Slim Devices Squeezebox Network Music Player 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Ken Taraszka, MD   
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Introduction
The iPod has heralded a new era in music, allowing us to store our music digitally on computers. But what are we to do when we want to listen to that music on our stereo systems? You can connect your iPod directly to your preamp or home theater controller with a patch cable, but it is difficult to see the screen from further than a few feet away. Many receivers have the ability to control the iPod, but the text on their display is small and/or your receiver may be tucked out of view. Some companies have systems that allow you to use your TV as the screen to interface with your iPod, but then you have to have your display on to listen to music and are still limited by the storage space of the device. Dedicated music servers can access your music and distribute it to various systems throughout your house, but they can be fairly expensive and may require you to re-import all of your music in their own proprietary compression formats, eating up hours if not days of your free time. It seems that if you want an easy way to access all the digital music on your computer or iPod and send it to the various systems in your home, you have to be tolerant of your MP3 player’s limitations.

Enter Slim Device’s third-generation Squeezebox Network Music Player. This 802.11g device is Windows, Macintosh and Linux compatible and can stream any MP3, WAV, FLAC, WMA Lossless, WMA, Apple Lossless, AAC, Ogg Vorbis and AIFF music file on any of your computers to any stereo within your home network’s range. Each device in a multi-unit system can access your entire music library separately or be synced together for whole home audio. You can managed play lists, listen to Internet radio, use it as a network bridge, an alarm clock or even display RSS news feeds. All these features can be controlled directly from the remote and most don’t even require your computer to be on, thanks to the Squeeze Network. All these features come packed in a device the size of a paperback book for $299.

The Squeezebox Network Music Player comes packed in high-density foam and includes the Squeezebox network media player, remote with batteries, power adapter, a six-foot RCA patch cord, manual and a micro fiber cloth for cleaning the face of the player. On the back of the device are both optical and coaxial digital outs, as well as analog stereo RCA outs, a mini jack for headphones or powered speakers, the power port and an Ethernet port.

The squeezebox is just over seven-and-a-half inches wide, three inches deep (including the stand) and three-and-seven-tenths inches tall. It sits slightly tilted back upon soft rubber feet. A large aqua blue LED display sits above the brushed metal lower half of the player, with the back and sides available in black or silver. You can choose three different sizes of text and adjust the brightness of the display from off to night-light-like levels. The Squeezebox uses an interface similar to the iPod that allows one to search or browse by song, title, genre and artist. The remote provides all the access to the device, which itself has no buttons.

Set-up
This Slim Device doesn’t include any software, and I am glad. When software comes with a new device, it is often an older version and can be problematic. If you are buying a network device such as this, you have Internet access and can download the newest version of software, which Slim prompts you to do as the second step in the manual. Downloading the software and installing it took no time at all. The remainder of the set-up was a breeze. I connected the coaxial and optical digital outputs and stereo analog outputs to the receiver in my bedroom, plugged it in, followed the onscreen cues, entered my wireless network’s encryption code and was up and running in less than five minutes, a huge leap forward for networking devices, which can be fraught with technical difficulties.

The Squeezebox allows you to browse or search your music collections. In the search mode, you can use the up and down buttons on the remote to select each letter or a cell phone text messaging system to enter the names of the items you are looking for. I found this easy and effective, though in a system with a large collection of music, I often had to enter more text than I had expected to find the music I was looking for. This is no fault of the Squeezebox, but rather simply due to the fact that some text was more common than I had anticipated. Browsing a large music collection, such as mine, with the Slim Device was a snap due to its progressively faster scan rate, as you scan and hold the scan or arrow buttons down. All in all, I was able to skim through 650 artists in five seconds. I was comfortable with the text messaging system, so I used this for all my searches.

The remote lacks backlighting and has the transport keys placed just above the direction buttons, making them awkward to use, and I never quite adapted to their position. I programmed my Harmony universal remote to take over and was much happier with the interface.

Music
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.

The Downside
I don’t have any major complaints about the Slim Devices Squeezebox, but I do have a few minor issues. First, the remote does the job, but I would have liked it to be backlit and to have the transport buttons better arranged. I found the DACs in my receiver and processor to be superior to those of the Slim, so I would recommend using one of the digital outs, preferably the coaxial from my listening tests, due to a slightly smoother, less digital sound. When I compared it with the transport in my reference system, the Slim Device fell short. This isn’t a statement of fault so much as it is a comparison.

Conclusion
The Slim Devices Squeezebox Network Music Player does as its name states and more. The device is easy enough for a child to set up and has a solid and practical interface that allows it to function as a freestanding music server. Once connected to your computer network, it is capable of accessing all your multiple computers’ music collections, streams Internet radio and RSS news feeds, can serve as an alarm clock and be a network bridge. Its large LED display can be tailored to virtually any situation or taste and it offers the flexibility to join wired or wireless networks. All the functions, except playing your computers’ music, are available without any of your computers even being on. If you live in an area with bad radio, or just want a better musical selection, Internet radio is a great way to go. The Squeezebox does an excellent job of allowing you to access any Internet radio station in the world.

Music servers are here to stay, for good reason. The convenience of having all your music accessible from a single device is huge. If you don’t have some type of music server yet, you are seriously missing out. If you already have a computer network in your home, the Slim Devices Squeezebox is a great way to enter into the music server world for under $300. Add the ability to stream Internet radio to your systems and the other features this device offers and it’s a true bargain, offering flexibility and easy of use not often found in network devices.
Manufacturer Slim Devices
Model Squeezebox Network Music Player
Reviewer Ken Taraszka, M.D





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