Slim Devices Squeezebox

Hurrah for Slim Devices , maker of the excellent Squeezebox wireless music player. This is the umpteenth product of its kind I’ve reviewed and I was starting to get bored. The $280 Squeezebox revived my interest.

For awhile I thought it would even supplant my perennial favorite, the Sound Blaster Wireless Music product from Creative Labs. However, the Sound Blaster unit retained its most favored status, despite the clear superiority of the Squeezebox in some respects.

I’m talking here about products that stream music and sometimes video from your PC over a Wi-Fi network to a home entertainment system in another room. If you’re looking for a media player that streams videos, however, read no further. Squeezebox is a music-only device.

One of the reasons I like Squeezebox so much is that Slim Devices has done Internet radio right, something most other makers have either ignored or done half-heartedly at best. Squeezebox can also play lossless WMA (Windows Media Center) and uncompressed WAV and AIFF files. I’ve argued all along that with 250GB hard drives priced at less than $200, there is no reason not to rip your CDs at much higher bit rates—and quality.

Squeezebox also sounds pretty good, though despite being able to play higher-bit rate rips, it ultimately did not sound as good as the SoundBlaster unit. To my ears, the sound is too bright when playing variable-bitrate WMA (Windows Media Player) files and doesn’t offer anywhere near as realistic a sound stage.

Part of what I like about this product is the passion and thoughtfulness that have evidently gone into its making, hallmarks of the Mac and Open Source communities.

What’s so special about Squeezebox? First, there’s the physical device itself, which you plug into your stereo receiver. It receives the wireless music streams from the PC, coverts them to analog if necessary and feeds them into the stereo. This is the only one I’ve seen that provides a full spectrum of connection options: analog (A/V or RCA connectors), digital optical, digital coax and headphone Mini Jack.

The digital connections are important if you’re going to attach your Squeezebox to a modern A/V receiver. It means the receiver’s digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which is designed to work with the rest of its electronics, will be doing the conversion rather than the necessarily inexpensive and basic DAC in the Slim Devices product. Bottom line: the music will sound better. This may even correct the sound quality problems I identified earlier.

All wireless media players should have a headphone jack, but not all do. Having the jack means you can plug the device in anywhere in the house to listen to music, whether there’s a stereo system or powered speakers available or not. One other physical virtue of the Squeezebox is its elegant and diminutive form, which makes moving it easy. In fact, if you have your laptop loaded with music, you could easily take Squeezebox traveling.

All wireless media players face an identical problem: how to display information about the media library stored on your PC (or Mac or Linux) host. Most rely on you connecting the device to a TV and displaying the information on its screen. This is logical enough if the player also streams video, but if it’s a music-only player, you have to assume that in some installations, there will be no TV near.

There are two options. One is to include a two or three-line monochrome LCD or LED display on the front face of the device. The other, adopted so far as I know only by Sound Blaster Wireless Music, is to include an over-size remote control with a built-in LCD screen.

Until Squeezebox, I had thought the Creative Labs solution was the only really satisfactory one. Because the Sound Blaster remote control is RF and not infrared, you don’t have to have line of sight with the wireless player, so you can sit anywhere and see the display clearly. That’s the problem with a display on the player: it can be hard to read from your sitting position.

Squeezebox, despite being one of the physically smallest wireless players on the market, has one of the biggest and most readable displays. With the text size set to large, even weak old eyes like mine can easily read the bright “large vacuum fluorescent” display while sitting ten feet or more away from the player. The display is 280 by 16 pixels and you can control the brightness.

The Slim Devices display solution means it’s not necessary to use a (much more expensive) RF remote. The fact that Squeezebox uses an IR remote does mean the player has to be installed in plain sight, which could pose aesthetic problems in some environments. (This is one of the other things I like about Sound Blaster Wireless Music: you can put the player out of sight.)

Squeezebox is small and elegantly enough designed, though, that having it out in the open is no big deal. I set it on top of a speaker in my living room. When the display is turned off, you hardly notice it’s there. However, if you want to flaunt your geekiness, you can buy a Squeezebox in one of four show-off colors instead of the standard plain black—tangerine dream, purple haze, rhapsody in blue or triple platinum.

The externals of Squeezebox are all very well, but what really counts is the guts of the thing—the player hardware and firmware and the server software that make that product work as well as it does.

This was the easiest media player I’ve installed. I downloaded the server software (the product doesn’t come with a distribution disc), installed it, and told it as part of the initial set-up procedure where to look for music files. The software automatically read the tags on thousands of files and created the library in a couple of minutes. Other players I’ve reviewed could not read the tags correctly, or took an age to set up the library.

The server software lets you set a schedule for automatically refreshing the library to include new material you’ve added. Or you can hit a Refresh button in the PC application.

When I plugged in the Squeezebox player, it automatically and very quickly found my NetGear Wi-Fi router and associated with it. The whole installation procedure took about 20 minutes. I’ve installed a few of these things and they all work much the same. It might take newbies a little longer. The important thing is, this one worked right, first time.

Despite the potential awkwardness of a one-line display (two-line if you set the text size to medium), the interface is in fact very intuitive and easy to learn. To scroll through a list of menu options, you use the big, well-placed Up and Down keys on the remote control. From the home menu, you can choose Now Playing (to show information about the currently playing track), Browse Music, Search Music, Browse Playlists, Internet Radio, Settings or Plugins (to add or subtract plugins for things like Internet radio services.)

Once you reach the item you want, press the right arrow key and then use the Up and Down keys again to select an item from the next menu. From the Search Music menu, for example, you first select from Artists, Albums, Songs, then scroll through first letters of titles or artists’ names, press right arrow and select the next letter, and so on. Or you can use the telephone-like number pad on the remote—for the letter C, press the 2 key three times, for example.

When you press the right arrow key, you get a list of all artists, albums or songs that meet your search criteria. You use the up and down arrow keys to scroll through them. Press right arrow to add the item to the currently playing list—or press the play button to clear the current list and play this item.

To back out of a menu (to go back to the previous menu), you click the left arrow key. Squeezebox rigidly adheres to this simple method of selecting menu options—and, ultimately, music to play—and the hierarchical menu structure. Within a few minutes, you’re in no doubt about how to do what you want to do.

I particularly liked the complete information provided for each track in the Now Playing section. It includes title, artist, album, track number, genre, duration, bit rate, file size, date modified and URL.

I’ve already mentioned the fact that, unlike most wireless players, Squeezebox can stream lossless and uncompressed file formats and why that is important—and this is despite it being only an 802.11b unit. The Internet radio features are also important.

Squeezebox displays free MP3 radio streams from ShoutCast on the player display for easy selection. Most players do not do this. Using the server software on your PC, you can add favorite streams not included in the ShoutCast list or the Slim Devices Picks list, which is accessible via the remote. It supposedly supports Windows Media radio streams, but I had difficulty getting this to work on my system.

Squeezebox also comes with plug-ins for two normally for-fee radio services—Live365 and radioio. With the plugins installed (they’re automatically installed but you can de-activate them if you want), it’s possible to select stations from these services using the remote. With Live365, you can listen to any of the free stations—there are over 70. With Radioio, Slim Devices has cut a deal so that owners get the service’s ten stations for free.

Bottom line: recommended.

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