Technology

Sony's Stream of Sound


0320_sony_vgfwa1
Editor's Rating: star rating

As with most Sony products, the sound on this wireless digital music streamer is top-notch, and once you get past the bewildering setup it's a handy way to play your tunes at home

Anyone who stores music on a computer knows the chore that playing those songs on a home stereo system can be. There are bigger problems known to man, but I'd rather not flip open my laptop in the den or dock a loaded MP3 player in the living room. The good news is that there are a growing number of options for folks like me. Among them is Sony's VAIO VGF WA1 Wireless Digital Music Streamer, which I've been trying out in my quest to ship music from my PC to other rooms, preferably without wires—or hassle.

Sony's (SNE) streamer got me part of the way toward my goal. Over a couple of weeks of testing, I warmed to the machine's sleek design, sophisticated sound, and ease of use. It delivered simple wireless access to my digital music collection and Internet radio to most of the rooms of my house. And unlike other devices—say, Logitech's (LOGI) Squeezebox—the VAIO has built-in speakers, so it doesn't need to be connected to a stereo system.

A Daunting Setup

The VGF WA1 works with Windows computers but not with Apple (AAPL) Macs (though it is designed to work with Apple's iTunes software). It comes with a USB Wi-Fi adapter that plugs into your computer and connects to the streamer. While the device won't play songs purchased from an online music store, it does handle a variety of formats, including ATRAC3, MP3, WMA, and AAC, depending on which media software you use to serve your music from the PC to the machine.

But before you can enjoy any music, you need to set it up. And for me, this proved an unnecessarily tall order. For instance, to connect the laptop to the streamer, you'll need to pick a media player, whether it's the VAIO Media Integrated Server, Windows Media Connect, or Windows Media Player 11. But the owner's manual offers little guidance as to which server software might be preferable for different uses. Nor does the setup section of the manual clearly outline the steps needed to configure the laptop to work with the device; the explanation of a crucial action—clicking on the desktop Wireless Adapter Manager icon and registering the player—is buried in a different section entirely. With perseverance, I was able to unravel these snags, but some users may find them frustrating.

The device measures a compact 15 inches by 5 inches by 4] inches and weighs less than six pounds. It comes in black or white and has a rounded, modern design. A pull-out handle on the back makes it easy to carry from room to room—although as one would expect, the wireless signal weakens the further it's moved from your router. The VGF WA1 worked fine everywhere in my apartment except the living room, where it was furthest from the router.

Once the streamer was connected to my computer, I was able to navigate song and artist lists in my music library fairly easily using the device's touch-sensitive control panel—though the display, smaller than a business card, was difficult to read. Worse still, don't bother using the remote for more than basic functions, such as adjusting the volume, as it's hard to read song or album titles on the streamer except at close range.

Great Sound, Limited Radio

For sound buffs, Sony offers a range of settings, including a dynamic bass boost that adds oomph to low frequencies; a six-band equalizer that lets you match sound to music genre; and—my favorite—a "wide stereo" function that increases the virtual distance between the speakers, creating more of a stereo effect. True to Sony form, the streamer offers very good sound for its size, portability, and ease of use.

The VGF WA1 also lets you listen to Web radio. But having reveled in the seemingly limitless Internet radio options afforded by the Squeezebox (BusinessWeek.com, 9/7/07), I was disappointed by the mere hundred or so stations Sony has made available through a service called Live365 . This dismay was compounded by frequent on-air inducements to upgrade to an ad-free subscription service and repeated, annoying commercials for Reese's Whipps. Some reviewers have lamented the device's lack of an AM-FM receiver, but that's not a beef I share.

Another handy feature of the VGF-WA1 is internal memory that lets you download favorite songs for playback even when you're not connected to the computer. But be warned: You can store only 128 megabytes of music, or about 30 to 40 songs. And for me, downloads took a long time—some songs more than two minutes, even when the machine was close to my router.

The VGF-WA1 is a handsome all-in-one tool for making your music collection accessible throughout the house, a room at a time. Priced at $150 to $250, it won't break the bank. If you're willing to muddle through a potentially cumbersome setup and don't demand much in the way of Web radio, it's a very good means to play music the way it's meant to be enjoyed.

Giles is editor of the Technology channel on BusinessWeek.com .

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