|Slim Devices Squeezebox Network Music Player|
|Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers|
|Written by Ken Taraszka, MD|
|Tuesday, 01 August 2006|
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Multiple sources of digital music exist in my household. I have an account on my main computer with over 700 CDs stored in AIFF format. I have that music and more compressed into MP3s and AACs at 192 kbps or less for use on my iPods. I also have a slightly different selection of MP3s and AACs on my laptop. Now the only problem was, what to listen to?
I chose Morphine’s Yes (Rykodisc) a garage-sounding, raw musical piece; I so love its vibe. The opening song, “Honey White” in AIFF, sounded full and had consistent pace, reproducing the fast and fun nature of this song. I listened through the Squeezebox via the analog RCA outs, the coaxial digital and the optical digital out. I found the sound a little flat and lacking in dynamics from the analog RCA outs. I switched to the coaxial digital out and the sound was fuller and livelier with better dynamics. The optical digital out was closer to the coaxial digital out to my ears, slightly grainier in the higher frequencies and lacking in bass depth and definition, but clearly more rewarding than the analog RCA outs.
“Whisper” is a song that opens with a cavernous sound from the slide bass and this effect was faithfully reproduced from the coaxial digital out. Sandman’s baritone vocals were as clearly reproduced as the bass he plays. The saxophone was sharp and lively but not edgy. Switching from the coaxial digital out to the analog outs, the sound was again thinner and lacked some separation compared to the digital outs.
I started off using my main computer’s AIFF collection for the Squeezebox and, after a week of use, added my laptop to compare MP3s and AACs as well. I was initially forced to restore the Squeezebox to switch between these two computers. A quick call to Slim Devices’ tech support solved the problem. It seems I had two different versions of the Slim Server software on my laptop and main computer. After updating to the newest version (6.3 at this time) on my main computer, switching from one source to the other took no time for the device.
My MP3 and AAC compression is at a pretty high bit rate, but there was clearly a step down in sound quality, showing less detail and having a less involving sound. Sandman’s voice had a rasp that wasn’t present with the AIFF files. While using the compressed versions of these songs, I noticed less of a difference between the analog and digital outs, though I still preferred the digital outs due to a more open sound. Lower bit rates continued to shrink the soundstage and worsen the sound quality.
I switched back to my AIFF music library to Natacha Atlas’ Something Dangerous (Beggars UK), an unusual album that showcases many genres of music. I started with the coaxial digital out playing “Eye of the Duck” with its mix of Hindu and Jamaican vocals, modern rhythm, phone tones and hip-hop. This song has a sense of pulling you into the music with its drawn-out beats. The vast diversity of vocals were smooth and enjoyable with bass that was full and deep. The title track of this album gave an excellent sense of surround from the Slim Device, and Atlas’ voice was silky smooth with plenty of air around the instruments in this artistic musical piece. I tried this selection via the optical digital and RCA analog outs, and found differences that were analogous to my prior comparison, preferring the coaxial digital output to the analog RCA or the optical digital output.
Moving onto Internet radio, I turned to the Slim Device’s picks and was glad to hear that the Squeezebox’s interface didn’t disappoint on this front, either. You can browse Internet radio by city, webcaster, genre and best of Internet radio. Going by city, I went to Amsterdam for some techno, moved over to Berlin for more, then on to London for some trance music. I loved the detail and clarity I got from the electronic music played via the Internet radio, and the variety couldn’t be beat. Later, while cooking, I switched to the Atlanta Blues Society station. The Slim Device made surfing Internet radio easy and, depending on the station, I could have near-CD quality sound from anywhere in the world, giving me limitless new music.
To truly test the Squeezebox, I moved it to my reference system, consisting of a Meridian 861 v4.2 and compared it directly to the Meridian G98 DH transport. The coaxial digital out was my preferred set-up, so I connected that to this system. I chose Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele (Atlantic) a longtime favorite of mine and one of her best recorded albums. “Blood Roses” is an amazing song, with Amos playing a harpsichord, exhibiting a vast musical range, from frilly highs to deep bass, with her singing throughout. The Squeezebox did well, giving solid dynamics, but lacked detail and depth in the lower bass notes, and had harshness in the highs when compared to the Meridian transport. The attack of instruments was good, but the advantage again went to the Meridian transport. “Muhammad My Friend” starts with a piano employing both very high and low notes, and continues to showcase the extremes of the piano as Amos’ voice wanes in power throughout the song. The Squeezebox competed, but again fell short of the Meridian combo. The bass notes were less pronounced and somewhat muddied compared to the Meridian transport, and there was clearly a rasp to the mid and upper frequencies from the Squeezebox.