With the original SLIMP3 digital audio receiver (DAR), newcomer Slim Devices brought us one of the most uniquely styled home-audio components we'd ever evaluated. It showed considerable potential and had a cultlike techie following, but the DAR just wasn't geared toward the mass market. Thanks to updated software and a new remote, however, the SLIMP3 is now a much more polished product that gives you easy access to your digital-music collection. While the DAR arena has seen considerable price compression since January (RCA's wireless RD-2200 is listed at $99), the improved SLIMP3 is still a respectable value--as long as you can live without wireless-networking compatibility. Aesthetically, the SLIMP3 has very little in common with more conventional audio components. At 8.5 by 2.5 by 2.0 inches, the lightweight unit most closely resembles a detached, oversize cash-register readout. A large horizontal screen dominates the entire front panel, displaying two 40-character lines of bright-green, dot matrix-style text.
As the SLIMP3's body is devoid of any buttons or switches, you control the device either with the included remote or via a Web browser on any networked computer or PDA. The midsize remote control--a big improvement over the previously bundled Sony model--includes a numeric keypad, directional navigation buttons, and volume adjustment. The Size button enlarges the text on the base unit's screen, making song titles and other information legible from as far away as 15 feet. This easy readability obviates the need for the TV display of some pricier DARs.
Much to the relief of nontechies, Slim Devices has simplified setup and configuration. After hooking up the SLIMP3 to our Ethernet router and our home stereo's analog-audio inputs, we downloaded and installed the server software and connected the power cord. To complete setup, we simply pointed the program to our MP3 folders. We had one minor quibble: The process would be friendlier if the server application could automatically scour your hard drive for MP3 files. To talk to the SLIMP3, your PC must be running the server software. As you no longer need to download Perl and run it whenever the SLIMP3 is in operation, we're much more comfortable recommending this DAR to mainstream users accustomed to plug-and-play products. The SLIMP3 plays MP3 files at bit rates of up to 384Kbps as well as those of variable bit rate. For songs in other formats, Mac OS X users can download a free plug-in that enables on-the-fly conversion of WAV, AIFF, OGG, and Dolby's AAC, which is used by Apple's new site. Playlist options encompass PLS, M3U, CUE, and Apple iTunes.
The SLIMP3 supports streaming-broadcast formats such as Shoutcast but only if you set up a local playlist to point to the remote location. We'd like to see Slim Devices partner with a streaming-content provider and directly integrate Internet radio into the software interface. Unlike RCA's RD-2200, the SLIMP3 doesn't enable streaming audio from a CD in your computer's drive.
The server software's integrated help screens expand upon the effective printed quick-start guide. The package doesn't include a CD-ROM, but downloading the small (only 1MB to 4MB, depending on your OS) server program is fast and painless, and you'll have the most up-to-date version of this constantly evolving, open-source-based software. Firmware upgrades are also available at the company's &siteid=7&edid=&lop=&destcat=&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Eslimdevices%2Ecom%2F" target="new">Web site.
Around back, the pickings are slim. The unit has one pair of analog stereo RCA audio outputs, an Ethernet port, and a power-cord jack. A digital-audio output would have enabled the highest sound quality in home-stereo systems, but its absence shouldn't be a major issue unless you're using bit rates higher than 192Kbps. Unlike some DARs, the SLIMP3 doesn't include a headphone jack. More important, it lacks any sort of wireless-networking option--though adding one of the many Ethernet wireless bridge products on the market would probably do the trick. Finding specific songs is easy. You press the remote's directional buttons to browse tunes by directory or playlist, as well as genre, artist, or album information taken from your files' ID3 tags. The System menu enables you to display the ID3 data in various configurations. You can also search for music by the name of the artist, album, or song. On a PC, menu levels and song lists were easily navigable via links in the Web-server interface. But on our wireless PDA, the interface's frames were scrunched together, seriously limiting the amount of onscreen information.
The SLIMP3 sounds excellent. We fired up Outkast's Two Dope Boys in a Cadillac and did an A/B test, switching between the DAR's audio output and that of our 16-bit Roland digital-to-analog converter. The SLIMP3's Crystal Semiconductor 16-bit converter sounded a touch clearer and delivered superior sound-field depth.