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Logitech Squeezebox Boom: The ultimate Wi-Fi radio?

CNET's got a hands-on first look at Logitech's just announced Squeezebox Boom Wi-Fi radio.

If you took one of Logitech's increasingly ubiquitous Pure-Fi desktop stereos and integrated one of its Squeezebox network-audio streamers, you'd probably come up with something like the Logitech Squeezebox Boom. Previous Squeezebox models had to be plugged into an existing stereo receiver or speaker system, but the Boom is the first model in Logitech's network-audio line to have the speakers built-in.

The result is a full-service Wi-Fi radio that can access a wide variety of digital music straight from the Internet or from a networked PC.

We've been playing with an early sample of the Squeezebox Boom, and so far, it's one of the best products in its class we've ever seen. That's not surprising, given that it has the same guts as the recent Editors' Choice Squeezebox Duet.

As far as abilities are concerned, the Boom pretty much has the identically impressive range of features as the Duet: the ability to stream everything from premium Rhapsody and Sirius content to freely available Internet radio, podcasts, Pandora, Slacker, and Last.fm music straight off the Web, as well as nearly any non-DRM digital-audio format from a networked PC (Windows, Mac, or Linux). (Editor's note: CNET and Last.fm are both subsidiaries of CBS.) But the Boom trades the Duet's digital and analog outputs for a pair of good-sounding stereo speakers (3-inch woofers flanked by 0.75-inch tweeters), so the entire system is self-contained.

The unit's handsome, black housing is a mere 5 inches high by 13 inches wide and 4-inches deep. It's got the same sort of bright, vacuum, fluorescent display found on the "classic" Squeezebox, which makes it easily viewable, even from halfway across the room. The control panel is pretty much a spread-out version of the Squeezebox Duet remote (itself strongly modeled on the iPod). Most functions are accessed from a single scrollwheel--depress the wheel to make a menu choice, use the nearby "back" button to reverse course. Six preset buttons are also on board for quick access to Internet radio stations of your choice. A small wireless remote is also included--it magnetically attaches to the Boom's topside (or any other metal surface) for easy locating.

Logitech Squeezebox Boom

As with other Squeezebox products, though, the Boom can also be accessed through its online control panel--available from any browser. There, you can fine-tune a variety of details, from the menu display and screensaver options to setting alarms (the Boom doubles as a clock radio, allowing you to wake to any Internet radio station or digital playlist you prefer). Likewise, the Squeezebox Boom can interface with the digital music on your PC (with the downloadable SqueezeCenter software) or to the above-mentioned panoply of Internet radio and subscription services (via Logitech's online SqueezeNetwork, which aggregates multiple services into one easy-to-use control panel).

Not all's perfect, of course. The high-gloss finish and rubbery controls attract fingerprints and smudges, respectively. The single control wheel takes a bit of getting used to--there's a separate volume rocker to the right, but--like the iPod--the knob can also (sometimes) double as a volume control. And we were kind of bummed that it's AC-only--there's no battery option for truly wireless operation, though it is small enough to easily move from room to room.

And there's the DRM bugaboo: while the Squeezebox can access plenty of proprietary services (such as Rhapsody and Sirius), it can't stream copy-protected music purchased from iTunes. (DRM-free "iTunes Plus" downloads work just fine, however, as do those from Amazon, eMusic, Napster, and other sources. The same goes for home-ripped music, even if it's in more obscure formats such as Ogg or FLAC.)

Still, for those of us whose online audio choices have moved beyond Apple's walled garden, the Logitech Squeezebox Boom looks to be a strong contender. It will be hitting stores in September for $300. (Compared to the $650 Tivoli Audio Networks, it's a steal!) That's somewhat pricier than most other Wi-Fi radios we've seen, but those who value the strong feature set and geek-friendly customization options will likely find it worthwhile to pay the premium.

We'll have a more in-depth review of the Logitech Squeezebox Boom soon. In the meantime, what do you think? Is this a crave-worthy digital audio product, or are you more than happy with your iPod clock radio?