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
computers soundcard, but, unless youre 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, youd need to run wires from the computer to the stereo and, while effective,
it certainly isnt going to be attractive.
Wouldnt 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).
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:
whats 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 youll 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. Youll 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 Squeezeboxs functions from the computer. Youll 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 youll need a broadband Internet
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. Im 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 networks password (your
network does have a password, doesnt 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
When I started to think about how to explain the
Squeezeboxs 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 youd 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, youre 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 McDonalds and complaining that there is no filet mignon on the menu.
Internet radio (and satellite radio, too) isnt intended to be an audiophiles
paradise, but it sure may be a music lovers dream. All the stations are free and,
unless your local FM stations are very different from mine, offer music that you
wont hear any other way.
Because Slim Devices has used open source code for the
Squeezebox, users are free to develop software to extend the Squeezeboxs
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 doesnt 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
dont have an XM account, I cant 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 headphone output on the Squeezebox is decent, but there
was noticeable improvement when I used HeadRooms 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
Squeezeboxs own headphone output, on the other hand, was soft enough that it made
listening to these low-quality files acceptable.
To test out the Squeezeboxs 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 Squeezeboxs 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
dont think youll 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 Rotels 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 wont 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. Itll 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 cant retrieve what isnt 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 Ive tried and if used with an good DAC,
Compared to . . . what?
Usually when providing a comparison in a review the problem
isnt 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 dont 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
cant 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 itll 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.
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 dont want to do
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 cant
imagine someone being disappointed with it.
Prices of equipment reviewed