When it comes to playing computer-based digital media in the home theater, there are generally two types of solutions: local playback and network streaming. The local playback camp, exemplified by Windows XP Media Edition and MythTV, view the computer as a full-fledged audio-visual component, with library storage and playback wrapped up in one device. Problems develop, however, in crafting management and playback software (e.g. iTunes) that handles the multitude of media types one might have, with an interface that passes the couch test; they generally chase TiVo's elegant functionality, and they generally fail. Along the way the computer becomes a single-purpose appliance and the user loses the ability to manipulate his data in a meaningful manner.
Conversely, the network streaming camp leverages the desktop computer's historical strengths of data storage and management and ships the media over the network; this leaves the playback device free to concentrate on high-quality playback, effective interface, and reasonable remote controls.
Streaming devices are increasing in popularity, with a number of entries available from manufacturers such as D-Link, Linksys, Buffalo Networks, and a host of others. These devices stream audio, video, and pictures from a desktop computer, but to date these all-in-one devices remain jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Worse for a Mac user, their server software runs only under Windows. Many devices use technology licensed from Syabas's iBox platform; this in itself isn't a problem, but the fact that so many vendors source their solutions from the same supplier indicates a general lack of industry imagination. El Gato's EyeHome (itself a Syabas licensee) is the only all-in-one device developed and marketed especially for the Mac platform. (See "EyeHome: So Close, Yet So Far" in TidBITS-741.)
Amidst this chaos, the folks at Slim Devices forklift their own future with their third streaming music player, the Squeezebox2, and its software counterpart, SlimServer 6.0. The result is an effective, surprisingly flexible and configurable digital music player for the home stereo.
(Momma's Got A) Squeezebox -- Like its predecessors (the SLIMP3 and original Squeezebox; both of which I've previously reviewed for TidBITS), the Squeezebox2 is a svelte black network music player, roughly the size of a VHS tape. It attaches to your network via 10/100 Mbps Ethernet; if you opt for the wireless version it also connects to 802.11b or 802.11g networks and can act as a wireless bridge. Stereo connections come via analog RCA jacks, or digital audio S/PDIF connections with either coaxial or optical jacks. A headphone mini-jack is on the right side of the unit. All units include a stereo RCA cable and a serviceable IR remote control.
On the front, an exceptionally bright and readable vacuum fluorescent display provides Squeezebox2's sole face and interface. Where past offerings from Slim Devices used a text display of 40 x 2 characters, Squeezebox2 uses a display of 320 x 32 pixels. Those pixels display lovely proportional fonts that are easily read from the couch, as well as eye candy such as EQ displays, progress bars, and even games.
The AC wall adapter is worth noting. Yes, the wall wart. Slim Devices includes a Unifive switching AC adapter that is freakishly small. Measuring only 33 mm x 23.5 mm and only 45.5 mm high, it's so small that it doesn't impede other power sockets. It's nice to see vendors recognize that power strips exist.
Overture -- To stream digital content to the Squeezebox2, you need to download and install the free SlimServer software disk image for Mac OS X from slimdevices.com. Run the included installer, choose whether the preference pane should be available for just the current user or the whole computer, and click Install. The installer completes in a few seconds, after which it opens the new SlimServer preference pane in System Preferences; choose whether the SlimServer automatically starts at boot or user login (or not at all), and click Start. By default, SlimServer processes the contents of your iTunes Library, and begins serving its contents to eager players. (SlimServer is also available in a binary installer for Windows, an RPM package for Linux, or Perl source code for any other platform you might have in mind.)
Once the Squeezebox2 is connected to your stereo system, power up the player to begin its configuration for your network. A delightfully helpful wizard asks you to specify an Ethernet or wireless network (WPA Personal and 64/128-bit WEP encryption are supported) and DHCP or a static IP number. Once on the network, the player finds your SlimServer via Bonjour (formerly known as Rendezvous), at which point you're ready to play music.
Gettin' In Tune -- Using the arrows on the remote control, you navigate Squeezebox2's menus to select and play music. The default menu list includes Browse Music, Search Music, Browse Playlists, and Internet Radio. Submenu options for browsing and searching among Albums, Artists, Genres and Songs are available, and can be elevated to the menu's top level. To search for music, you enter letters on the remote's T9 input keys, just like text messaging on a cell phone. To play a song (or an album, or an artists' body of work, or an entire genre, or an Internet radio station, or a playlist), navigate to that item and press Play. The selected item is placed in SlimServer's Now Playing queue, and the music starts.
The Now Playing queue deserves special attention. Most music players play only the selected item, but Now Playing functions like a stack of records on a record player - you can keep adding items to the queue. To do so, select another item and press Add. The flexibility of Now Playing's queue is freeing, allowing one to slice and dice the music collection to match one's whims. The experience is more fluid than building a static playlist in iTunes, and more open to whimsy than a Smart Playlist. And you can do it with the remote control, while sitting on the couch, while the computers are in another room.
Squeezebox2's analog audio quality is, to my ears, quite good. Unlike other digital music players I've tried, I detected no flaws in the Squeezebox2's sound.
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere -- If the Squeezebox2's two lines of text aren't to your liking, you can use SlimServer's Web interface. It runs on port 9000 of the computer hosting SlimServer, and advertises itself via Bonjour. Through this interface, you can start, pause, shuffle, clear, populate, and re-order the contents of the Now Playing queue. If multiple players are on the network, you can sync them to the same Now Playing stream, or control separate streams for each player. The Web interface offers advanced configuration options for the SlimServer itself, such as: whether to use the iTunes or MoodLogic music libraries; the location of your music library; supported music formats; Internet radio subscriptions; and RSS feeds. While the Squeezebox2 displays only two lines of text, SlimServer's Web interface is limited only by the size of your browser window, making it much easier to use the search feature and browse through large lists.
Speaking of music formats, the options are dizzying. Squeezebox2 natively plays the AIFF, FLAC, MP3 and WAV formats. Other supported formats include AAC, Apple Lossless, Ogg Vorbis, Shorten, and Windows Media; these formats depend on the installation of other software, such as QuickTime on Mac OS X or Windows (AAC and Apple Lossless), or Windows Media on Windows (WMA), and are streamed to the player as FLAC data. Unfortunately, songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store are not supported, as Apple does not allow other vendors to participate in their FairPlay digital rights management scheme.
You can mix and match music formats. SlimServer imports information from iTunes on your MP3, AAC, and AIFF files into its own music cache, but what if you also have music stored in FLAC, or your spouse uses Windows Media? Just point SlimServer's "Music Folder" field to wherever those files are stored, and click Rescan. SlimServer merges the two sources into its cache, and you can gleefully play music regardless of its digital format. (The SlimServer must be installed on a Windows computer for Windows Media compatibility.)
Many companies talk about embracing open source, but Slim Devices puts their money where their mouth is. SlimServer is free open source software, written in Perl and licensed via the GNU Public License (GPL). Astoundingly, you don't need the Squeezebox2 to sample Slim Server's goodness. First, the Now Playing audio stream is available to any MP3 software that can play an Internet stream; just point the player to "stream.mp3" on your SlimServer. Second, the included SoftSqueeze is a Java-based software music player that emulates the Squeezebox2's interface; you can control Now Playing and listen to music - with the laptop on the patio! - while using the Squeezebox2 interface. To quote Chuck Berry's Cadillac salesman, "No money down."
SlimServer is backward compatible with past players from Slim Devices, within those players' hardware capabilities. (SLIMP3, for instance, plays only MP3 streams.)
The Seeker -- In addition to playing the music stored on your hard drive, SlimServer streams Internet radio to your player from the Live365, radioio.com, or SHOUTcast services. Live365 requires a free login account, which you input into the Live365 configuration panel in SlimServer's Web interface. Slim Devices Picks offers their own suggestions from the various services, much like the iTunes celebrity playlists. At this writing, your SlimServer computer must be running in order for Squeezebox2 to play Internet radio. An upcoming feature, SqueezeNetwork, erases this requirement and turns the Squeezebox2 into a pure Internet radio player. SqueezeNetwork is currently available in SlimServer's beta builds, and will presumably be rolled into a future SlimServer version.
Earlier, I mentioned RSS feeds, a feature that might seem out of place in a music player. However, Squeezebox2 is also a display device with a network connection, and it can certainly display other information. To this end, SlimServer includes an RSS reader that can be displayed on demand or configured as a screensaver. Six feeds are supplied by default, but you can add or modify them to your heart's content.
SlimServer has a plug-in API, and in fact the included RSS reader, Internet radio stations, and Date/Time screensaver are all plug-ins. Dozens of other plug-ins are available from third-party developers and cover a wide range of functions. Plug-ins for news feeds, stock quotes, weather, and TV listings abound, as one might imagine. There's a plug-in that updates the play count in iTunes, or one that sets your iChat status to match SlimServer's current song. (Want to read your Eudora email on the Squeezebox2? There's a plug-in for that, too.)
Underture -- In reading this review, you might ask, "Dude, where's my AirTunes?" Apple's AirTunes, the technology for streaming audio to the AirPort Express, is an extension of iTunes, which might be a feature or a detriment, depending on your point of view. AirTunes can be controlled only at the keyboard of the computer running iTunes, but any computer with a Web browser can control SlimServer's Now Playing queue. AirTunes only broadcasts to a single AirPort Express unit, but SlimServer can broadcast as many streams as your network will allow. While SlimServer handles FLAC, Ogg, or Windows Media formats, only AirTunes plays music from iTunes Music Store.
Squeezebox2 is a superb music player, and with SlimServer it offers a nearly complete solution for playing digital music on the home stereo. It's a great solution, so long as your musical life isn't tied to the iTunes Music Store.
Squeezebox2 costs $250 for the Ethernet model, or $300 for wireless. It is available in black or platinum finish and can be purchased directly from Slim Devices, or a variety of Internet and brick-and-mortar retailers.
[Andrew Laurence offers in-depth Mac mini reviews and analysis at modmini.com, which has published a remarkably similar review of Squeezebox2.]