Slim Devices Squeezebox v3
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Price: $299 ($249 for wired version)
Pros: Easy to set up
Cons: Can't play songs purchased from iTunes Music Store; may have difficulty streaming .AAC files using default settings on some enhanced 802.11g routers.
Now that you've amassed a huge collection of digital audio, you're probably looking for a way to listen to it at home without having to sit within earshot of your PC or wear your iPod around the house. There are a number of devices available to accomplish this, but few are as practical, elegant and, well, cool as Slim Devices' new third-generation Squeezebox Network Music Player. Hook the $299 Squeezebox up to your wireless network, and before long you'll be listening to your music, audiobooks, podcasts and Internet radio broadcasts through almost any stereo or A/V system in your home.
On the back of the Squeezebox, you'll find a standard RJ-45 Ethernet jack that you can use if you want a wired connection (though you don't even need it to perform the device's initial setup). The Squeezebox can function as a WLAN bridge device, so when it's connected to a wireless network, you can still use the Ethernet port to piggyback another device like an Xbox or PlayStation 2 game console. (An Ethernet-only version of the unit is available for $249.)
The Squeezebox, which is available in either black or white, each with a brushed metal fascia, is quite small and thin, measuring 3.7 x 7.6 x 3.1 (HWD, in inches). Unlike its immediate predecessor, this latest Squeezebox has no external antenna to mar the aesthetics of the unit (though this may make positioning the unit for optimal reception a problem in challenging signal environments). A plethora of audio outputs is available, ranging from standard analog RCA jacks to coaxial and optical digital ports, as well as a 1/8-inch headphone jack.
The most striking aspect of the Squeezebox is its blue dot-matrix display, capable of 320x32 pixel resolution; it is exceptionally crisp, bright, and readable from a considerable distance. The vacuum-florescent display is the same kind used in many types of A/V equipment. You can set the display text to one of three different font sizes, and the display scrolls in all modes. (The unit even comes with its own chamois so you can keep the display free of dirt and smudges.)
The Squeezebox doesn't come with a software CD, so before getting started, make a visit to Slim Devices' Web site to download the company's SlimServer 6.2 application. The SlimServer's function is to find the audio content on your PC, including files and playlists within iTunes, and stream it to the Squeezebox. A variety of compressed and uncompressed audio formats are supported, including MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV, just to name a few. Since both the SlimServer software and Squeezebox hardware can be upgraded, support for emerging formats should be easily added in the future (the unit's firmware can be upgraded directly from the remote control).
After connecting the Squeezebox to AC power and the appropriate audio inputs, getting it on your network doesn't take much effort. You can use the remote to navigate through a simple setup wizard that walks you through the particulars of connecting to a wireless (or wired) network, getting an IP address, and finding a SlimServer. The whole process took all of about two minutes; most of that time was spent entering a lengthy WPA encryption key through the remote control's numeric keypad.
Finding and Playing Audio
Once the SlimServer is up and running on your network (it runs on Windows, Mac or Linux), you can use it to browse your collection, search for items by keyword, and create playlists. You perform the same tasks (except for searches) directly from the Squeezebox via the remote. Interacting with the Squeezebox using the remote is a model of simplicity; menus selected come up instantly, and when you select a song to play, it begins doing so within a couple of seconds.
There is a significant limitation when playing back iTunes content, however. At the moment, the Squeezebox is incapable of playing songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store, due to the proprietary DRM scheme used on these files (.m4p) and the fact that Apple doesn't allow third-party software to hook into iTunes. (Whether they ever will is open to debate, but don't hold your breath waiting.) You can circumvent this limitation by ripping your purchased songs to a CD and then re-importing them into iTunes as standard MP3 files, but that's an inconvenient and time-consuming proposition if you have more than a handful of files to convert.
Even those of us with collections encompassing thousands of songs sometimes have trouble finding something suitable to listen to. For those situations, you can log into the SqueezeNetwork, which offers a variety of streaming Internet radio stations from around the globe, categorized by criteria like provider, genre and region. And when you're in the mood for neither music nor talk, you can fire up the Squeezebox to play a variety of environmental sounds, including a babbling brook, a crackling fireplace, or tweeting birds.
The sound quality you get out of the Squeezebox will ultimately have much to do with the type of audio connection you use and the quality of the equipment to which it is attached. The quality of the digital audio file will be an important factor as well. The Squeezebox's internal amplifier will only provide enough power to drive a pair of headphones, so external speakers will have to be self-powered or connected to a separate amplifier. The Squeezebox's lack of built-in speakers limits the device's portability in some sense, but you can easily move it from room to room as long as there are speakers available to connect to it. You can also have multiple Squeezeboxes on your network, all powered independently by the same SlimServer.
The streaming performance of the Squeezebox was very good, and I experienced few audio problems. The once exception was when the Squeezebox was playing back AAC-format audio while connected to a Netgear RangeMax Wireless Router (model WPN824) operating in 108 Mbps mode. This combination caused the audio to almost immediately bog down and pause continually. Although the documentation warns that this phenomenon can occur on 802.11b networks (because the 3+ Mbps of bandwidth needed to stream the decompressed audio when the source PC is also using wireless may exceed what's available on the network), it was a surprise to experience it on an enhanced 802.11g network that should easily provide many times the bandwidth required.
After quite a bit of troubleshooting, including changing radio channels, disabling encryption, and reconfiguring the router to operate in 802.11g-only and then b-only mode, the issue was finally rectified by disabling the Netgear's "advanced 108Mbps features". Given how WLAN router vendors tend to soup up and alter their products these days (often in non-standard ways), I'm not inclined to lay the blame for this problem squarely at Slim Devices' feet, but suffice it to say that users of enhanced WLAN routers may find it necessary to adjust their wireless configuration or turn off some features in order to accommodate the Squeezebox.
Slim Devices' third-generation Squeezebox is a great gadget for anyone who wants to listen to digital audio around the house. It's stylish, easy to use and relatively inexpensive, and it makes an excellent addition to any wireless network. And while it doesn't quite provide all the bells and whistles of, say, the Sonos Digital Music System, you can get the Squeezebox for a little more than half the price of the Sonos.