Squeezebox 3 Digital Music Box

Audio|Video|Misc
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THE "REFERENCE" AUDIO SYSTEM

I'm sure what you really want to know is, How does it sound? The quick answer is, Very good.

Without any modifications of any kind, the stock Squeezebox 3 plays WAV files ripped from my CDs with high enough fidelity that a casual listener would not be able to tell that it's not the CD. I arranged to have my wife switch back and forth between the two sources with the same piece of music while I listened out of sight of the controls; I could not consistently identify which was which.

Coming from an idiophile background, I feel compelled to give you all the caveats and conditions. [Note: It's not a spelling error; I freely interchange idiophile and audiophile.]


The "reference" system, minus speakers, on tubular steel stands with spiked feet.

  • My audio system is a minimalist stereo, two-speaker setup over 15 year old.
  • The amplification is provided by a Linn LK1 / LK280 preamp and power amp combo. These are among Linn's first amplifier products. They were received well but not raved about universally in the high end audio world at the time of their introduction.
  • Linn dipole speaker cables and standard Linn interconnects are used.
  • The speakers are two-way transmission line towers that I designed and built 14 years ago. A 7" Focal mid/bass driver is mated to an aluminum 1" dome Vifa tweeter. (I'm sure these components are long discontinued.) The drivers were measured for frequency response at 90 dB output at one meter, on and off-axis. The data was fed into an early iteration of a speaker system / crossover design program called LEAP, which has evolved into an industry standard set of tools. I configured a ~2 kHz, 24 dB/oct Linkwitz-Riley crossover at using LEAP, built the 5.5' long transmission line speaker cabinets (1' square cross section, about 3' tall) out of medite board and long fiber wool, assembled it all with high mechanical rigidity as a primary goal, and kept the crossover components on an outside box to tweak the system by ear over a period of six months. [I think that's around the time that my first wife left me... ;) ] Its range is about 35~20,000 Hz, ±3 dB up to ~95 dB (at one meter). Much higher than this level, the bass end drops off pretty fast. In the range between about 50 and 5,000 Hz, where the vast majority of music lies, the frequency response is extremely flat, probably within about ±1.5 dB, especially at <90 dB@1m.
  • The system is in a living room that extends into the dining area. The entire space measures about 30' x 13' x 8'. The speakers are ~2' away from the short wall behind it and 3~4' from the side walls; they are about 7' apart. The main listening sofa is about 11' away. With a wood floor, room acoustics are fairly lively, but ameliorated by a couple of cloth-covered sofas and easy chairs.
  • Some of the music listening was done at fairly loud levels. SPL readings (without weighting) from one meter in front of each speaker were typically 85 dB, with peaks that reached 95 dB. Most people are surprised at how loud this sounds, that the SPL is so low given how loud the music sounds subjectively. For more casual listening, the level was usually no higher than ~80 dB average, which still plainly audible anywhere on the main floor where the stereo is located. Most of the music consisted of jazz with vocals, with some rock and pop mixed in, plus the odd classical piece.
  • With a good vinyl record on my Linn Sondek LP12 turntable + Linn Ekos tonearm + Linn K9 cartridge (well over CA$5,000 at time of purchase), the sound of the system is regarded by most listeners as wonderful. It is wide open sounding, with very good dynamics, transients and clarity, particularly through the midband. It's has a lot of "snap" and it is easy to hear through the system to the original musical event (if there was an original event). Unless the LP is beat up or badly produced, most CD versions of the same recording sound worse on my CD player.
  • The Rotel RCD-955AX CD player was a good budget model at the time, something aspiring high enders could start with. I picked it up as a standby after my very nice Meridian broke down, but ended up just using it... till now. It sounds pretty good, especially with better quality CDs. Non-audiophiles think it sounds great.
  • The overall sound is affected far more by the recordings and the music than any signature the system imparts. Most listeners describe the sound as very lively, clear, dynamic, detailed; smooth and soft when the music is smooth and soft, and raucous and loud when the music is raucous and loud. A notable quality for me is that when a good recording of a smallish band (say under 5~6 instruments plus a vocalist) is played fairly loudly, sitting in the kitchen through the open doorway at the far end of the house, it is not hard to imagine that the performers are actually there playing, albeit more softly than in a lounge bar. It also sounds very good at very low volume, detailed and clear.

MORE ABOUT THE SOUND OF THE SQUEEZEBOX

As mentioned earlier, listening and comparing between original music CDs in the the Rotel CD player and the ripped WAV files coming through the Squeezebox's analog output, it was difficult to call one better than the other. They were not identical, there were subtle differences that varied from recording to recording, and from track to track, but neither sound source stood out as being clearly better or worse.

In the end, my assessment is as follows:

  • In the digital domain, the Squeezebox has to be better. The WAV files that are the source materials have to be better than the signal stream read off the CD by the 20 year old Rotel; the 24-bit Burr-Bown DAC in the Squeezebox has to be better than the Rotel's ancient transport and 16-bit / 4X oversampling DAC. Those are assumptions, but not unreasonable. So why is the performance so close?
  • In the analog domain, the Rotel has to be better. Its output amplifier circuitry is composed of discrete components rather than the IC opamps typical of mainstream CD players. It also has a real power supply. The promotional info about Squeezebox's analog circuitry notwithstanding, it is still an IC, and the external power supply transformer is a puny 5V/ 2A switching device. The wallwart has already been identified as a weakness by an audiophile reviewer, Scott Faller of Enjoy the Music, who wrote that "replacing it with a standard regulated wallwart brings a significant gain in resolution". Unfortunately I did not find a suitable replacement wallwart at my usual electronics parts sources in Vancouver.


A puny wallwart ships with the Squeezebox 3.

Having said all that, in general, the half dozen people who listened at least somewhat critically to a wide variety of music on my system could not hear any real difference between CD on the Rotel and the WAV files through the Squeezebox. They expressed delight at both the high quality of sound reproduction and the sheer convenience of not having to flip through CDs or reorganize the mess of CDs and covers at the end of a party or extended listening session.

The headphone output was also tried with Grado SR60 headphones, which sound very nice, much better than the low price tag would suggest. The sound was not outstanding, but decent, certainly on par with or better than headphone feeds from PC sound cards or most mid-fi audio gear. Plugging the headphone into the mini jack on the back does not cut the output to the line level phono jacks or to the digital outputs.

I mentioned earlier that I would only comment on the sound of the Squeezebox with uncompressed files made from CDs. The reason I am uninterested in MP3s is that, generally, their flaws are too easily heard on my audio system. It's very possible that with care, higher resolution MP3 files can be made that have the benefit of CD quality as well as much reduced file size. MP3s at 320kbps bit rate are said to be virtually indistinguishable from CD. Variable bit rate MP3s also are promising. However, at this point in time, lossy compressed file formats are not something I am interested in pursuing... I have plenty of hard drive space, and I don't use any portable MP3 players.



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