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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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