The Linksys WMLS11B Wireless Music System fit my needs perfectly. I have an existing wireless network and a large music library on one computer; I wanted to play that music in the garage. There are lots of devices to play music over a wireless connection, but the Linksys is the only one that includes built-in speakers.

It’s cheap – under a hundred dollars – and I went into it with eyes open, since it’s easy to find complaints online about various problems with it.

But I was nonplussed that the instructions for setting it up were just . . . wrong. I actually followed the instructions to the letter just in case there was some mysterious bit of high-tech that would work in an unexpected way. Nope, no surprises. There was no way for a normal person to follow the instructions and make the Linksys Music System come to life.

(Here’s the details if you’re interested. The manual describes connecting a cable directly between the computer and the Linksys device, and throwing a crossover switch on the Linksys. That cuts them off from the rest of the network devices, and since the Linksys device is set up for DHCP – and the computer probably also is – there’s no way either one of them will have a good IP address when they wake up. They’ll never talk in that arrangement. It can’t work that way. And there’s no information in the manual to resolve that – nothing about manually setting IP addresses or power-cycling to try for mutual 169.254.xx.xx addresses or the like. And specifically there’s no clue that the right thing to do is plug the Linksys device into the router or switch that’s probably around someplace, since the only people buying this already have a wireless network.)

There’s also no reference anywhere on the box or in the product literature to the software required to serve music to the Linksys. It’s an old version of MusicMatch Jukebox, one with a richly-deserved reputation for being buggy and annoying. I did some research online to find out if I could at least upgrade to a newer, slightly less buggy version of MusicMatch Jukebox – and couldn’t find out anywhere, certainly not from Linksys or MusicMatch, neither of which acknowledges the relationship very openly. (Eventually I upgraded to the new free version of MusicMatch and the music server is still working. Unfortunately MusicMatch 10 is still buggy and annoying. Sigh.)

As promised in the online reviews, the Linksys device frequently freezes or loses the connection to the music library. I upgraded the firmware (thinking to myself, my god, could anyone own this besides a geek? or is everyone under-25 so plugged in that this is natural to them?). As of today, it still requires power-cycling way too often.

My working theory is that it can’t play mp3 files encoded at anything higher than 128k without skipping, pausing, and eventually dropping the connection. Since my entire library is higher quality than that, I’ve just begun experimenting with a separate copy of some files from the library cut down to 128k, to see if they stream correctly to the Linksys. This is absurd, of course; at this point I’ve left the world of normal people who would have filled the “Return” aisle at Best Buy long ago.

How many of the gadgets on the market this Xmas are essentially unworkable? Linksys will presumably yank this from the market in a few months and replace it with one that’s designed better and works with 802.11g so there’s enough bandwidth to stream higher-quality files. The question for consumers is – in a world filled with constantly-changing tech gadgets, how do you know which ones are mature and stable, and which ones are unpolished and potentially useless – like the Linksys Music System?

Shop carefully. Your blood pressure depends on it.

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