Blu-ray players are becoming less a means to play discs than a gateway to online services — and to any media stored on computers, smartphones, and iDevices lying around your home. Take LG’s BD670. You might pick up this modest-looking machine thinking you’d use it to play Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D discs, along with DVDs and CDs.
Wikipedia says minimalism “describes movements in various forms of art and design . . . where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features.” At Sound+Vision, we generally preach the exact opposite: a “go big or go home” view toward TVs, speakers, and subwoofers. Why settle for 5.1 and a 42-inch screen when 9.2 and a 100-inch screen would be so much better?
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is growing up. A few years ago, it was known as a gathering of small (sometimes one-man) companies demonstrating exotic (sometimes downright wacky) audio products. Some of those guys are still there, but so now are most of the better-known high-end audio companies.
Price: $99 At A Glance: Vastly improved picture quality • More responsive, motion-sensitive, Bluetooth remote • Tiny footprint • Wide variety of content providers
Roku has released its newest generation of media streamers, including the top-of-the-line Roku 2 XS player. Perhaps you haven't given Roku much thought as a serious addition to your home theater. Its earlier models gave more attention to the quantity of media-streaming partners than to the quality of the pictures they were streaming. The Roku 2 XS may change your mind as it changed mine.
AT A GLANCE Plus
Remote control with headphone jack
Global movie title search
Zippy processor for quick navigation and search
Can only be connected via HDMI
Performance improvements and a new interface make streaming easy and keep Roku ahead of the competition.
Where other companies that make media players seem stuck in endless delays in the release of new models, it seems that Roku rolls out a new option every few months. I’m not complaining. Its newest release, the Roku 3, is my favorite so far. I use a Roku box with my bedroom TV because my tech-challenged partner can easily understand how to navigate its menus. Roku 3 has now added a headphone jack in the remote that mutes the TV when you plug into it. No longer do I have to endure listening to explosions, gunshots, and car-chase scenes while I’m trying to fall asleep. Performance improvements plus a new interface and box design continue to keep Roku ahead of its competition.
Price: $100 At A Glance: Instant streaming • Ultra-simple interface • No additional service charge for Netflix subscribers • Limited choice of available titles • Requires very fast Internet connection for good image quality • No multichannel surround or HD content yet
Netflix on Demand
What could be better than waiting for your next Netflix movie to arrive by snail mail? What if you could receive it on demand, via streaming technology?
Convergence shows many faces to music lovers. If you've got the bucks, you can add a hard-drive-based music server to your system. Or you can pay a custom installer to bring IP-based networking to every room in the house. But if you just want to move music from one PC to one rack, all you need is a simple device and it doesn't have to cost much. One of many possible options is the Roku SoundBridge.
Price: $100 At a Glance: Small stick connects directly to HDMI input on TV • Same menus and channels as full-sized Roku Box • No additional power connection; requires MHL-enabled TV
That Roku box is shrinking…again. The Roku Stick looks like a thumb drive and is only about 3 inches long. For the most part, it provides the same experience as the standard Roku boxes—same menus, same performance. But to use one, you’ll need an MHL-enabled TV or other device.
AT A GLANCE Plus
Direct HDMI connection to most TVs
Extensive content options
Suggested videos and apps on home screen
Remote with direct access to Netflix, M-Go, Amazon Instant Video, and Blockbuster
Music stops when navigating away from channel
Long start-up time
No option to group channels by category
The great features of a Roku box in a stick for half the price.
The second Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI version) is a fit-in-your-pocket HDMI dongle that is basically a Roku box on a stick. Where the previous Roku Streaming stick worked only with TVs that have an MHL (Mobile High Definition Link) HDMI port, the new Roku is compatible with most TVs’ standard HDMI connections. As with its predecessors, the Roku HDMI is easy to use and offers more than 1,700 channels (that is, apps). Notably, these now include apps that stream from pretty much any video source you can think of—the usual online streaming services, plus your home network media libraries, or live TV and recorded DVR recorded content using Simple.tv or a Slingplayer channel.
At A Glance: Instant streaming • Easy installation and operation • Simple, user-friendly interface • Access to multiple services, paid and free • 1080p/24 compatible
Roku’s players have come a long way since I reviewed the first Roku device in our November 2008 issue. All that player did was stream Netflix movies. You had to go to Netflix.com to queue up your movies before you could stream them from your Roku box to your TV via your wireless network. Since every major Blu-ray player now offers Netflix streaming, Roku had to make its box more competitive, and it did. There are three Roku products; for this review, I’ll focus on the XDS, Roku’s high-end unit at a whopping $100.