Back in the day, the easiest way to listen to your PC-based digital music collection on your home stereo was to drag the two into the same room, and hook up the stereo to the PC's headphone output--easy with a laptop, a bit harder with a desktop. Over the past few years, a variety of network audio streamers have made that process considerably easier and less disruptive. These products connect directly to your home stereo (or minisystem, boombox, whatever--anything with speakers and an auxiliary input), and access a variety of digital audio selections via your home network--all the MP3s on your PC's hard drive, Internet radio, podcasts, and many Internet music services (some free, some paid).
A quick perusal of CNET's list of best network music players shows that the three top dogs in the category are the Logitech Squeezebox Duet, the Sonos, and the Apple TV. But that hierarchy doesn't quite tell the whole story. Finding the best streamer for you involves a bit more research. All three of these products are excellent overall, and each of them offer an option for perusing your music collection from a screened remote (that is, a handheld remote control with a nice color screen, so you can pull up songs, artists, playlists, and Internet radio stations from the palm of your hand). Of course, each of them has varying strengths and weaknesses, different price points, and may involve purchasing additional accessories to get the full experience. To that end, we've gone beyond the in-depth reviews on all three products to highlight the pluses and minuses of each.
>> Read CNET review | Watch CNET TV video
One-room system: A single ZP90 ZonePlayer base station ($350) that you'd control with the Desktop Controller software for Windows or Mac.
Two-room system: The Sonos Bundle 150 ($1,000), which includes two ZonePlayers (one ZP90, one ZP120) and the CR100 screen controller (the bundle is discounted versus buying the components separately).
Distinguishing features: Wireless mesh network works independently of your home wireless network (no bandwidth constraints); easy to subtract and add rooms to "zones" that play the same synchronized audio streams; ZP120 ZonePlayer includes built-in amp (just add speakers); auxiliary line inputs on every ZonePlayer; doubles as an Ethernet/wireless bridge for other wired-only network devices.
Red flags: Needs one wired connection to your home network (or the purchase of a $100 ZoneBridge accessory); no compatibility with DRMed iTunes purchases, WMA Lossless files, and Last.fm; considerably more expensive than competitors listed below.
Best for: Users who are willing to pay a premium for an expandable, multiroom digital music system that emphasizes ultimate ease of use and won't cannibalize the bandwidth of your existing wireless home network.
>> Read CNET review | Watch CNET TV video
One-room system: One Logitech Squeezebox Receiver ($150) that you'd control with the SqueezeCenter or SqueezeNetwork software for Windows, Mac, or Linux; the Logitech Squeezebox Duet ($400) includes the screen remote.
Two-room system: Combine a Logitech Squeezebox Duet ($400) with an extra Squeezebox Receiver ($150), for a total of $550.
Distinguishing features: Excellent support for podcasts, free and premium music services; superb file format compatibility; Linux compatibility; additional functionality via several community-supported software plug-ins; excellent online integrator for multiple music service accounts.
Red flags: No compatibility with DRMed iTunes purchases (or any other DRM download service); multiroom configurations may put a bandwidth strain on your wireless home network.
Best for: Users who need to supply audio to a small number of rooms and prefer a panoply of streaming services (e.g. Rhapsody, Pandora, Last.fm) as opposed to those who have a large library of purchased DRMed music (from the iTunes Store or elsewhere).
>> Apple TV: Read CNET review | Watch CNET video
>> Apple AirPort Express: Read CNET review
>> Apple iPod Touch: Read CNET review | Watch CNET TV video
One-room system: Use the Apple AirPort Express ($100) or Apple TV ($230-330), with control via iTunes software on a PC or Mac (or control via TV screen on an Apple TV); total will be $100 to $330, depending on configuration.
Two-room system: Any combination of two AirPort Express or Apple TV units, plus an iPod Touch ($300-500) or iPhone ($200+, plus contract) for remote control. Total (two AirPorts and an 8GB Touch): $500.
Distinguishing features: The only home option that offers universal compatibility with iTunes purchases and rentals; the Apple TV also streams video and photos; can be wirelessly controlled with iPhone and iPod Touch with free Remote App download; both the AirPort Express and Apple TV offer fast 802.11n wireless.
Red flags: Anyone who prefers non-Apple, non-iTunes offerings (such as Rhapsody, Zune Marketplace, etc.) will probably find Logitech or Sonos a better choice--though the third-party Amoeba AirFoil software may ameliorate those concerns to some degree; multiroom configurations may put a bandwidth strain on your wireless home network.
Best for: Users who are committed to--and comfortable with--the "iTunesphere" walled garden, as well as those who already have some or all of the Apple components listed above.
If you can find it for under $200, the Roku SoundBridge M1001 is another good audio streamer with a front panel screen for paging through music options. If you want a streaming audio product with speakers built-in, check out the Grace ITC-IR1000B Wireless Internet Radio or Sony VAIO VGF-WA1 Wireless Music Streamer--and be aware that something called the Squeezebox Boom appears to be on its way from Logitech. Likewise, all three current-gen game consoles (Sony PS3, Microsoft Xbox 360, or Nintendo Wii--interfacing with a PC running the Orb service) can stream some degree of digital audio over a home network, as do all Windows Media Extenders and most other video-centric streaming devices--but you'll need to have the TV powered on to navigate your music collection. Furthermore, an iPod or other music player can be used to bring music to other rooms of the house--though only wireless-enabled products (iPhone, iPod Touch, Archos) will let you access live Web radio and music services.
That's a lot of information to digest, to be sure, but the bottom line is that the options for home music streaming are better than ever. Now it's testimonial time: do any of you use the products listed above, or do you have better suggestions? And did we miss any major pluses or minuses to these products? Fire away with your comments.
Note (08/07/2008): Updated to correct the pricing of the iPod Touch, and to adjust the pricing totals of the Apple configurations when the AirPort Express (instead of Apple TV) is used as the primary base station.