Slim Devices Squeezebox 3 network music player
Computer-to-stereo music streaming goes mainstream
Review I first reviewed Slim Devices' network music player, the Squeezebox, in April 2004. We're not quite two years on from that, but the machine has already undergone two major revisions: first, in March 2005, an upgrade of its networking capabilities and audio engine, and then, just seven months later, a complete case redesign...
I didn't get a chance to check out the Squeezebox 2, and since the Squeezebox 3 upgrade is largely cosmetic, this review is as much about the second-generation product as the third. But it's fair to stay with the new, stylish design, Squeezebox is finally ready for prime time. It's no longer a cute toy for the techies and early adopters, but a quality item ready to sit at the heart of any modern home's music system.
So what's changed? Since Squeezebox's debut, the product has gained Ethernet networking in addition to the wireless connectivity offered since day one. Wireless support has been updated to the latest 802.11g spec, with support for the latest security techniques, including WPA 2. It's now got two antennae and both have been put inside the box.
Gone too is the squat, set-top box look, replaced by an upright design in aluminium and shiny plastic that's frankly more assertive, particularly the black version - there's also a white model. It looks like consumer electronics kit should. The old Squeezebox was far from ugly, but the new one is far, far more stylish, fitting in smoothly with either a modern metallic-look hi-fi or a stack of older, black separates.
Squeezebox 3 sits back at a slight angle, held up by a fixed tubular metal stand. Above it are arrayed the ports: 3.5mm headphone socket, stereo RCA jacks, a digital optical output and a digital co-axial connector, the Ethernet port, and the power pin.
The front of the device is split 50:50 between a brushed aluminium panel and a Ray Ban-black visor behind which sits the familiar crisp, bluey-green, 320 x 32 vacuum fluorescent display. It remains eminently readable across a room, which is more than you can say for a docked iPod - especially if it's a Nano. The Squeezebox uses the same kind of horizontally scrolling user interface, albeit with only one line shown at a time, and I found it spry and responsive.
As before, Squeezebox utilises its own server app running on a Windows, Mac or Linux box to link the player to your music collection. The first time you run SlimServer in conjunction with a Squeezebox, it will index your songs, so you may find they're not all available to you immediately, but it's not too long before they are. While the initial index is being assembled, I found the Squeezebox to be frequently unresponsive and slow, but once the process was complete I had no trouble getting it to do what I wanted. The moral of the story: leave your Squeezebox alone while it's indexing, especially if you have a large music collection.
Once it knows what songs are available, Squeezebox quickly displays the tracks you can play, browsed by genre, artist, album, etc, or located using the first two three characters of the title, composer, band name and so on. Switching songs was effortless and - post indexing - there was no sense of lag between pressing a button on the remote and seeing the result on the screen, or hearing it blast out of the speakers.
Slim Devices makes the SlimServer code available to all, so it's gained a wide array of additional features, most accessed through its HTML front-end. It allows you to control the player and change settings remotely, but most folk will be able to leave it running in the background. The Squeezebox itself can now be augmented with software plug-ins, with an RSS feed reader and even a cute Squeezebox version of Tetris ready to help you pass the time.
All this suggests a strong link to a host computer, but Squeezebox 3 doesn't become redundant if you turn your Mac off or you leave your PC at work. The box can talk to Slim Devices' own SqueezeNetwork servers, using them to relay internet radio streams to your Squeezebox. There's a lag, of course, but unless you're using the station to check the time, that shouldn't matter. In any case, the Squeezebox itself can tell you the hour and the date. There's even an alarm clock.
The upshot is a system you can use all the time, though you still have to use your computer to set up SqueezeNetwork. This is the easiest way to add specific stations' stream URLs to the player, but you can enter them usng the web interface. Slim Devices has added a small selection of suggested stations to get you started.
Squeezebox separate Internet Radio and SqueezeNetwork menu items, which is unnecessary and confusing - which do you use? Slim Devices needs to integrate these near-identical options. Recursion lovers will be interested to know the Internet Radio menu is duplicated within the SqueezeNetwork menu.
Squeezebox has always been focused on music, and it's refreshing that there's been no attempt to shoehorn video in, just for the sake of it, though I'm sure its time will come. While the original model was aimed at the MP3 user, the latest version has support for AAC - made popular in the intervening time by Apple's iTunes - and it's gain the ability to decode compressed formats like Apple Lossless, FLAC, Ogg and WMA, all without the need to do a software decode then stream uncompressed audio across the network. Alas, there's still no DRM support, but on the Apple side at least, that's not Slim Devices' fault.
Squeezebox 2 introduced a new audio processing system centred on a 24-bit Texas Instruments Burr-Brown digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) that's said to be one of the best in the business. Both the DAC and the line-out amplification stages have their own linear power regulators, and the Squeezebox generates a full 6V line-out signal. The result: a signal to noise ratio of over 100dB and a total harmonic distortion of under -93.5dB (0.002 per cent).
That's the audiophile-friendly numbers out of the way - for the rest of us, it means the sound quality is as good as it gets. You're limited by the fidelity of the compressed source material and, of course, whatever audio equipment you connect your Squeezebox output ports to. Streaming over MP3 tracks and Radio Paradise  internet radio streams to my separates system was a joy. Smooth transmission and excellent audio reproduction made it a real pleasure to use.
Ditto the set-up, which apart from the aforementioned indexing period, was entirely smooth. Choose your WLAN - or LAN, of course - enter your access passphrase and you're away. The box will scan the network for running SlimServers, and connect accordingly.
Re-connection to your SlimServer - it's on your notebook, for instance, and you've taken it out of the building since you last used your Squeezebox - is fast, and so is switching between songs. The search system is quick, and the mobile phone-style text-entry system will not only be immediately familiar to anyone who sends text messages, but thanks the remote control's large, well-spaced keys is easy to use.
With no controls on the Squeezebox itself, you'll need to keep the remote handy. It's the weakest part of the package, having a light, slightly cheap feel. But it's eminently useable, the keys are sensibly laid out and there are short-cut buttons to most commonly viewed menu items.
Squeezebox 3 costs $299 (£172), which is a snip. There's even an Ethernet-only version for $249 (£143). I did ponder a docked iPod as an alternative way of making all my digital music instantly accessible via my hi-fi, but it's way more expensive, and no one else can use it if I happen to be out and about with my portable music player. And there's no way I can sit on my sofa and see what's on the docked iPod's display - with Squeezebox it's no problem at all. And with the SlimDevices product you can send songs from your archive to multiple Squeezeboxes around your home. It's not quite up there with Sonos for large-scale multi-room set-ups, but then it's cheaper. You pay your money, you take your choice.
Flaws? If it can't find an active SlimServer, Squeezebox defaults to its set-up screen, not its internet radio facility, which makes for a less consumer-friendly experience. I understand why it does this - maybe there's a network problem - but I think the box should be more savvy and save the user some button presses. Is the most recently used WLAN up and running? Yes, so get an IP address and either log straight into SqueezeNetwork or go to the Internet Radio section. Only if there's no internet connectivity should it default to a set-up page.
I also experienced some network configuration oddities, but I believe they were due to the fact I kept taking my notebook on and off the WLAN with the effect that the Squeezebox kept having to deal with different IP addresses. None of it stopped me from playing music, either from SqueezeNetwork or my computer. A fixed system - or at least a fixed IP address - makes more sense and is a more likely usage scenario.
Slim Devices' Squeezebox remains the best network music system I've tried, delivering exceptional functionality and superb audio quality at a very reasonable, affordable price. It's platform agnostic, working as well on Macs and Linux PCs as it does on Windows machines, and with SqueezeNetwork, it doesn't even need a computer to connect through, at least not once the account set-up's done. The server software is simple to use and as unobtrusive as you want. It supports a fine array of formats, though it's going to have to address the DRM problem sooner or later. And, did I mention it looks fantastic?
Thoroughly recommended. ®