“It's useful in the bedroom, the home theater, the garage, the kitchen and anywhere you may want to listen to music.”
- Digital and analog outputs
- intuitive navigation
- open-source software
- visually appealing
- No support for WPA encryption
- display hard to read at a distance
While the company Slim Devices has been around for over two years, we only just learned of their SLIMP3 networked music player this summer. We checked out the SLIMP3 for a review and loved it. In that review, we mentioned that the only thing it lacks are digital outputs and wireless capabilities.
Just as if the folks at Slim Devices had catered to our every whim, only a week after we posted our review of their SLIMP3 they were telling us of their new networked media player, the “Squeezebox”.
We were the first review site to have our hands on the Squeezebox and unfortunately only had it for one day. But in that 24-hour period we used the Squeezebox as much as possible and tried everything we could. So did it improve upon the already editors-choice SLIMP3? Read on to find out.
For comparision, click here to read our review on the SLIMP3 network music player.
Just like it’s predecessor, the Squeezebox is a networked audio player capable of playing streamed digital music stored on a computer through a stereo system. It is a small black box (8.5″W x 1.9″H x 4.5″D) that connects to a wired or wireless network.
It plays digital music in the form of MP3s at any bitrate (constant or variable), uncompressed audio (WAV or AIFF), and streaming Internet radio. It has a built-in MP3 decoder and can play other compressed media such as Ogg Vorbis, AAC or FLAC with server-side on-the-fly decoding. It also boasts some very useful features such as an alarm clock that lets you wake up to your favorite music, and a sleep timer that gradually decreases volume as it shuts the device off automatically.
The Squeezebox improves upon the SLIMP3 in a number of areas. First, it adds several new outputs, including the digital outputs that audiophiles have asked for. There is an S/PDIF optical port as well as a gold-plated digital coax port. The unit also features the same gold-plated RCA jacks as the SLIMP3, and adds a mini-plug headphone jack. The second major improvement over the SLIMP3 is the addition of wireless networking. The unit features an internal 802.11b wireless adapter and a 10baseT Ethernet adapter.
The Squeezebox as shown from the front (left) the rear (middle) and the right side (right)
Serving up tunes to the Squeezebox is the SlimServer software. It is a new version of the same software that has been powering the SLIMP3 since 2001. The software is open source and supports all major operating systems (Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, BSD, Solaris) and is frequently updated. We mentioned it in the SLIMP3 review and will say it again here – Slim Devices’ business model makes a lot of sense. By making their server software open source, it has benefited from a group of talented programmers and users all over the world. The software updates are implemented based on feedback from users and developers alike and at a rate of almost one update per month. In fact, in the time between using the Squeezebox and posting this review, the software was updated from version 5.0 to version 5.0.1.
As was the case with the SLIMP3, the Squeezebox includes the unit itself, a gold plated RCA patch cable, an infrared remote control, power brick, and a CAT5 Ethernet cable. Our review unit arrived safely packed in a Slim Devices box made specifically to fit all of the pieces.
The Squeezebox package contents
Being the curious type, we had to take the unit apart to see what it’s made of. As you can see from the pictures below, wireless access is obtained by use of a laptop-type PCMCIA network card. One undocumented feature that we were told about by the Slim Devices people is what they are calling the “geek connector”. This is the set of 18 pins at the bottom left of the image. The “geek connector” has connections to each output which may allow future developers or hackers to add specialized uses. This is again another product of Slim Devices’ open-source view – which allows for owners of the Squeezebox to tinker with it and potentially create a useful add-on that the company could incorporate into the product.
Inside the Squeezebox – the 18 pins bottom right are the “geek connector”
Look and Feel
The Squeezebox differs from its SLIMP3 predecessor in both looks and function. The Squeezebox looks more like a small appliance than the curved-plexi conversation piece that is the SLIMP3. It also features a different finish. Both the Squeezebox unit and the remote are finished with a black soft touch coating. It almost feels like a Papermate rubberized pen. We had wondered if the finish would be easily scratched off, but didn’t want to try on our review unit. However, the folks at Slim Devices assure us that it is a durable finish.
It uses the same Noritake 2×40 vacuum florescent display as the SLIMP3. In our SLIMP3 review we commented that the display was nice and bright, but at a distance can be hard to read. This is still the case, however, it is just as big and bright, or more, as most displays on home theater components.
While the unit will not fit in with other home theater components in a rack or cabinet, it looks at home on top of the TV or entertainment center. With its time and date display, it makes sense to have the unit out in the open where it can be seen.
The SLIMP3 (left) and Squeezebox (right) networked music players.
Installation and Setup
In our SLIMP3 review, we commented on how easy it was to set up both the hardware and the software. The same is true with the Squeezebox. Setup was again a breeze. The SlimServer software installs in just a few seconds and is very easy to configure. If you already have a library of music, you just point the server to the directory your music is stored in and it will automatically scan it’s content.
Setting up the hardware to work with a network was simple also. You have the ability to search for a DHCP server and obtain an assigned IP address or you can input the information in manually using the remote control. When using a wireless network, you can again search for available networks or type in the name of the network. This is beneficial if you have turned off broadcasting of your SSID – which you should for security reasons. If you have a firewall, you’ll need to forward port 9000 to the SlimServer for it to work properly. The SlimServer features a web front-end so all configuration is done via a web browser, from any computer on your network. The server front-end can be made public or accessible only with a password.
We installed the SlimServer on an Apple PowerBook running OS X, a Pentium III server running a version of Redhat Linux 9.0 and an AMD Athlon XP 1600+ running Microsoft Windows XP. Each installation was quick and easy. The server software can run on a dedicated server or in the background of a workstation. It doesn’t take up many resources so running it while running other programs is not a problem. Slim Devices lists the minimum specs for a server as a 300MHz Pentium II with 128MB of memory.
Since the interface is web-based, you can control your player from the remote control or from any web browser on your network. The software allows you to search for music by artist, title, album or genre. You can shuffle and repeat songs and albums and create and manage playlists on the fly with the remote or through a browser.
The server software is available as a free download from the Slim Devices website and even users that don’t own a Slim Devices product can use it as a media server on their network.
One concern we had with the wireless aspect of the Squeezebox was the security features. The Squeezebox is compatible with 802.11 b and g networks and supports WEP encryption. For all practical reasons, a home wireless network is secure if you:
– Turn off broadcasting your SSID (network ID)
– Change the default username and password for your network admin interface
– Change the default name of your network
– Enable some kind of encryption (WEP or WPA)
WEP encryption is the old standard and is now easily cracked. That doesn’t mean that your home network is going to be compromised – your network footprint probably doesn’t extend much beyond your driveway anyway – but it is possible. Most newer home or small business wireless routers and access points support the newer WPA encryption scheme. There is currently no known way of cracking the WPA encryption scheme and because of this, most manufacturers will suggest that you enable WPA encryption.
This may not be a big deal if you already have WEP encryption or (gasp) no security on your network at all, but if you run a wireless network with WPA, the Squeezebox will not be able to connect to it. The problem we have with it is, if a consumer has recently bought a new wireless SOHO router and set it up securely as suggested by the manufacturer, they may already have a WPA encrypted network. If they wanted to use a Squeezebox, they would have to go to the less-secure WEP protocol or turn off encryption on their network. Either way, it requires a change to network settings. That was the case with our setup – our network was secured with WPA and we had to change all of our settings to test the Squeezebox wirelessly. We hope that Slim Devices is able to update to WPA with a firmware upgrade or in a new hardware upgrade for the Squeezebox.
The home theater that we tested with had all of the digital and analog inputs that the Squeezebox used. One nice feature of the Squeezebox is that all outputs are live at all times. This means that there is no switch or selection that needs to be made for different outputs, just plug the cable in and it works. Because of this, we were able to easily switch from analog to digital outputs during our testing to hear the differences. Digital audio really did sound better and fuller. We were able to notice the difference, especially at high volumes.
Besides the digital outputs, the headphone jack is a nice addition also. Being able to plug headphones into the unit makes it truly useable in all situations in your home, business or office. Unlike most devices with headphones, the other outputs are not muted when you plug headphones in. You’ll have to turn off or mute the other devices if you just want to listen to headphones.
Testing was the fun part. We tried every function that Slim Devices says the Squeezebox can do and it handled everything we tried. We had two servers running at once and the device found each one. We had one server running via our wired network and one running via 802.11g wireless and each worked flawlessly.
One great function of the SlimServer software is its ability to serve content to multiple devices at one time. We were able to easily do this with the Squeezebox and a SLIMP3 player. This function allows you to play different music in different rooms or synchronize multiple units to play the same music all through your house or business. Of course, we tested it both ways. We tried to slow down the server by playing different songs on each player and changing tracks at the same time. Both the wired and wireless connections handled this with no problem and try as we did, we could not get the players or server to hiccup. Synchronizing the two units worked just as well. Once you synchronize, you can control all synchronized units by one remote control.
Our music was encoded in what is commonly thought to be the best quality MP3 encoding scheme. All of our music that we tested with was legally ripped from our own CDs using EAC (Exact Audio Copy) and the LAME encoder at 192kbps variable bit rate. We also had a few songs that we ripped at 128kbps and at 320kbps and some uncompressed WAV tracks. One feature that the Squeezebox boasts over the SLIMP3 is its ability to play uncompressed WAV or AIFF files.
Our testing comprised of listening to music from MP3s at different qualities, uncompressed WAV files and directly from CDs to our home theater. We actually conducted “blind” sound tests of the same songs where the subjects we had listening to the music were not told what quality of music they were listening to. We used three different people as our test subjects.
The Squeezebox looks at home in a home-theater cabinet or in the bedroom with a Bose Wave Radio.
In our tests, subjects were able to easily point out the difference between CD audio and a 128kbps MP3 played via the Squeezebox. The 128kbps audio file was noticeably muffled sounding and not as clear, which was to be expected. However, when we played 192kbps VBR files and 320kbps CBR files, our subjects could not notice a difference between them or the CD audio. The same was true when playing a WAV file of the same songs. A difference in sound quality was noticed when we played audio through the Squeezebox’s optical and analog outputs. The sound through the optical outputs was described as being more “full” but not necessarily always better than the analog sound – just different. That difference may be attributed to the digital sources better use of all five speakers. Two of our three test subjects did say that the sound from the optical outputs was “better”.
We also hooked the player up to a set of computer speakers via the analog RCA outputs and via the headphone jack. With all of these connections, the Squeezebox can certainly connect to any output device you may have.
Support and Warranty
We can’t talk about the product without talking about the company. Slim Devices is held in high regard by their customers because of the quick, hands-on support they provide. During our testing Dean Blackletter, the CTO, promptly responded to our questions via email. Dean as well as Sean Adams (Founder and CEO) and Patrick Cosson (VP Sales and Marketing) all are active participants in the company’s support email list. Add to that a group of users from all over the world and you have a very robust testing and update model.
There are several add-on modules created by Slim Devices users and developers to enhance the usefulness of their products. There are user-submitted modules that add such features as: viewing TV listings, email notifications, weather, news and stock reports, caller ID and even a phone book.
As with the SLIMP3, the Squeezebox comes with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee and a one-year limited warranty.
The Squeezebox by Slim Devices does just about everything we would hope out of a networked music player. It can handle compressed and uncompressed digital music and play it back on any audio connection you may have. It looks and sounds great and is incredibly simple to setup and use. With a host of analog and digital outputs, a bright display and connectivity to wired or wireless networks, it is useable for anyone with a digital music collection that wants to listen outside of their computer room.
Besides it’s lack of support for WPA encryption the only problem we can see with the Squeezebox is figuring out where to put it. It’s so useful in the bedroom, the home theater, the garage, the kitchen and anywhere you may want to listen to music, that you might have a problem deciding where it should go.
Slim Devices has some competition now though. Big companies like Creative and Linksys have networked media products of their own and there are plenty others on the market. With competition comes innovation and we can’t wait to see what the next product from Slim Devices will be.
We think that networked media devices are the “next big thing” and have created a section in our forums devoted to these devices. You’ll be seeing many more reviews of these devices at Designtechnica in 2004. Check out our forums to discuss the Squeezebox and other devices.
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