Digital audio is great--especially if you've got a multigigabyte music collection sitting on your computer or you subscribe to an "all you can eat" music service like Rhapsody. The problem, for a lot of people, is that they're stuck listening to all that great music on the tinny speakers of their computer--or perhaps patching the laptop into their living room stereo system. Dedicated audio streamers have helped somewhat, but they have tiny little screens, which--like docked iPods--aren't very useful if you're sitting on a sofa across the room. And the best solution to date--the excellent Sonos Digital Music System--costs a prohibitive $1,000. Enter Logitech's new Squeezebox Duet: the $400 network digital audio streamer employs a winning handheld remote with a brilliant color screen (not unlike an iPod) that lets you navigate your entire music collection--including some online services and the majority of free Internet radio stations--from the palm of your hand, even while you hear the music from the big speakers of your home stereo.
The Duet is so named because it's a two-part system: a base station and the remote. The base station is a nondescript black brick that pulls audio from a networked PC or the Internet via your Wi-Fi or Ethernet home network, and outputs to your stereo from its analog or digital (coaxial or optical) jacks. But the real innovation is the remote: beyond the ten buttons controlling standard functions (volume, play/pause, track forward/reverse), it features an iPod-like scrollwheel and a brilliant 2.4-inch color LCD screen. That puts the song navigation where it belongs: in your hand, instead of a small LCD readout halfway across the room. (A charging cradle for the remote is also provided, so it can juice up while not in use.)
Aside from the much improved ergonomics and design, the Duet keeps much of the same under-the-hood technology found in earlier Squeezebox music streamers. That means it's compatible with nearly every non-DRM file format under the sun (including audiophile faves Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, and FLAC) as well as free Internet radio stations and paid subscription online music services such as Rhapsody and Pandora. Logitech is also working to ensure that the Duet will also be backwards compatible with earlier Squeezebox models--meaning they can act as base stations in additional rooms (listening to the same music or other streams) and still interact with the Duet remote. Likewise, the latest Squeezebox will still adhere to the company's open-source roots: in addition to running a new and improved version of the open-source SlimServer music manager, the company expects to incorporate community-based improvements into the unit via its upgradable firmware.
Logitech provided a behind-closed-doors demo of the Squeezebox Duet to CNET a few weeks ago, and we liked what we saw. It's a solid upgrade of the Logitech Wireless DJ concept, turbocharged with the superior networking, software, and audio expertise found in earlier Squeezebox models. We'll reserve final judgment until we get a production model for review, but--as first impressions go--the Duet has all the makings of a winner. At the very least, it looks to be a strong alternative to the Sonos Digital Music System, delivering a similar experience--a network music player with a superior handheld remote--for hundreds less than the Sonos, which has long been the king of the hill in the still nascent product category.