consumer tech column for Business. He can be reached at technopolis@latimes .com. *


A system to suit your groove

It's easy to build a digital music library on your computer, but how can you play that music on your existing home stereo system? Among the products designed to link computer to stereo are Apple's AirPort Express, Roku's SoundBridge and the Sonos Digital Music System.


SONOS : $1,199 for an introductory bundle with two receivers.

Pros: Allows music or radio to be played in sync in any room with a Sonos receiver. Also allows different music to be played in different rooms simultaneously.

Cons: Can't play music purchased from iTunes or Napster. High price.


SOUNDBRIDGE: $149.99 to $399.99

Pros: Remote control lets you change songs without being by the computer. Can play music from Napster and Rhapsody subscription services.

Cons: Less-than-handsome digital readout. Music played in multiple rooms won't be in sync.


AIRPORT EXPRESS: $129

Pros: Compact and stylish, in true Apple style. Performs well.

Cons: Designed to work only with Apple's own iTunes music software, but not competing music services. Can't send audio simultaneously to more than one location in the home.

— David Colker

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