Good Vibrations from the Squeezebox
(When last we left our intrepid music junkie, he was annoyed that the Slim Devices SLIMP3 streamed MP3 music, rather than being a disk-based storage and playback device like his beloved TiVo. Let’s see how things have progressed.)
Since I reviewed the SLIMP3 last year (see "SLIMP3: MP3, Get Thee to the Hi-Fi" in TidBITS-676), disk-based media players have either vanished or morphed into the "home theater PC," but media-streaming devices have flourished. As just a few examples, Alex Hoffman reviewed TiVo’s Home Media Option ("TiVo Series2 Improves on Original" in TidBITS-698); Gateway introduced their Connected DVD Player; Turtle Beach soldiers on with their venerable AudioTron AT-100; and MacSense is finally shipping the HomePod. The market has spoken: streaming it is.
Enter the Squeezebox — Slim Devices introduced the Squeezebox in November 2003. With a new look and a slew of new features, it replaces the SLIMP3 as Slim Devices’ flagship hardware product. Where the SLIMP3 felt like an exercise in home-brew hardware, the Squeezebox looks and feels like high-quality consumer electronics. It retains the SLIMP3’s excellent vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) but is packaged in a slimmer, more attractive case. The SLIMP3’s stark black metal is replaced with a rubberized exterior. The display is no longer angled upward, but faces directly outward just like the rest of your hi-fi components. The unit is much more at home in the entertainment center, or on a desk or dresser. Inside, the Squeezebox plants itself directly at the demographic intersection between computer and audio enthusiasts. A wired version connects to a 10/100/1000Base-T wired Ethernet network; a wireless version adds the capability to connect to an 802.11b wireless network. Your streaming audio is delivered to the stereo via either analog RCA or digital optical or coaxial jacks.
The Squeezebox’s setup is remarkably intuitive. After a series of questions guides you through setup for your network, the box is off and running. In a nice improvement over the SLIMP3, the Squeezebox automatically detects if a new firmware version is on the server, and prompts the user to upgrade.
Where the SLIMP3’s digital-to-analog converter only handled MP3 audio, the Squeezebox supports most popular formats: AAC (on Mac or Windows), AIFF, FLAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV or WMA (Windows only). AAC, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis and WMA files are supported through server-side conversion into uncompressed audio; the conversion is only available for files that aren’t protected by digital rights management, as are those purchased from the iTunes Music Store. In other words, the songs you rip into AAC or WMA are playable, but purchased (and protected) songs are not playable. (AAC playback requires QuickTime and is therefore only available on Mac and Windows servers. The Ogg and FLAC formats require that those programs be already installed on the server.)
The Squeezebox’s interface is exactly the same as the SLIMP3, and you control its functions via either the included remote control or the server’s Web interface. See my earlier review for descriptions of its operation.
SlimServer — The SlimServer software, which is installed on the Mac hosting your music files, remains an impressively robust and flexible music platform. Where most players lock you into iTunes’s predefined constructs of songs, albums and playlists, the SlimServer incorporates an "internal playlist" concept that opens the door to ad-hoc playlists. You can build a playlist for the moment, intermixing any number of songs, albums or pre-defined playlists; any unit of music available to iTunes can be a component of an ad-hoc playlist. I’ve always dreamed of an unending stream of music, limited only by my mood and imagination. With SlimServer, that dream has arrived (and yes, I know full well that I sound like I’m spouting advertising copy).
As testament to the strength of the SlimServer platform, competitor Roku Labs has adopted the GPL-licensed open-source SlimServer software for their not-yet-shipping Roku SoundBridge. Roku’s literature proudly lists the device’s support for multiple audio formats, the Web server interface, iTunes support, and compatibility with multiple operating systems. Interestingly, the SoundBridge appears to also use a VFD display. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, adoption must point to sheer adoration.
Costs and Benefits — Streaming music devices all seem to be priced around $200. However, just as Macs cost more than PCs, the Squeezebox costs a bit more; enough to make you say "hmmm." The wired version costs $250; adding wireless bumps the price to $300. Although the Squeezebox is full-featured and rightfully claims a spot in the consumer electronics milieu, the price feels a bit high to me. Otherwise, the Squeezebox is a heck of a nice product.
While I was writing the SLIMP3 review, my wife and I noticed that we played music more often, and more easily. The seamless access to the music heightened our use and enjoyment a great deal, similar to the yield one gets from TiVo. After I sent the demonstration unit back to Slim Devices, we noticed its absence. Forced to once again shuffle CDs, we lapsed into old habits of leaving the same set of discs in the player and suffering through commercial radio. Now that we’ve gotten our hands on the Squeezebox, I just might have to buy one for the entertainment center.
[Andrew Laurence has almost figured out how to store all his CDs in the living room. Almost.]
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