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Published September 1, 2006

 

Slim Devices Squeezebox Digital Music Player

Many people use their computers as music devices. Some store a great deal of music on their computer system -- some for use with their iPod and others just to listen to on the computer itself. Others listen to the thousands of Internet radio streams that are freely available. It would be great, then, if there was a sweet and easy way to get all of that music to a stereo system. You could always connect your computer directly to your stereo system via the outputs on the computer’s soundcard, but, unless you’re living in a dorm room, it is unlikely that your computer is in the same room as your stereo system. Even if it is in the same room, you’d need to run wires from the computer to the stereo and, while effective, it certainly isn’t going to be attractive.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a small device that could connect wirelessly with the computer in your home via your Wi-Fi network and stream your iTunes library or Internet radio to your stereo system? Lucky for you, there is such a device: Slim Devices’ Squeezebox ($299 USD).

Specifications

The Squeezebox measures 7.6" wide, 3.7" high and 3.1" deep including the stand. The front of the Squeezebox looks nice and clean: no buttons or knobs, just a nice, big blue vacuum-fluorescent display that takes up the top half of the unit. You can configure the display to provide you with lots of information: what’s playing, moving graphics, games, and, my favorite, RSS news feeds that you can configure. The Squeezebox on my night table constantly streams the news so that I can quickly see in the morning if the world has come to an end overnight. If you prefer to remain in the dark (literally or figuratively), the display can be turned off completely.

Along the back of the Squeezebox there are six connections that can be made. Starting on the far left there is a headphone mini-jack, followed by a pair of analog RCA outputs, an optical digital output, a coaxial digital output, an Ethernet connection, and, finally, a connection for the power supply. The Squeezebox allows for volume control on all outputs, but this can be defeated for some outputs if you want to use the Squeezebox as a line-level device.

There is no outward sign of the wireless capability, but wireless units offer 802.11g service, which is compatible with 802.11b networks, and retain the Ethernet connection, which will connect to any 100Mbps or 10Mbps network and can be used as a network bridge. This means that the Squeezebox can allow other Ethernet devices to connect to the network through its Ethernet connection. This might be particularly useful if you plan to set up a Squeezebox in a home theater that contains a game console like an Xbox. You can then use the Squeezebox not only to access your digital music library in the theater, but also use it to allow the game console to connect with online gaming communities, like Xbox Live.

Since there are no controls on the unit, you must use either the remote control or the computer interface to control the Squeezebox. The remote is standard size with all the buttons you’ll need to control the Squeezebox laid out in a logical manner. If you prefer to use your own universal remote that will be no problem and there are templates available for high-end remotes like the Pronto.

Since the Squeezebox has to interface with your computer to function, there are minimum standards your computer must meet to use it. You’ll need at least 256MB RAM and 20MB of hard-drive space. The main program that will run on your computer is called SlimServer and has a very easy and intuitive interface. There are also user-made plugins that you may want to use as well (a couple of them are described below). You can control all of the Squeezebox’s functions from the computer. You’ll need either a standard network router if you are just going to use the Ethernet connection or a wireless network router if you want to use the Wi-Fi version of the Squeezebox. Windows users need to run Windows XP, 2000, or NT; Mac users need to run Mac OS X 10.3.5 or later. If you want to listen to Internet radio, then you’ll need a broadband Internet connection too.

My main concern when I received the Squeezebox was about the difficulty in adding it to my existing wireless network. Since I received two Squeezeboxes at the same time, I was also interested to see how well the network and computer dealt with multiple Squeezeboxes. I’m happy to report that installation was seamless. Installing SlimServer on your computer will get your computer ready to interface with the Squeezebox and will automatically import an iTunes library and playlists. When you turn on the Squeezebox for the first time, it searches for available wireless networks, allows you to select the right one and put in your network’s password (your network does have a password, doesn’t it?), and you are ready to go. SlimServer allows you to name each Squeezebox (mine are creatively called "Living Room" and "Bedroom") so it is easy to control and configure them via the computer interface.

Listening

When I started to think about how to explain the Squeezebox’s functionality, I found myself thinking of Ron Popeil: "It slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries!" When playing your digital file library, the Squeezebox will play uncompressed formats, such as WAV or PCM, lossless formats, such as Apple Lossless, FLAC, or WMA Lossless, and compressed formats, like MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, or WMA. These can all be streamed as PCM, MP3 or FLAC formats and the digital outputs allow sample rates of 44.1kHz or 48kHz with 16 or 24 bits per sample. When accessing Internet radio stations, it will play MP3, Ogg Vorbis and WMA formatted stations natively, which allows it to display the song title information. You can also configure the Squeezebox so that it can access Internet radio stations even when your home computer is turned off (of course, your modem and router will need to be on). It will also act as your alarm clock. You can configure the alarm for each day of the week and specify exactly what music you’d like to wake up to. Finally, it comes configured with several environmental soundscapes too, so if you suddenly feel a need to hear a thunderstorm or babbling brook, you’re in luck.

The Squeezebox comes configured to listen to some of the more popular Internet radio libraries, such as Shoutcast, Live365, RadioIO, and Pandora. Quality of both station and content, and audio quality, vary across these networks, but I have found that the RadioIO stations consistently sound the best. The RadioIO family of stations is small in comparison to something like Live365, but there are streams for classical, jazz, rock, and electronica. Some people complain about the audio quality of Internet radio and it is true that some stations sound very bad. However, I think this is like going to McDonald’s and complaining that there is no filet mignon on the menu. Internet radio (and satellite radio, too) isn’t intended to be an audiophile’s paradise, but it sure may be a music lover’s dream. All the stations are free and, unless your local FM stations are very different from mine, offer music that you won’t hear any other way.

Because Slim Devices has used open source code for the Squeezebox, users are free to develop software to extend the Squeezebox’s capabilities. Two of these user-created plugins are integral to how I use the Squeezebox. First, AlienBBC allows the Squeezebox to stream Internet radio streams that use Realplayer formatting. Since that includes the vast BBC offerings, it is a godsend for radio lovers. The BBC has some fantastic music programming and is one of the few places still producing radio plays. AlienBBC doesn’t allow just for BBC streaming, but for NPR and CBC as well. Second, there is a plug-in that allows Sirius satellite radio subscribers to listen to their online accounts via the Squeezebox (there is a similar one for XM, but since I don’t have an XM account, I can’t comment on it). No more need to worry about placing the antenna for additional Sirius listening areas -- just play the station through the Squeezebox. There are two caveats about listening to Sirius this way. First, not all stations are available online (but all the music channels are) and, second, there is a noticeable drop in audio quality between listening directly through a Sirius receiver and the Squeezebox.

The headphone output on the Squeezebox is decent, but there was noticeable improvement when I used HeadRoom’s Total BitHead amplifier connected via the RCA analog outs. The dedicated amp cleared up some slight fuzziness in the treble and tightened up the bass. This was readily apparent on my files that were stored with a lossless format, but this clarity made it difficult to listen to some Internet streams and podcasts that are formatted as very low-quality MP3s. Through the Total BitHead, the tinny and garbled highs of such MP3s was too much to listen to as it became distracting. The Squeezebox’s own headphone output, on the other hand, was soft enough that it made listening to these low-quality files acceptable.

To test out the Squeezebox’s sound, I connected the Squeezebox to my Rogue Audio Tempest II integrated amplifier via a pair of Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval interconnects, and I also connected it to my Benchmark DAC1 using a DH Labs Silver Sonic D-75 digital cable. The Benchmark was then connected to the Rogue amplifier, also using a pair of Analysis Plus cables. Finally, a Rotel RCD-1070 CD player was used as a benchmark as well. The speakers were Quad 21L and the speaker cables were Kimber Kable 4PR.

Using the Squeezebox’s analog output directly, I was impressed that something that offers so much functionality for a reasonable price could also sound this good. My usual subjective criteria -- soundstaging, cymbal crashes, piano notes -- were all met with better than expected performance. In direct comparison with the Rotel CD player the Squeezebox came up short in delivering a truly black background and the Rotel offered better soundstaging. If you do a lot of critical listening, then I don’t think you’ll want to get rid of your CD player, but the Squeezebox could still be a great addition to your system for Internet radio and casual listening. With the Squeezebox feeding the DAC1, it surpassed the Rotel’s standalone performance -- instruments were more clearly defined in space and the bass was firmed up. I could easily live with the Squeezebox/DAC1 combo without a CD player, but the convenience of being able to slip a new disc in without ripping it to my hard drive means I won’t get rid of the Rotel anytime soon. Looking for a stripped-down system: use a Squeezebox to feed a Benchmark DAC1, connect the Benchmark DAC1 to a nice amplifier and some bookshelf speakers. It’ll hardly take up any space and the sound, I imagine, will be fantastic.

One thing should be perfectly clear: The performance of the Squeezebox is directly related to the quality of digital files that the user feeds it. If all your files are stored as 128kbps MP3s, then they are still going to sound like it; the Squeezebox can’t retrieve what isn’t there. But, if you store your digital files as uncompressed audio files or with a lossless compression scheme, then the sound will be better than any inexpensive DVD player I’ve tried and if used with an good DAC, outstanding.

Compared to . . . what?

Usually when providing a comparison in a review the problem isn’t finding a product to compare the review unit to, but deciding which of the many possible comparisons is most useful to the reader. With the Squeezebox, however, the problem is finding a product that has the same functionality. There are some stand-alone Internet radio receivers, such as the Acoustic Energy Wi-Fi Internet radio ($299.95), but while such radios don’t need to interface with your computer (they connect directly to your Wi-Fi network and get the radio feeds themselves), they will not bring your digital music library to your audio system. The Acoustic Energy radio is more like a bedside radio with an integrated speaker, but it still seems to me that the versatility of the Squeezebox wins out. Get an inexpensive pair of powered speakers at RadioShack, put your Squeezebox on your nightstand, and you get versatility that an Internet radio can’t match for the same money.

The Sonos Digital Music System, like the Squeezebox, will bring your digital library and Internet radio to your audio system, but it is much more expensive. The Sonos system relies on ZonePlayers which, like the Squeezebox, connects directly to your audio system. The Sonos Controller (remote control) looks like an iPod turned on its side. Two ZonePlayers and one Controller will cost you $999; two Squeezeboxes (each with their own remote) will cost you $598. True, the Sonos Controller is much fancier, but do you need (or even want) a fancy remote? If you lose or damage the Sonos Controller it’ll cost $399 to replace it; the Squeezebox remote will set you back $19. Also, as far as I can tell, the Sonos system is not open source, which means any new features will have to come directly from Sonos and not just any young whippersnapper who gets an itchin’ to write some code.

So, the Squeezebox is not the only device to perform the functions it provides, but it does seem to me to be the best-rounded of any such product when functionality and price are considered. It has more features and usability than stand-alone Internet radios, it costs less than products that offer similar functionality and it supports open-source software development.

Conclusion

One important thing that I did not address in this review is the need for storage space to keep your digital files. Hard drives are relatively inexpensive and there are many ways to transfer your CDs to your computer. Whatever method you decide upon, you should be sure to make at least one backup copy of your library. You can rip a CD in a matter of minutes, but when you start to have hundreds of albums on a hard drive it translates into several hours of your time. Surely you don’t want to do it again.

The Slim Devices Squeezebox is my favorite piece of audio gear in a very long time. It integrates Internet radio, satellite radio service, and as much of my CD collection as I can put on my computer into a nice, neat package to place in my audio rack and on my bedside table. It is attractive, has a legible read-out, and is extremely easy to use. If you want to be able to listen to thousands of radio streams available over the Internet or if you want to listen to your satellite radio subscription in multiple rooms of your house without running antennas everywhere or if you want to shuffle your way through your CD collection, you should try the Squeezebox. I can’t imagine someone being disappointed with it.

...Eric Hetherington

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