Squeezebox 3 Digital Music Box

Audio|Video|Misc
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AN AUDIOPHILE ANGLE
As told by Wing Hing Ng to Edward Ng

Editor's Note: It was Edward Ng who opened my eyes to the Squeezebox. He and his father, Mr. Wing Hing Ng, have 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.

- Mike Chin

Preface by Edward Ng: The descriptions here come from my father, an experienced high fidelity system builder and listener of nearly 30 years. He actually had an article published for the October 1987 issue of the Chinese-language Hong Kong hi-fi magazine, Audiophile. The Squeezebox is is in his system, which he is intimately familiar with in a way that I am not. I've written up my dad’s comments as he told it to me; his English isn’t quite up to the task. Squeezebox 2 is functionally identical to the 3, by the way.

My father's current setup:

  • EAC-ripped CD files in FLAC format on my media PC in my room.
  • SqueezeBox 2 accessing the above through a 54 Mbps wireless network, feeding a...
  • Benchmark Media DAC1 digital-to-analog converter. The output of the DAC1 goes directly to a....
  • PS Audio HCA-2 power amplifer, which powers a pair of...
  • Magnepan MG1.6/QR planar loud speakers.
  • All speaker, balanced XLR and digital coax cables are hand-assembled pure silver pieces from Audioparts Inc.

The speaker and equipment placement was kept consistent throughout testing.


Mr. Wing Hing Ng's audio system.

Rega Planet 2000 CD player w/Audio Research SP16L preamplifier

The Rega + Audio Research SP16L preamp was my original source + control setup before Edward introduced me to the SqueezeBox, which he recommended as an easier solution than building me a PC and teaching me the process of ripping CDs to it. Compared to my current setup, the overall sound quality was not as good; imaging was not as focused, bass was muddier and not as deep. High frequencies were also less clear. The system was unable to take full advantage of the transparency of the Magnepan speakers. There was less distinction between instruments and less musicality than all other setups that in this discussion.

Rega Planet 2000 w/Benchmark Media DAC1 external D/A converter & Audio Research SP16L

By inserting the DAC1 (a professional-use digital-to-analog conversion unit now becoming popular with audiophiles for its remarkable bang-for-the-buck) between the Planet and SP16L, the imaging (both width and depth) was dramatically improved (as if sitting in the middle row back from the stage). The textures of the instruments and vocals came out more clearly. Individual instruments were also more distinct because of the improved textures. There was a clear and dramatic increase in musicality over the setup without the DAC1.

At this point, we decided to hook up Edward’s computer directly to the DAC1 to compare against the the Rega Planet CD player as well as the SqueezeBox. As it turns out, the sound quality from Edward’s computer was indistinguishable in an A/B comparison against the SqueezeBox. However, his computer is far more expensive than a SqueezeBox, not nearly as convenient or ergonomic to use, and its physical presence in the room had an effect on the overall sound. I have to admit that at least his computer was completely inaudible. Configuring his computer to sound like it does is also quite complex, and I am glad to leave him the task of ripping my music to the server.

SqueezeBox w/Benchmark DAC1

I was very skeptical about doing away with the SP16L (preamp) in the beginning, because I knew that I would be losing the signature sound of Audio Research’s tube preamps, a sound that I have became very fond of, with its airy highs and the way it puts you into the music. After swapping out the SP16L and going directly to the power amp from the DAC1 (using the SqueezeBox’s volume control), I was quite surprised to find that the sound was just as musical, but with a different overall tone. It is more coherent (a flatter, more natural total response across the frequency range) and image is razor sharp and expanded fully in depth, width and even height—no blind spots, and range limited only by the speaker. Relative to the previous setup, you’re now sitting front row center. Detail is improved across the range, but more so at low frequencies, which is controlled better than previously. The one thing I ended up missing about not having the SP16L is that there is now less airiness—overall, a very worthy compromise: Improved musicality, improved imaging, improved detail, improved bass response, all for a mere loss of some air.

* * *

Edward's Final Words: The above comments are presented only as one case to consider, and by no means an absolute prediction about how the SqueezeBox with a separate, high-grade digital-to-analogue converter will work in your system. There are far too many things that come into play, including room layout and materials, system components, etc; it is simply his experience with his system.

I went to a lot of trouble to ensure the audio data is not resampled before going out from my PC: Foobar2000 kernel streaming output of FLAC, WAVE and Monkey’s Audio data files to an Echo Audio Mia MIDI adapter with sample rate locked to 44.1 kHz. Without the ability to bypass the Windows Kmixer, the audio data would get resampled, and some say that this affects the final sound quality. This is why my PC sounded identical to the Squeezebox in the second comparison described above; they were, in essence, outputting the same data.

The Benchmark Media DAC1 my Dad and I both use has become popular with hi-fi listeners because it happens to work well, particularly for the price. DACs that perform as well as this in subjective comparisons typically cost three, four even five times the $975 asking price of the DAC1. One of its advantages is the adjustable output level — this function allowed us to bypass his preamp, and thereby avoid the ill effects of a volume attenuator. This is part of the reason his system sound improved so much, but at the same time, it has nothing to do with the SqueezeBox in particular, other than the fact they go so well together.

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