Squeezebox 3 Digital Music Box

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It's not as catchy as perfect sound forever, but it has the advantage of being true. If I had a thousand CDs to fill my 300 GB hard drive with FLAC music files, I could have very good quality music reproduction for a very long time through the Squeezebox and never even have to get off my couch. So could my less technical wife: The big flourescent display of the Squeezebox (version 3) is visible from across the room; the menu and remote work easily enough for non-techies to handle.

Just in case you're expecting step-by-step details, please don't. The Slim Devices web site provides a wealth of details for use and setup that there's really no point to reiterate them all here. I will focus on specific details I think are particularly relevant, and otherwise paint with big strokes and a large brush.

To begin, there is a setup procedure that walks you through network access, identifying and locating the music server and its music folder, and so on. Some basic PC network knowledge is needed here, but not much. If you can set up a wireless router for your cable or DSP modem, you can easily handle this. Here's a basic outline of of the network:

Note that with the wireless sample I obtained, there is no need for a wired connection between the Squeezebox and the PC. In my setup, a D-Link 614+ wireless router is downstairs near the PC, which is connected via a standard ethernet cable to the PC. The Squeezebox is upstairs on top of my preamp, almost directly above the router downstairs. The distance is a short 8~10 feet, with the ceiling/wall in between. I use 64-bit WEP encryption. The D-Link 614+ is an 802.11b wireless device spec'd for speeds up to 22 Mbps, which is much lower than the 802.11g / 54 Mbps that the Squeezebox is capable of. My 100 Mbps network usually has four computers running 24/7 on standard RT5 connectors and cables.

The distance that can be put between the PC and the stereo means that PC noise does not affect the listening experience. In my case, the PC happens to be nearly silent, but a fairly ordinary PC with much higher noise would be perfectly usable as the music server. Of course, if you use the PC for things other than just the music server role, then low noise is still nice to have.

When there is high network traffic, the Squeezebox does occasionally stutter or lose the signal while playing music. I expect a faster wireless modem would eliminate the problem, but it happened too rarely for me to feel compelled to replace the D-link router with a faster one. The 64 megabit buffer in the Squeezebox probably helps with adverse network conditions. The other alternative is to run a hard wire to the Squeezebox for 100 Mbps.

Slim Devices' SlimServer software must be downloaded from their web site and installed on the PC that will hold the music files. SlimServer 6.2 runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD and Solaris. It opens up in your browser window. On Windows XP, installation is simple. The software is slightly kludgy, in my view, but functional. It appears to be under continuous development, and you can even download nightly releases. The current version at time of writing is 6.2.2. One notable limitation of the SilmServer software is that only a single music folder can be used. I'm not sure how many sub-directories can be used, but for the sake of usability with the remote, I'd suggest not too many.

Using the current largest hard drive (500 GB) dedicated entirely to music would limit you to about 1,800 CDs in FLAC, which should be plenty for most people. If you need more storage capacity, you can always use RAID, which is a readily available feature in so many motherboards these days. The PC you've chosen to be your digital music server and the SlimServer software have to be on for Squeezebox to access the music.

As mentioned before, the remote and display are easy to use once the setup is complete. You scroll through the music folders, albums or even songs, select what you want, get it playing, and then add to the playlist even as the music is going. You can search through your music, using keys to enter text like on a cell phone. You can even randomize the play order within an album or among albums or in a play list.

The remote.

You can also create playlists with SlimServer at your PC. This task is much more convenient from the PC than with the remote, especially if you are picking out individual songs in long playlists.

The response to commands on the remote control are almost always instantaneous, whether starting play, switching to another tune, or stopping. The only time there is any lag is during setup when the Squeezebox seeks for the SlimServer on the network. Otherwise, there's rarely any lag, despite the fact that the command has to pass from the remote to the Squeezebox, then down to the server PC and its drive via the wireless network. One expects some hysterisis, especially with the wireless connection and the hard drive, but there is rarely any delay. This aspect of usability was most impressive, initially; admittedly, it wasn't long before I took it for granted. It is the way remotes are supposed to work, right?

iPod Users: Note this extract from SlimDevices' FAQ:

Please note that music purchased from the iTunes Music Store ("Protected AAC" (.m4p) files) is encrypted and cannot be played back with Squeezebox until Apple provides the necessary hooks to enable this. In the meantime, it is possible to burn your iTunes Music Store songs to CD and re-rip them as unprotected .m4a files.

This suggested transcoding will affect quality a bit, although you could just as easily rip to WAV. There are apparently several software tools that can do this without affecting quality or needing to burn an intermediate disc. They might not be legal in the US, but they are perfectly legal in Canada and the EU.

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