Many of today's digital media receivers promise the world: wireless video, image, and audio streaming from your PC to your home entertainment system. More often than not, these jack-of-all-trades devices deliver audio and still images reasonably well, but their video-streaming performance is typically hampered by the limited bandwidth of today's Wi-Fi networks. Slim Devices decided to stay out of the video fray with its Squeezebox, a superior audio-only player that doesn't require connection to a TV and that benefits from a streamlined, refined design. Only its relatively high price ($279) is a stumbling block. Bargain hunters may wish to opt for Roku's slicker-looking SoundBridge M1000 or Creative's more affordable Sound Blaster Wireless Music instead. The Squeezebox's black plastic body measures 8.5 by 1.9 by 4.5 inches (W, H, D) and is devoid of controls. A large, horizontal 280x16 vacuum-fluorescent screen dominates the entire front panel. The green monochromatic display can show text and rudimentary graphics, and it's a big improvement from the 40x2 character display found on the earlier incarnation of the Squeezebox.
Around back is the Squeezebox's biggest feature upgrade from the SLIMP3: a jointed, removable antenna that provides onboard 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless networking. Another improvement from the SLIMP3 is the inclusion of digital audio outputs--both optical and coaxial. The unit has one pair of analog stereo RCA audio outputs and an Ethernet port for connecting to wired home networks.
You operate the device either with the included remote or via a Web browser on any networked computer (or even a wireless PDA). The midsize remote control includes a numeric keypad, directional navigation buttons, volume adjustment, and a power button that puts the player in sleep mode. 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, making the Squeezebox a leading candidate for spaces such as the dining room or the bedside table.
The wired version of the Squeezebox is available for $199. The Squeezebox plays MP3s at bit rates of up to 384Kbps, as well as variable bit rate (VBR) files. It streams uncompressed WAV and AIFF audio, as well as OGG, FLAC, and unprotected WMA and AAC files. (Like all other network media players to date, the Squeezebox can't stream protected AAC or WMA files, such as those purchased from iTunes Music Store and Napster 2.0.) Playlist options encompass PLS, M3U, CUE, and Apple iTunes formats.
Thanks to an active developer community (and the product's Linux-based, open-source roots), there are plenty of software plug-ins available to help enhance the Squeezebox experience. For instance, one enables access to Shoutcast's dozens of free Internet radio streams. The downside of this approach, however, is the lack of any formal customer support or quality control. Case in point: the development of RealSlim--the much-vaunted plug-in to enable streaming support for Real Networks' Rhapsody service--is apparently in limbo, so don't expect to play Rhapsody tunes on your Squeezebox anytime soon.
The Squeezebox has a synchronization feature that allows multiple Squeezebox or SLIMP3 units to act like a single player. For example, if two Squeezeboxes are synchronized, selecting a track on one Squeezebox will make the track play in sync on both players. This poor man's multizone feature works as advertised. Additionally, the SlimServer software's remote streaming feature allows you to stream audio files from your server PC over the Internet to a remote location such as a friend's house. You don't even need the Squeezebox to use this feature; simply download the free SlimServer application. The receiving computer must run a software player such as iTunes or Winamp, both of which are also free downloads. Setting up the Squeezebox was simple. We downloaded the SlimServer PC application from the company's "--="">&siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Eslimdevices%2Ecom" target="new">Web site, quickly stepped through the software setup screens, and connected the Squeezebox to our A/V receiver and a power outlet. To complete the setup, we used the remote to enter our wireless network information. Setup took approximately 10 minutes total. A minor quibble we had with the SLIMP3 also applies to the Squeezebox: the installation process would be friendlier if the server application could automatically scour your hard drive for MP3 files.
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. You can also search for music by the name of the artist, the album, or the song. MoodLogic users can create instant mixes with the remote control and can navigate their music libraries via MoodLogic's unique track classifications, such as tempo. A favorite Squeezebox feature enables displaying ID3 data and filenames in various configurations.
As you'd expect, the Squeezebox's digital audio outputs worked without a hitch, delivering bits to our A/V receiver, which then converted the numbers into music. The Squeezebox's analog outputs also produced dynamic, clean sound. When we fired up the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," the vocal tracks had a velvety sheen and the mix felt appropriately three-dimensional. The Commodores' funky "Machine Gun" proved that the Squeezebox can output ample bass without getting sloppy.