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{mospagebreak toctitle= Introduction, Components}

Introduction

Linksys Wireless Home Audio System

At a Glance
Product Linksys by Cisco Wireless Home Audio (KWHA700)
Summary Whole-house wireless audio system
Pros • Nice integration with Rhapsody service
• Follows DLNA Standard
• Touch Screen Color LCD Remote
• Color LCD on basestation
Cons • Finicky remote with limited touch integration
• Looonngg set up process
• Windows setup support only

When I reviewed the Sonos multi-room audio system a few years back, I really liked its easy setup, color LCD controller and overall polish. Since that review, I've played with a number of other systems and nothing I've seen really compares to Sonos when you want to easily pipe music around your house.

But now there's a new competitor from Linksys that aims to take on Sonos in this space. In this review, I'll check out Cisco's Linksys Wireless Home Audio system (WHA). The WHA comes in a few different configurations. But I'll be reviewing the Premier combo (WHA700) that includes three main pieces: the Director, a wireless music player with an integrated amplifier and a 3.5 inch LCD Color Screen; the Controller a wireless touch-screen remote with a 4.3- inch color LCD; and the Player, a wireless music extender.

The Components

As I unpacked the boxes for the Premier unit, I realized that there were a lot of pieces that needed to be configured. So if you're going to be setting one of these systems up, prepare to spend some time getting everything going.

The first component I tackled was the Director (DMC250) unit. Figure 1, from the Linksys manual, shows the back panel of the Director.

Back Panel

Figure 1: Back Panel

The Director has quite a few connection options. For output, you can directly drive a sub-woofer and right/left speakers with its integrated 50 Watt amplifier or you can connect it up to an existing stereo system using either the standard RCA jacks or an optical S/PDIF connector.

For input, there's a connector for an optional iPod dock plus RCA connections for analog input that will allow you to connect other devicea such as a CD player, MP3 player, etc. I plugged the output of my Apple Airport Express into the Director's analog input so I could pipe my iTunes library (including DRM restricted files) throughout my house.

If you have a library of music on an external USB drive, there's a USB connector for that, too. The Ethernet connector allows you to use a 10/100 wired connection. But wireless draft 802.11n connectivity is available as well. Figure 2 shows the front of the Director.

Linksys Director

Figure 2: Linksys Director

The most striking feature of the Director is a 3.5-inch 320x240 LCD display. For direct control, the unit features four soft buttons around the screen along with the round on/off switch in the center. For controlling the unit across the room, Linksys includes an IR remote. For control of the system anywhere in your house, the Premier bundle includes a Controller - Wireless-N Touchscreen Remote Remote (Figure 3) with 480x272 color LCD screen (DMRW1000).

Wireless touch-screen Controller

Figure 3: Wireless touch-screen Controller

Along with the touch-screen capabilities, the Remote has a "Home", volume and four-direction navigation buttons. The Remote has connectors on the bottom for recharging cradle connection. But as delivered, you'll need to recharge the removable battery using the included mini-USB cord. Size-wise, the Remote feels a little big at roughly 6.5" x 3.5" x 1", or just a bit smaller than a videotape (remember those?).

For whole-house coverage, you'll probably need to set up one more component. Figure 4 shows the Player Wireless-N Music Extender (DMP100) that's designed to be placed away from the main Director unit.

Player wireless music extender

Figure 4: Player wireless music extender

This unit doesn't include an amplifier, so you won't find direct speaker connections. But it does have optical out, RCA in/out as well as a headphone jack. Like the Director, the Extender connects via Ethernet or draft 11n. This unit also includes the same IR remote as the Director. But since it has no display, you'll be driving blind when you hit the "Home" button or the directional arrows.


Setting Up

Once I had everything unpacked and in place, I was really tempted to just fire it up and poke around. But the included documentation warned that the software had to be installed first, so I resisted the temptation and started following the directions.

In order to set up the system, you'll need either Windows XP or Vista. But once everything is configured, Windows isn't required to run the system. Figure 5 shows the setup software during the install. Note that the install includes the Linksys EasyLink Advisor, that Cisco seems to be making a part of the installation of all Linksys Products.

Software Installation

Figure 5: Software Installation

Numerous packages are installed during setup, so it can take a long time. In my case, I watched 50 minutes of installation displays until I was ready to start the configuration process. I think I've installed an entire operating system in less time!

Configuration of the units themselves was reasonably simple with clear step-by-step instructions. But comparatively, the Sonos setup I had done during my earlier review was much easier and faster since the pieces were able to self-discover and configure.

One hiccup I did have with device configuration was when I was directed to plug the Remote into the computer via a USB cable. The software couldn't find the directly-connected Remote even after several retries, unplugs and re-plugs.

To get it going, I finally just skipped that step in the process and did the configuration via the menus on the remote itself. The final part of the setup process consisted of firmware updates downloaded from the Internet. All-in-all, it took around two hours between the time I started the configuration before I was ready to try it out.

In Use

There are a variety of ways to control the system once it's up and running. The initial method I tried was the Player application that was installed as part of the setup process. Figure 6 shows the Linksys Player running on my Windows XP system.

Linksys Player

Figure 6: Linksys Player

In this display, you can see the Director and Extender players on my network. Each can be controlled individually or they can be linked together in "zones" so they're in sync, playing the same music. I found this worked well, and it was nice to walk from room-to-room and hear the same music.

The bottom left lists some "favorites" that I had selected from the various sources available. The middle shows a menu from the Rhapsody online music service. A free trial of the service came with the unit, and I really enjoyed playing with it.

The integration of Rhapsody was fairly seamless in that you could mix-and-match your own music and Rhapsody tracks into the same favorites, or playlists. And you can set up your Rhapsody favorites, albums, channels, etc. on the Rhapsody web site and the results will be pretty much immediately available in the Linksys menus. I won't go into detail on all of the Rhapsody services, you can explore their website for that. But the integration with the WHA was well done.

So how do you get your own music integrated into the system? As part of the installation a DLNA server is installed that indexes and serves up your music. Supported music formats include FLAC, Lossless AIFF, WAV, PCM, MP3, AAC, AAC+, Ogg Vorbis, and MP2. You won't be able to play any DRM restricted files, but thankfully those seem to be going out of style.

You're not limited to the server that gets installed, however, since DLNA is an industry standard. I have several DLNA servers on my network (they are commonly available on consumer NAS devices), and they could all be used as music sources.

Comparing again to the Sonos system, Sonos took a different route to acquiring music, using shared network drives as a source of music. Both methods have plusses and minuses. Requiring a DLNA server means that you obviously have to run a server everywhere you want to share music. But once you have it running, it's auto-discoverable on the network. Using shared network drives doesn't require any additional software to be installed, but configuration is manual.

Using the Controller

Using the player on your computer is all well and good. But the real attraction for the WHA is controlling it via the Controller. I was looking forward to giving the Controller a try, since I had liked the Sonos Controller so well. The Linksys Controller has a larger display and one thing that the Sonos doesn't—a touch-screen.

I picked up an iPod Touch last year and have been impressed with its touch-screen capabilities, so I had hoped that this one would work similarly. It doesn't. You'll note back in Figure 3 that next to the touch-screen there's a navigation button. You'll need it. I found myself rarely using the touch-screen unless I was on a menu that required it.

And when I used the screen, I usually had to use very deliberate and long presses to get my button selected and it often took two or three presses to get it right. I had better luck if I carefully pressed the screen with my fingernail instead of my finger, but that was a bit unnatural for me. Otherwise, the menus on the remote allowed complete control of functionality. Figure 7 shows one of the attractive top-level menus displayed on the remote.

Top Level Menu

Figure 7: Top Level Menu on the remote

Using these menus, you can manage your music as you'd expect, sorting via artist, album, favorites, etc. In addition to Rhapsody, the free RadioTime service is also included. So you'll find many Internet radio stations to choose from.

I appreciated that the LCD that was quite a bit larger than the Sonos Controller. But one downside of a large screen is shorter battery life. When I was using the Linksys Controller frequently, I couldn't get much more than an hour out of it, so I pretty much used it while plugged in to its USB charging cable, which sort of defeats the purpose of a "portable" remote, eh?

I also had some configuration issues with the remote where it would spontaneously pop up an error saying that it had lost its connectivity. I often could just dismiss the message and connectivity would be restored. But at least once I had to go back into the menus and set the device up again. I also had more than one crash where a reboot would occur. The reboot seemed to take a couple of minutes, but at least it didn't affect the currently playing music.

My general feeling is that the Controller needs work. But there is a better solution. Sonos has released a free iPhone/iPod Touch application that can be used as a controller and you can already use the free Apple Remote app to turn the Touch / iPhone into a remote for the AirPort Express. And if you have a Logitech Squeezebox, the excellent iPeng application performs similar duties.

As a result, I would be very surprised if Cisco were not working on a similar application to turn the Touch / iPhone into a WHA Controller. After all, the native Linksys Controller costs $350 and all it does is drive the WHA. But you can pick up an iPod Touch for $230 (or less if you go with refurbished) that does so much more.

The Touch is smaller, cheaper, has much better battery life, higher-res screen and better touch capabilities. All that's needed is a well-written application and Linksys' own Controller will look like an expensive dinosaur. The only awkward fact would be that you'd be managing and playing the music on the Linksys WHA system and not the iTunes library on the iPod itself.


Linksys Director

If you don't have the Linksys wireless Controller handy, you can also control the system through the display and buttons on the Director itself. Figure 8 shows one top-level menu on the Director when a USB drive has been plugged in.

Director menu for USB control

Figure 8: Director menu for USB control

When you use a USB drive, you manage the music on it like any other source. You can browse via directory, artist, genre, etc. This screen taken from the user manual also shows an iPod that has been plugged into the dock connector. I couldn't test this myself, since the Premier package doesn't include the optional $80 iPod dock.

As mentioned, the 3.5-inch screen on the Director has four "soft" software-configurable buttons for navigating the menus. The downside to these buttons is that when a "now playing" type screen is displayed, you can't tell which function they control until you press one. And even then, their use seemed awkward.

When I was dealing with the Director unit, I almost always used the IR remote which was much more intuitive and easy to use. When directly dealing with the remote extender, the IR remote is the only option. But as mentioned, a lot of the buttons, such as the navigation arrow buttons don't make much sense since there isn't any display. You'll likely only use the IR remote for turning the unit on and off, pausing and playing.

I did a little bit of off-the-cuff testing to see what the wireless range of the devices was like. In general, over the three levels of my house, with my 802.11g access point on the lowest level, I didn't have any issues. But depending on the specific layout in your house, you may get different results.

I should also mention a difference comparing the way Sonos networks its devices. With Sonos, a private mesh network for just the audio devices is set up. Whereas with the WHA, the devices reside on your existing wireless network and connect via your wireless router. So you can only place WHA components in the locations where you get wireless coverage. Fortunately, streaming audio requires much less bandwidth and is much more forgiving of throughput "dropouts" than streaming video.

Under the Covers

I like to open up boxes under review so I can identify what components are being used, but these boxes were compact and tightly integrated, so getting into them wasn't going to be an option. But that doesn't mean we can't figure out some of what was going on inside.

A check of the Linksys web site showed GPL download packages and digging into them revealed that the boxes are running a Linux 2.6 kernel, with a Asix AX88796B Ethernet chip. As far as the main CPU, I could tell it was an ARM of some sort (a Google search identified it as being from Samsung). Other components being used include busybox, uboot and multimedia tools from Live555. Another Google search told me the internal Digital to Audio chip was a TI PCM1782.

Fortunately, the FCC ID documents confirm some of this information and provide further consturction details. They show that the same main board is used in both the DMC250 Director and DMP100 Player. Figure 9 shows the board, with the dual-band draft 11n radio board removed. You can see the Samsung ARM-based controller. The Altera device is a programmable logic array.

WHA main board

Figure 9: WHA main board

Figure 10 shows the mini-PCI radio board, which uses a Ralink RT2860 dual-band MAC/BB and RT2850 2T3R 2.4 / 5 GHz transceiver

WHA radio

Figure 10: WHA radio

The DMC250 includes an amplifier module, which is shown in Figure 11.

DMC250 Amplifier module

Figure 11: DMC250 Amplifier module

I also did a bit of poking around to see what the boxes looked like to other DLNA devices on the LAN. I found that a DLNA client on my iPod could see the Director and the Extendor as DLNA servers, and I could browse their content a bit, but I couldn't acutally play anything. I also had hoped that the devices would present themselves as a DLNA renderer so I could send music to them from another source, but this wasn't the case. In general, these devices can utilize another DLNA server, but they won't play in this network otherwise.

Closing Thoughts

So after playing with the system for a while, how well does it stack up against the Sonos system? Well, a three-piece Sonos Bundle 150 (controller, ZP120 w/ amplifier, ZP90 w/o amplifier) from Sonos and Linksys will both set you back around $1000. But with Linksys, you get a larger LCD and touchscreen on the Controller and also a color LCD display on the Director.

Although the Sonos remote lacks a touchscreen and doesn't have an LCD display on the base unit, it does have a free application that lets you use an iPhone or iPod touch as a controller. This means that you can skip the Sonos Controller and get a two-piece set for only $850.

Price isn't the only advantage that the Sonos system has going for it, however. It has been around a lot longer and it seemed a lot more polished than the WHA, even when I reviewed it several years ago. Although I haven't used a Sonos system since, I'd guess that even more bugs have been worked out by now and some features added.

But even if the Sonos feature set has stayed the same, I prefer its Controller over Linksys'. The Sonos remote may have a smaller screen and lack touch capabilities. But the Linksys Controller's sins of bugginess, poor integration of touch features and short battery life are worse.

I'll note that the Sonos system supports Mac OS X users while the Linksys doesn't. And for me, that's always a big plus. And finally, the Sonos' self-discovery and configuration abilities make it a breeze to set up vs. the two hour chore that comes with the WHA.

I enjoyed using the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System and liked having a color LCD on the base unit. But until Linksys gets the bugs worked out, I'd have a hard time recommending it over the Sonos.

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