Creative Soundblaster Wireless Music Review

by Adam Hough

Part 1: History

When a review starts "I really wanted this to work well", you know it's not going to be a terribly positive review. So, to cut a long story short, "I really wanted this to work well..."

Years ago when I used primarily CDs for music playback, I had bought an audio relay system from RadioShack which connected to the RCA outputs from one stereo, broadcast the sound over the 900 MHz frequency and then input that into a stereo somewhere else in the house. It was an effective way of moving sound without having to move physical storage. Its major shortcoming was that the receivers were all battery powered and there was no mains option. A bit later I tried again with an X-10 solution which powered both the receiver and client and broadcast over the 2.5 GHz spectrum. This was actually less impressive due to all the interference on that spectrum due to microwaves, cellphones and miscellaneous other devices, but for the most part it worked.

When MP3s came to the fore, I started connecting the relay system up the PC. In the early days I used a MonsterSound card with dual audio outputs which did a nice job, even with the occasional blurp or fuzz that the X-10 system generated. However, when I moved the system to Win2k and XP, I could no longer use that card due to the lack of drivers and had to switch to Creative Soundblaster Live. This, unfortunately, didn't supply any output to the second audio output unless you put it into 4 speaker mode, and then it balanced them differently, expecting a surround system. There was no way I could find to have a clone of the first signal going out of the second connection, but after much tweaking I got something close. This was acceptable for a while until the X-10 system failed -- I don't know if it was the receiver or transmitter or both, but all I could get was clicking at the stereo end. It was time to upgrade.

After a certain amount of review, and pocketbook budgeting, I settled on the Creative Soundblaster Wireless Music. At $240 CDN, it wasn't cheap, but the specifications seemed good: MP3 playback without a local computer; no required wired ethernet connection; a remote that didn't require line of sight. It was also half the price of any other equivalent system I could find for sale. So, I trundled down to the nearest Best Buy that had it in stock and bought it.

Part 2: Overview

Unpacking the box showed the equipment supplied. There was a small player (small silvery plastic box with internal wireless aerial, RCA audio plugs and optical digital out, power supply), small manual, RCA to 3.5 phono plug, USB-to-mini-USB cable for setup, plastic stand for orienting the player vertically, remote and batteries to power it, and supporting software. It looked a little cheap admittedly but that's neither here not there, even if I'd prefer brushed alumnium!

The player (the squarish silvery plastic box) supports 802.11b natively, and 802.11g through the latter's ability to slow down to support 11b. This is not clear on the packaging and should frustrate anyone whose network slows to a crawl after installing this equipment. I have no other wireless components so this is a non-issue to me. Another potential problem is that it required an access point to connect to. If you have a standalone wireless access point or one inbedded inside a hub, this works fine. If all you have is a wireless network card in the server PC, you have an ad-hoc network and it will not cooperate with that.

The handheld controller is RF based with a range of about 35 feet. All tagged data appears on screen on it as there's really no display other than a couple of LEDs on the server. The graphical display has issues -- occasionally it'll overwrite pieces of text or forget to clean up after itself -- but it's acceptable. The buttons are large and clearly marked. The controller itself is really rather big, perhaps due to the three AA batteries it takes, and the system cannot really be operated without it (the server console allows some of this, but not extensively), so don't lose it. The player does have a little button that causes the controller to beep so at least it's relatively easy to track down when mislaid. As far as I'm concerned, it's neither a help nor a hindrance as when using the player I tend to be in the same room as it and the stereo so seeing a display on the controller or on the player, or dealing with line of sight issues, is for me unimportant. A nice feature is that it'll show the data for the current track playing taken from the ID3 tag; alas it has issues with VBR so leaves several of the fields blank (although not the overall time.) Another good idea is that when the title of the track exceeds the width of the display, it scrolls it permitting the user to see what's actually in the ID3 tag; unfortunately it forgets that not all menus have this data and will quite contentedly overwrite them. The design is -- most importantly -- not a negative and I can live with its shortcomings.

One of the various issues of the system is the media support. It supports WMA and it supports MP3 (VBR and other.) It *only* supports those. No OGG, no WAV, no AAC, no encrypted WMA, no AC3., no MOD, no S3M, and so on. For me, not a big issue -- it's connection to a stereo (i.e. 2 channel only) which is what all my MP3s are. It doesn't support any video format (fine, it never promised to, and I don't need it for that) but some other people may find that rules it out for them. There is also no support but internet radio that I could find, but since I don't listen to them, no loss.

Part 3: Installation

Then the fun began. I tried to set it up on my XP Pentium 4 system. Connecting the player using the USB cable to my PC was no problem with everything being recognized properly. After downloading the various driver, software and firmware patches I utterly failed to get the system to work due to wireless network errors. Well, that's what it implied anyway. A friend spent a lot of time troubleshooting the 802.11b wireless access point and eventually demonstrated that the player hardware was connecting through the WAP and correctly getting its DHCP from the firewall -- the hardware was fine. It's worth mentioning at this point the server has a Red/Green LED display to show connectivity status. I have a slight Red/Green colour blindness and both LEDs look the same, rendering this diagnostic tool utterly useless. The player does support up to 128 bit WEP 802.11 encryption and this works properly.

After getting the hardware connected to the network, we turned to the software.

I got frustrated with trying to get the server software working on the P4 system and in desperation installed the software onto my older XP Celeron 1GHz system. To my surprise, it connected and worked. I tried again on the P4 with a clean install to no success. There's something on there that causes the server to exit immediately and I can't diagnose or fix it. The annoying part of this is that the Celeron system is normally off and the P4 one on.

Server, you say? What server? Well, as far as I can tell, there's no remote media player that can handle a direct connection to a file system and read files off it directly. It always has to go through an intermediary. In this case, the intermediary must be an Windows 98 or better computer. The server acts as a remote host able to read the filesystem of the source music, parse the ID tags, maintain the playlists and then hand all of that over to the Wireless Music box when it asks for it. Creative does not supply a non-Windows version of this server, nor is there one available anywhere else. So if you're a non-Windows household, this is not the piece of kit for you. I store all my MP3s on a LINUX file server, but my clients are all Windows based, so while annoying, this isn't a lethal limitation.

Creative divides the server up into three separate parts: the server proper (which runs as an application, not a service, so an account needs to be logged in to activate it), the console to see what's going on and the Media Manager which does all of the playlist maintenance and indexing.

Alas, as I've discovered in the past, Creative's software sucks. Their hardware, as typified in the excellent PVR card, is superb. However, their software just really, really consistently bites the big one. As a point of comparison, I used WinAmp as my standard player. I have an MP3 collection which is pretty large, stretching over 180GB of diskspace. WinAmp can add that collection to its playlist (without parsing the ID tags) within 30 seconds or so; it can come up and start playing within five seconds or so on this same PC. The Creative software however has no option to not parse MP3 files -- therefore it takes a long, long, long time to add that many files to its default music collection. In practice, given the different genres in the collection you don't want to listen to all of them in sequence, or even randomly, so playlists are a good idea. These are supported by the Creative Media Manager and by the Wireless Music player. So far, so good. So I went to move entries from the complete collection in the playlist after it had run overnight, only to find that it took forever to move even 1000 files from one place to the other. It also randomly crashed when adding files, and at other times just aborted for no obvious reason in the middle of adding them. Beyond that, it only recognises UNC paths -- so if you have a share on a remote system, forget using the mapped drive letter to get to them, you'll need to add them from the fully qualified location.

Part 4: Usage

At one point the database was blown away (due to the presence of some audio books I didn't want which took forever to delete) and the list was reloaded. At that point checks of the ID tags demonstrated that the music the server thought it had were not actually anything to do with the MP3 it was playing. Reboot, reset. That cleared up the mis-indexing issue.

After a bit of experimenting I found that it was much faster to open a Windows Explorer window to the same directory and drag and drop from there. "Faster" in this case is a comparative term: it's still dog slow but does indeed take a lot less time to do. This issue with UNC versus mapped drives doesn't seem to occur in this scenario. Go figure. So I built the various playlists I wanted from the source material. Yay me. I then tried sorting the playlists to get the files added in what I thought ought to be the correct order, but that's not supported. Kinda tough if you actually do want to listen to music in sequence. Playlists do support spaces in their names so when you select one through the remote it does appear in a more readable fashion than, for example, "Rock_singles_vinyl".

It was now time to put the Wireless Music player through its paces. I tried to load a playlist -- the little hourglass on the handheld remote came up and nothing else happened. I wandered over to the server PC to find it flatlined trying to load the playlist. Three minutes later it returned, and the server began to play. The sound is a little thin in comparison to what I'm used to elsewhere, but it's acceptable and could be due to the stereo and speakers. Then I decied to change the mode (to go to random shuffle.) This forced the server to go back through its death gyrations, killing music playback and causing the 100% CPU usage to return. The "Rock" playlist which is about 100 GB (about 16000 MP3s) in size is clearly unusable on this system and will have to be broken into smaller, much smaller, bite size portions.

Some of the automatically generated playlists which query the main track collection are every bit as bad for performance and should be avoided entirely.

In addition, if the player is reset, it loses its connection and thus any data, including playlists. These then need to be retrieved for the server and that can take a while too. Until they're retrieved, the remote claims that there are none.

Attempts to skip through tracks or play them are frequently delayed which, when coupled with the other issues I encountered the system, makes me wonder if something else has gone wrong leading to running around trying to diagnose an issue when nothing is wrong other than a bit of a pause.

A pause also appears if you try making any changes to the playlists which music playback occurs. It doesn't have to be the same playlist -- any editing can cause the server to pause the player while it's updating data. On the Celeron server, any change involved the CPU meter going to 100% and staying there for a while. Whatever the software is doing in the background, it's extraordinarily inefficient at doing it.

There is, as you might expect, no cross fading of tracks. I've got extremely used to this on WinAmp so it's almost an expected feature of any MP3 playback unit I use.

The server software, annoyingly enough, does not actually tell you if anything is connected to it. The only hints are on the player (with those incomprehensible Red/Green LEDs) or on the remote where a little icon shows that it's not talking to the player.

Part 5: Summary

So, in conclusion: The last item is the killer for me. I want to listen to shuffle play on my entire rock collection. Anything that prevents me from doing so -- as this does -- is probably going back to the retailer. I'll keep playing with it until the end of the week to see if I find some ameliorating aspect or reasonable workaround, but at this point I'm expecting to end up with a Best Buy credit.

Other items not previously mentioned:

Final Analysis: Bleeding edge implementation which is already obsolete in some aspects. Serious shortcomings in design (software and firmware.) Incredibly expensive for what you get. Not recommended.

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