Squeezebox 3 Digital Music Box

Audio|Video|Misc
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INTERNET RADIO

Accessing Internet radio through the Squeezebox does not require the SilmServer or the PC that runs it to be on. Access is directly through the network to your broadband Internet connection. Simply scroll through the menu to Internet Radio, then select from what Slim Devices says are thousands of station choices from ShoutCast, Radioio and Live365. These are partners in the "SqueezeNetwork". Here are some basics:

  • Quick selection from hundreds of Internet Radio streams offered by Slim Devices' partners.
  • Internet Radio favorites can be saved in a playlist for easy access.
  • Displays song title information during playback
  • Support for MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and WMA formatted Internet Radio streams

They are not all high bit rate stream stations, but there are enough stations that offer pretty good sound quality — at least as good as broadcast FM — that they are well worth exploring. The variety of formats is mindboggling, and you can sample a wider range of music this way than with any normal range of stations that you can tune in via broadcast FM. Some stations are truly and utterly unique. Many do run commercials, but many don't run them often at all.

I have not done quite enough Internet radio listening to tell you a whole lot more, but it seems more like radio from the old days — a DJ who chats very little and simply plays music that turns him on at the time. It's certainly a great way to hear music other than top of the charts mainstream stuff. I have added a half dozen stations to my favorites links in the Squeezebox, and they're handy when I get tired of my own music collection.

WHAT ABOUT THE PC?

The PC that is being used as the music server for the Squeezebox is my main computer. By today's standards, it is a modest PC. It's also very quiet, around 23 dBA@1m, and has been described in other articles before, but I will reiterate the core elements:

  • Intel P4-2.8 (Northwood) CPU w/HT
  • 2 x 512 Mb DDRAM
  • AOpen MX4SGI-4DL2 microATX motherboard
  • Matrox P650 AGP vidcard (running dual LCD monitors)
  • Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 80GB -- OS & Programs hard drive (PATA)
  • Maxtor DiamondMax 10 300GB -- Data hard drive (SATA)

This PC has no problems handling the music server tasks while I work at it, editing images in Photoshop, surfing the web, and writing articles. Just having the SilmServer running in the background barely put any load on the CPU; perhaps 1~4% more. Turning the Squeezebox on and playing music hardly changes this. The highest load I had was all of the aforementioned activities, plus folding@home plus faxing 12 pages with Symantec WinFax on the Motorola PCI modem that's in the PC. The CPU load was at 100% for about 3 minutes, yet the music playing through the Squeezebox on the upstairs stereo didn't have a hiccup.

The most normal load on this PC is multitasking with Photoshop 8, my email software, surfing the web with several tabs open in Firebox, writing articles in Dreamweaver, and folding@home running constantly. The load ranges from 50 to 100%. There is never any sign of Squeezebox or SlimServer misbehavior in these conditions.

A few glitches or dropouts occurred mostly with Internet radio when there was a lot of web activity on this and other computers on the network at the same time. There were a few instances when the network connection broke down for no apparent reason, but they were rare and the connection was easily restored by either having the Squeezebox find the server again or unplugging the unit from the AC altogether and running through the network setup, without changing any of the previous settings. None of these problems seemed to have anything to do with the load on the PC. Congestion on the network seems the culprit, especially given my relatively slow wireless speed of my router.

The minimum system requirements for the SlimServer are as follows:

* All systems: 256MB RAM, ethernet or wireless network, and 20MB hard disk space
* Macintosh: Mac OS X 10.3 or later
* Windows: 733Mhz Pentium running Windows NT/2000/XP
* Linux/BSD/Solaris/Other: Perl 5.8.3 or later

Given my experience, I think the hardware requirement is realistic. Almost any PC made in the last five years or so should do just fine.

One Caveat: Back up your Music HDD! — It seems obvious, but I did not run across this suggestion on the Slim Devices web site. Hard drives do suffer wear and damage, and sometimes become unusable without warning. If this happened to me on a drive that I'd ripped a few CDs to, no problem. But if I'd filled a 300GB with ripped CDs and paid-for MP3s, I'd be pulling my hair out if I didn't have a backup. Drives are cheap; I'd certainly recommend an occasional backup of the music folder to something like an external USB 2.0 HDD.

Product Support for such a complex and multifaceted device is probably pretty important for a lot of people. I found the SlimDevices web site to have a huge database of technical and practical information pertaining to every aspect of the Squeezebox. The FAQ alone is worth studying. Then there is the forum, with what seems to be a big base of highly devoted and technically savvy users.

CONCLUSIONS

It's a foregone conclusion: The Squeezebox 3 is a great toy for any music loving computer geek, and a viable music collection/playback tool for anyone who owns both a stereo and a PC. The huge range of supported formats, the multiplicity of ways it can be used, the functional cleverness of its display and remote, the wireless connection to the PC, easy access to Internet radio, and the capability to fit into even a no-hold-barred high end audio system — these are compelling strengths. In truth, Squeezebox 3 has rekindled my interest in music. I haven't listened to so much music at home or had so much fun with my stereo in years.

It's not a no-brainer two thumbs up for everyone, though. If you are not computer savvy, then it's really worthwhile to have someone in the house who is, or to have a friend who likes to help with computers. Once a more technical user has figured out the best configuration and setup, it's not difficult for him to show a less technical user how to do all the basics, not just with the remote, but with ripping recordings and working on the server side of things. Also, if your PC and stereo are in the same room, or your PC audio system is really nice, and you have a good control interface to access the music files easily, then there's not much point in inserting a Squeezebox. It makes most sense when there is some distance between PC and stereo, or if you want a nicer interface between them for non-PC users.

My wife actually expresses interest in obtaining a second Squeezebox, one that can be positioned for access with the remote through a window from the back deck. This multi-unit functionality is one of the many advertised features of the Squeezebox; the second unit can connect to the network wirelessly and access the same collection of digital music files in the SlimServer PC. With the second Squeezebox connected to a couple of small self-amplified speakers installed under the eaves, the rear deck could be awash with good quality music without resorting to cranking the main stereo on the other side of the house. Nicely detailed, clean music with control over volume and selection at my fingertips while relaxing with a beer on the sunny deck. It sounds good to me. I'm getting ready, ripping another half dozen CD even as I type.

Much thanks to SlimDevices for the Squeezebox 3 sample.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT: AN AUDIOPHILE ANGLE
Dec 12, 2005

It was Edward Ng who opened my eyes to the Squeezebox. Edward Ng and his father, Mr. Wing Hing Ng, experimented extensively with the Squeezebox 2 in the context of a more up-to-date, "higher-end" audio system using a top quality external D/A converter. I asked them for their thoughts and observations, which are presented in the postcript on the following page.

- Mike Chin

Discuss this article in the SPCR Forums.



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