Beaming music to speakers around the house is, in my estimation, one of the great luxuries of the 21st century, but it can be a pricey one. Orb's new puck lets you play your tunes anywhere, wirelessly, for only $70.
The basic setup involves three components: the Orb Caster software, the Orb Controller app for iOS (and, soon, Android) and the Orb MP-1 puck. Orb Caster indexes the media on your computer (either your iTunes library or folders that you specify); the Controller app lets you pick what songs you want to play; and the silver-dollar pancake-sized MP-1 puck receives that media over Wi-Fi (b/g/n) and plays it on whatever set of speakers you have it plugged into. In addition to your own music collection, Orb streams Pandora, and, if you're a subscriber, Sirius.
Setting up Orb's puck was simple and went without a hitch. And while it's just plain silly that you can't control the music you're playing from your computer itself via the Orb Caster software, the Controller app is nice looking and functional and, as it's been part of Orb's offerings for a while now, has been sanded down to a nice polish.
That app, which up until recently was $10, doesn't look any less glossy than Apple's own iPod app, and it easily lets you pick not only what music you want to play but where you want to play it—on your iDevice itself, or on any or all of the Orbs you have installed. And since it's not encumbered by iTunes, you can play different songs on different Orbs, too. All this gets to the real promise of Orb—at $70 a pop it's cheap enough that you can pick up a few and deck out all the rooms you spend time in with streaming music, and it's flexible enough to make it easy to do so.
I own and love an Apple Airport Express, and for $30 extra it gives you the benefit of adding printers into the mix and the greater benefit of extending your wireless network. The Orb does neither, and since it's not rebroadcasting your network itself, you could run into some streaming issues if you had them installed the outskirts of a larger home. Air Tunes, chained to iTunes, has some frustrating limitations (though it's definitely poised to expand its functionality as it transforms into Air Play in coming months) and I've found that Airport Expresses can get fussy when you're trying to juggle a few of them on the same network, or when you're trying to move them from place to place.
But in my experience with Orb, the whole thing just worked, which is crucial. It's easy to see Orb becoming the Flip of streaming wireless media around the house, something that is cheap and good enough, even if it lacks certain frills. Right now Orb's handicapped by a few random shortcomings—not being able to control music from your computer being the glaringly obvious one—but it's flexible in some ways that Air Tunes is not. And it's worth noting, too, that the Orb Caster software, which has been the company's focus for years, handles video content, so I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see an Orb Video puck somewhere in the future for streaming content not just to speakers but screens as well.
The move into hardware is kind of an unexpected play from Orb, a company that has until now focused on its free streaming software. But the move is definitely a welcome one. That they've spent those years working on their software means that their streaming infrastructure is solid, and I'm pleased to say that the new MP-1 puck definitely isn't a weak link. If you don't mind the idea of your smartphone being your sole remote for your music, the cheap, flexible streaming ecosystem Orb's establishing could be just the ticket for letting your music collection run wild in your home. [Orb]