• Home
  • blog
  • Squeezebox 3 Digital Music Box

Squeezebox 3 Digital Music Box

blog image

This unusual product by Slim Devices is a bridge between a stereo and a PC. The visible portion looks like a large, stylish digital clock — but it has a remote. The invisible portion is a music server software that runs on a PC anywhere within reasonable distance. A wide variety of digital music files can be accessed through the Squeezebox and played into the stereo. The connection to the PC is via ethernet, either wired or wireless. It’s one of the most exciting PC products we’ve come across; it’s also one of the most exciting audio devices. Our very first audio/PC component review.

December 11, 2005 by Mike Chin

Product
Squeezebox 3
Digital Music Network Interface
Manufacturer
Slim Devices, Inc.

Price

US$299 (wireless ethernet)
US$249
(wired ethernet)

One of the challenges of writing this review was to come up with an accurate, descriptive subtitle. Digital Music Network Interface is what I settled on, but there are many other ways that the Squeezebox 3 has been described:

  • streaming audio gateway
  • network music access point
  • streaming music player
  • digital music networking device
  • networked MP3 streamer
  • network music player — the phrase coined by Slim Devices


Black version of Squeezebox 3: Just 7.6″W x 3.7″H x 3.1″D.

Actually, the product is too complex in its functions and not yet common enough for a single short phrase to fully describe it. The Squeezebox is a device that provides access to digital music files in any number of different formats on a computer, and allows these files to be played easily through any existing audio playback system. The reference to wireless ethernet in the header should have tipped you off that it can access the network wirelessly, using 802.11g protocol for up to 54Mbps. It has a remote control, a very slick vacuum fluorescent display, and easy access to Internet radio. It provides analog outputs on RCA jacks to feed the standard high level input of any amplifier, preamp or receiver, as well as both coaxial and optical S/PDIF digital outputs for use with an external digital-to-analog converter (DAC). It is small, simple to set up and use for any computer geek (and probably most computer or stereo users). SlimDevices has been refining their basic concept since the first model, SLIMP3, in 2001.

It can be used by itself as a gateway between your stereo and your PC, or you can add an external digital-to-analog converter for higher performance. If you go the latter route, the Squeezebox can, in theory, rival the very best high end CD players money can buy. The Squeezebox 3 is one of the most useful, fun devices I’ve had the pleasure of hooking up to my stereo… or my PC! It is also an incredibly multifaceted products whose features are too numerous to be covered fully in this review.


White version: It’s slim, but still needs at least 3″ depth to accommodate cables and the metal support.

A DIGRESSION, AN INTRODUCTION

Consider me a snob, but until now, I’ve been happy to let the PC-based music formats pass me by. iPod? MP3? WMA? Bah! No music I’ve ever heard coming from my PC has interested me for more than a few minutes, even with very nice headphones and a good sound card. All this changed in the past month of my experience with the Squeezebox.

My affair with canned music goes back over 30 years, starting with 7″ 45rpm vinyl records, moving through 10″ reel-to-reel at 7.5 and 15 ips, high end Nakamichi cassette tape decks, to the golden sunset of the 12″ LP in the 80s when high end turntables, tonearms and cartridges enjoyed a prolific flowering.

Today, CDs are the stock and trade of any music lover, audiophile or not. It’s been the predominant source of my music for more than a decade. Having been a “Linn-Naim” audio store operator for some years, and still owning a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable + Ekos tonearm combination that gets occasional use, CD, for me, has represented a compromise in sound quality for greater convenience. While there has been a lot of progress in CD technology since its early years, I have not felt compelled to upgrade my CD player given the high cost of high end CD players.

There are two basic tasks for CD players:

  • To read the optical data off the disc and convert it into digital format without errors caused by mistracking, vibrations, laser light reflections, disc imperfections, etc.
  • To convert the digital data into an analog signal suitable for feeding into an amp, preamp or receiver.

Some of you may remember the original slogan for CD dreamed up by Sony and Philips: Perfect sound forever. Maybe some of you believe this to be true, and perhaps $89 CD players are good enough for you, but the emergence of SACD and DVD-Audio, along with the sheer number of high end CD players with 4 and even 5 digit price tags should be enough to cast doubts about perfection. Improvements on perfection don’t make sense, and such expensive CD players would not exist if CD players provided perfect music reproduction at the start.

JITTER

Ignoring the second challenge of digital-to-analog conversion for the moment, a whole range of problems associated with digital data extraction from the optical disc can be summed up in a single word: Jitter. Thousands of words have been penned over the years by high end audio writers on the subject of digital jitter. I am neither knowledgeable or interested enough to get into a serious exposition on this topic; any web search should quickly find you lots of answers. Suffice it to say that jitter is related to timing and correct analog signal reconstruction. High jitter causes harshness, especially in mids and highs. The best CD players utilize transports that have been optimized to reduce or eliminate jitter as much as possible. The transport is a large part of the high cost of the high end CD player. The mid-fi CD players that line the displays of mainstream consumer electronics shops lack such quality transports.

What if you could eliminate digital extraction from the optical disk as a source of jitter? You’d have solved half of the CD player’s challenge. This is precisely what can be done by “ripping” CDs into digital files with a PC. Just about any CD drive will do, and just about any PC that’s less than… say, five years old. Sub-$500 PCs, therefore, can be used. That’s much cheaper than even entry level high end CD players, and just a fraction of what the best CD players sell for.

The difference between a CD player designed to play music and a CD ripping software is that the latter applies error correction defined by the CD/ROM standard IEC 10149. Normal music CD players do not use this error correction, which is more complete than that used by music software.

The accepted gold standard for ripping audio CDs is Exact Audio Copy, a free utility created by someone fed up with other audio extraction programs that didn’t work as well. It’s quite a technical program, with lots of settings that are mysteries to many users, including me. However, there are several good guides on how to use EAC to make “perfect” extractions of music CDs. These include:

Many of these guides get into details of further conversions from WAV to MP3, as well as lossless compressed file formats such as FLAC, which Squeezebox can play directly. For this review, I will cover only lossless formats. WAV files will work fine to start. If you want to save on hard drive space, you can always convert them to FLAC later. A 3-minute song takes up 30 mb in uncompressed WAV format; the 26 CDs I’ve ripped to 26 folders in the music folder on my computer take up 12 GB. That’s an average of 460 Mb per CD. It’s a 300 GB drive, which should hold uncompressed WAV files from about 652 CDs. FLAC reduces the files size about 40%, so in lossless format, the maximum number of CDs my drive could hold is about 939 CDs. Given the low cost of storage these days — US$100 will buy you a 200 GB hard drive — the storage cost per CD is barely 20 cents, even in uncompressed WAV files.

Once, you’ve used EAC on a CD, you have a virtually perfect copy of the original digital file that was the source for the CD. This digital file is free of the imperfections that creep in during the optical extraction process in a typical CD player. But you can use almost any generic CD-ROM drive and PC to create this file, rather than a multi-thousand dollar CD player.

THE PROMISE OF SQUEEZEBOX

This is the basic premise — and promise — of Squeezebox for the computer-literate audiophile:

  • Rip your CDs into WAV files into a networked PC.
  • Install the SlimServer music server software in that PC.
  • Access these WAV files through your wireless computer network with Squeezebox 3.
  • Play them back on your high end stereo conveniently, with high fidelity.
  • If you want fidelity as good as the best high end CD players, use an outboard high end D/A converter.
  • Also access thousands of Internet radio stations, without any computer turned on in the network

Here’s the full text of the promotional description for audiophiles from SilmDevices:

What’s new for audiophiles? (In Squeezebox 3, according to SilmDevices)

Squeezebox features a high-end design for its audio output stages, which includes components and design aspects usually found only in much more expensive equipment. We listened to our audiophile customers, and carefully designed both the digital and analog output circuitry for extreme performance. We tested many power supply, DAC, and op-amp designs and selected the best configuration using measurements taken with a Dscope Series III audio analyzer. The result is an incredible level of measurable performance rivalling much more expensive equipment.

For the analog output stage, we used extensive power supply isolation and filtering, with separate dedicated linear regulators for the DAC and line-out amplification stages. The PCM1748 DAC comes from Burr-Brown™, a brand widely recognized for high quality and ultra-low distortion levels. Full 6Vpp line-out levels ensure a high signal-to-noise ratio through to the receiver, and power levels compliant with high-end gear.

The S/PDIF interface and DAC clocks are driven directly by two dedicated crystal oscillator circuits running at fixed frequencies. By contrast, other low-cost devices generally use a PLL circuit or resampling techniques to simulate multiple clock frequencies – these designs are less expensive, but they introduce noise or are more susceptible to instability due to power supply noise and environmental factors. By using dedicated fixed oscillators, Squeezebox eliminates the predominant source of resampling noise, jitter, and clock imprecision in S/PDIF sources.

In addition to this new hardware, Squeezebox uses a new signal processing architecture implemented entirely in software – we call it SlimDSP™. This means that all audio format decoding, synthesis, filtering, mixing, and attenuation operations are tuneable and upgradeable with firmware. Even all of the audio-releated logic circuitry, such as the encoding of the S/PDIF output signal and the presentation of data to the DAC, are implemented in a field-upgradeable Xilinx gate array. Squeezebox is without a doubt the most capable, configurable, and upgradeable networked audio device ever created.

REALLY GOOD SOUND FOR A VERY LONG TIME

It’s not as catchy as perfect sound forever, but it has the advantage of being true. If I had a thousand CDs to fill my 300 GB hard drive with FLAC music files, I could have very good quality music reproduction for a very long time through the Squeezebox and never even have to get off my couch. So could my less technical wife: The big flourescent display of the Squeezebox (version 3) is visible from across the room; the menu and remote work easily enough for non-techies to handle.

Just in case you’re expecting step-by-step details, please don’t. The Slim Devices web site provides a wealth of details for use and setup that there’s really no point to reiterate them all here. I will focus on specific details I think are particularly relevant, and otherwise paint with big strokes and a large brush.

To begin, there is a setup procedure that walks you through network access, identifying and locating the music server and its music folder, and so on. Some basic PC network knowledge is needed here, but not much. If you can set up a wireless router for your cable or DSP modem, you can easily handle this. Here’s a basic outline of of the network:

Note that with the wireless sample I obtained, there is no need for a wired connection between the Squeezebox and the PC. In my setup, a D-Link 614+ wireless router is downstairs near the PC, which is connected via a standard ethernet cable to the PC. The Squeezebox is upstairs on top of my preamp, almost directly above the router downstairs. The distance is a short 8~10 feet, with the ceiling/wall in between. I use 64-bit WEP encryption. The D-Link 614+ is an 802.11b wireless device spec’d for speeds up to 22 Mbps, which is much lower than the 802.11g / 54 Mbps that the Squeezebox is capable of. My 100 Mbps network usually has four computers running 24/7 on standard RT5 connectors and cables.

The distance that can be put between the PC and the stereo means that PC noise does not affect the listening experience. In my case, the PC happens to be nearly silent, but a fairly ordinary PC with much higher noise would be perfectly usable as the music server. Of course, if you use the PC for things other than just the music server role, then low noise is still nice to have.

When there is high network traffic, the Squeezebox does occasionally stutter or lose the signal while playing music. I expect a faster wireless modem would eliminate the problem, but it happened too rarely for me to feel compelled to replace the D-link router with a faster one. The 64 megabit buffer in the Squeezebox probably helps with adverse network conditions. The other alternative is to run a hard wire to the Squeezebox for 100 Mbps.

Slim Devices’ SlimServer software must be downloaded from their web site and installed on the PC that will hold the music files. SlimServer 6.2 runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD and Solaris. It opens up in your browser window. On Windows XP, installation is simple. The software is slightly kludgy, in my view, but functional. It appears to be under continuous development, and you can even download nightly releases. The current version at time of writing is 6.2.2. One notable limitation of the SilmServer software is that only a single music folder can be used. I’m not sure how many sub-directories can be used, but for the sake of usability with the remote, I’d suggest not too many.

Using the current largest hard drive (500 GB) dedicated entirely to music would limit you to about 1,800 CDs in FLAC, which should be plenty for most people. If you need more storage capacity, you can always use RAID, which is a readily available feature in so many motherboards these days. The PC you’ve chosen to be your digital music server and the SlimServer software have to be on for Squeezebox to access the music.

As mentioned before, the remote and display are easy to use once the setup is complete. You scroll through the music folders, albums or even songs, select what you want, get it playing, and then add to the playlist even as the music is going. You can search through your music, using keys to enter text like on a cell phone. You can even randomize the play order within an album or among albums or in a play list.


The remote.

You can also create playlists with SlimServer at your PC. This task is much more convenient from the PC than with the remote, especially if you are picking out individual songs in long playlists.

The response to commands on the remote control are almost always instantaneous, whether starting play, switching to another tune, or stopping. The only time there is any lag is during setup when the Squeezebox seeks for the SlimServer on the network. Otherwise, there’s rarely any lag, despite the fact that the command has to pass from the remote to the Squeezebox, then down to the server PC and its drive via the wireless network. One expects some hysterisis, especially with the wireless connection and the hard drive, but there is rarely any delay. This aspect of usability was most impressive, initially; admittedly, it wasn’t long before I took it for granted. It is the way remotes are supposed to work, right?

iPod Users: Note this extract from SlimDevices’ FAQ:

Please note that music purchased from the iTunes Music Store (“Protected AAC” (.m4p) files) is encrypted and cannot be played back with Squeezebox until Apple provides the necessary hooks to enable this. In the meantime, it is possible to burn your iTunes Music Store songs to CD and re-rip them as unprotected .m4a files.

This suggested transcoding will affect quality a bit, although you could just as easily rip to WAV. There are apparently several software tools that can do this without affecting quality or needing to burn an intermediate disc. They might not be legal in the US, but they are perfectly legal in Canada and the EU.

THE “REFERENCE” AUDIO SYSTEM

I’m sure what you really want to know is, How does it sound? The quick answer is, Very good.

Without any modifications of any kind, the stock Squeezebox 3 plays WAV files ripped from my CDs with high enough fidelity that a casual listener would not be able to tell that it’s not the CD. I arranged to have my wife switch back and forth between the two sources with the same piece of music while I listened out of sight of the controls; I could not consistently identify which was which.

Coming from an idiophile background, I feel compelled to give you all the caveats and conditions. [Note: It’s not a spelling error; I freely interchange idiophile and audiophile.]


The “reference” system, minus speakers, on tubular steel stands with spiked feet.

  • My audio system is a minimalist stereo, two-speaker setup over 15 year old.
  • The amplification is provided by a Linn LK1 / LK280 preamp and power amp combo. These are among Linn’s first amplifier products. They were received well but not raved about universally in the high end audio world at the time of their introduction.
  • Linn dipole speaker cables and standard Linn interconnects are used.
  • The speakers are two-way transmission line towers that I designed and built 14 years ago. A 7″ Focal mid/bass driver is mated to an aluminum 1″ dome Vifa tweeter. (I’m sure these components are long discontinued.) The drivers were measured for frequency response at 90 dB output at one meter, on and off-axis. The data was fed into an early iteration of a speaker system / crossover design program called LEAP, which has evolved into an industry standard set of tools. I configured a ~2 kHz, 24 dB/oct Linkwitz-Riley crossover at using LEAP, built the 5.5′ long transmission line speaker cabinets (1′ square cross section, about 3′ tall) out of medite board and long fiber wool, assembled it all with high mechanical rigidity as a primary goal, and kept the crossover components on an outside box to tweak the system by ear over a period of six months. [I think that’s around the time that my first wife left me… 😉 ] Its range is about 35~20,000 Hz, ±3 dB up to ~95 dB (at one meter). Much higher than this level, the bass end drops off pretty fast. In the range between about 50 and 5,000 Hz, where the vast majority of music lies, the frequency response is extremely flat, probably within about ±1.5 dB, especially at <90 dB@1m.
  • The system is in a living room that extends into the dining area. The entire space measures about 30′ x 13′ x 8′. The speakers are ~2′ away from the short wall behind it and 3~4′ from the side walls; they are about 7′ apart. The main listening sofa is about 11′ away. With a wood floor, room acoustics are fairly lively, but ameliorated by a couple of cloth-covered sofas and easy chairs.
  • Some of the music listening was done at fairly loud levels. SPL readings (without weighting) from one meter in front of each speaker were typically 85 dB, with peaks that reached 95 dB. Most people are surprised at how loud this sounds, that the SPL is so low given how loud the music sounds subjectively. For more casual listening, the level was usually no higher than ~80 dB average, which still plainly audible anywhere on the main floor where the stereo is located. Most of the music consisted of jazz with vocals, with some rock and pop mixed in, plus the odd classical piece.
  • With a good vinyl record on my Linn Sondek LP12 turntable + Linn Ekos tonearm + Linn K9 cartridge (well over CA$5,000 at time of purchase), the sound of the system is regarded by most listeners as wonderful. It is wide open sounding, with very good dynamics, transients and clarity, particularly through the midband. It’s has a lot of “snap” and it is easy to hear through the system to the original musical event (if there was an original event). Unless the LP is beat up or badly produced, most CD versions of the same recording sound worse on my CD player.
  • The Rotel RCD-955AX CD player was a good budget model at the time, something aspiring high enders could start with. I picked it up as a standby after my very nice Meridian broke down, but ended up just using it… till now. It sounds pretty good, especially with better quality CDs. Non-audiophiles think it sounds great.
  • The overall sound is affected far more by the recordings and the music than any signature the system imparts. Most listeners describe the sound as very lively, clear, dynamic, detailed; smooth and soft when the music is smooth and soft, and raucous and loud when the music is raucous and loud. A notable quality for me is that when a good recording of a smallish band (say under 5~6 instruments plus a vocalist) is played fairly loudly, sitting in the kitchen through the open doorway at the far end of the house, it is not hard to imagine that the performers are actually there playing, albeit more softly than in a lounge bar. It also sounds very good at very low volume, detailed and clear.

MORE ABOUT THE SOUND OF THE SQUEEZEBOX

As mentioned earlier, listening and comparing between original music CDs in the the Rotel CD player and the ripped WAV files coming through the Squeezebox’s analog output, it was difficult to call one better than the other. They were not identical, there were subtle differences that varied from recording to recording, and from track to track, but neither sound source stood out as being clearly better or worse.

In the end, my assessment is as follows:

  • In the digital domain, the Squeezebox has to be better. The WAV files that are the source materials have to be better than the signal stream read off the CD by the 20 year old Rotel; the 24-bit Burr-Bown DAC in the Squeezebox has to be better than the Rotel’s ancient transport and 16-bit / 4X oversampling DAC. Those are assumptions, but not unreasonable. So why is the performance so close?
  • In the analog domain, the Rotel has to be better. Its output amplifier circuitry is composed of discrete components rather than the IC opamps typical of mainstream CD players. It also has a real power supply. The promotional info about Squeezebox’s analog circuitry notwithstanding, it is still an IC, and the external power supply transformer is a puny 5V/ 2A switching device. The wallwart has already been identified as a weakness by an audiophile reviewer, Scott Faller of Enjoy the Music, who wrote that “replacing it with a standard regulated wallwart brings a significant gain in resolution“. Unfortunately I did not find a suitable replacement wallwart at my usual electronics parts sources in Vancouver.


A puny wallwart ships with the Squeezebox 3.

Having said all that, in general, the half dozen people who listened at least somewhat critically to a wide variety of music on my system could not hear any real difference between CD on the Rotel and the WAV files through the Squeezebox. They expressed delight at both the high quality of sound reproduction and the sheer convenience of not having to flip through CDs or reorganize the mess of CDs and covers at the end of a party or extended listening session.

The headphone output was also tried with Grado SR60 headphones, which sound very nice, much better than the low price tag would suggest. The sound was not outstanding, but decent, certainly on par with or better than headphone feeds from PC sound cards or most mid-fi audio gear. Plugging the headphone into the mini jack on the back does not cut the output to the line level phono jacks or to the digital outputs.

I mentioned earlier that I would only comment on the sound of the Squeezebox with uncompressed files made from CDs. The reason I am uninterested in MP3s is that, generally, their flaws are too easily heard on my audio system. It’s very possible that with care, higher resolution MP3 files can be made that have the benefit of CD quality as well as much reduced file size. MP3s at 320kbps bit rate are said to be virtually indistinguishable from CD. Variable bit rate MP3s also are promising. However, at this point in time, lossy compressed file formats are not something I am interested in pursuing… I have plenty of hard drive space, and I don’t use any portable MP3 players.

INTERNET RADIO

Accessing Internet radio through the Squeezebox does not require the SilmServer or the PC that runs it to be on. Access is directly through the network to your broadband Internet connection. Simply scroll through the menu to Internet Radio, then select from what Slim Devices says are thousands of station choices from ShoutCast, Radioio and Live365. These are partners in the “SqueezeNetwork”. Here are some basics:

  • Quick selection from hundreds of Internet Radio streams offered by Slim Devices’ partners.
  • Internet Radio favorites can be saved in a playlist for easy access.
  • Displays song title information during playback
  • Support for MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and WMA formatted Internet Radio streams

They are not all high bit rate stream stations, but there are enough stations that offer pretty good sound quality — at least as good as broadcast FM — that they are well worth exploring. The variety of formats is mindboggling, and you can sample a wider range of music this way than with any normal range of stations that you can tune in via broadcast FM. Some stations are truly and utterly unique. Many do run commercials, but many don’t run them often at all.

I have not done quite enough Internet radio listening to tell you a whole lot more, but it seems more like radio from the old days — a DJ who chats very little and simply plays music that turns him on at the time. It’s certainly a great way to hear music other than top of the charts mainstream stuff. I have added a half dozen stations to my favorites links in the Squeezebox, and they’re handy when I get tired of my own music collection.

WHAT ABOUT THE PC?

The PC that is being used as the music server for the Squeezebox is my main computer. By today’s standards, it is a modest PC. It’s also very quiet, around 23 dBA@1m, and has been described in other articles before, but I will reiterate the core elements:

  • Intel P4-2.8 (Northwood) CPU w/HT
  • 2 x 512 Mb DDRAM
  • AOpen MX4SGI-4DL2 microATX motherboard
  • Matrox P650 AGP vidcard (running dual LCD monitors)
  • Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 80GB — OS & Programs hard drive (PATA)
  • Maxtor DiamondMax 10 300GB — Data hard drive (SATA)

This PC has no problems handling the music server tasks while I work at it, editing images in Photoshop, surfing the web, and writing articles. Just having the SilmServer running in the background barely put any load on the CPU; perhaps 1~4% more. Turning the Squeezebox on and playing music hardly changes this. The highest load I had was all of the aforementioned activities, plus folding@home plus faxing 12 pages with Symantec WinFax on the Motorola PCI modem that’s in the PC. The CPU load was at 100% for about 3 minutes, yet the music playing through the Squeezebox on the upstairs stereo didn’t have a hiccup.

The most normal load on this PC is multitasking with Photoshop 8, my email software, surfing the web with several tabs open in Firebox, writing articles in Dreamweaver, and folding@home running constantly. The load ranges from 50 to 100%. There is never any sign of Squeezebox or SlimServer misbehavior in these conditions.

A few glitches or dropouts occurred mostly with Internet radio when there was a lot of web activity on this and other computers on the network at the same time. There were a few instances when the network connection broke down for no apparent reason, but they were rare and the connection was easily restored by either having the Squeezebox find the server again or unplugging the unit from the AC altogether and running through the network setup, without changing any of the previous settings. None of these problems seemed to have anything to do with the load on the PC. Congestion on the network seems the culprit, especially given my relatively slow wireless speed of my router.

The minimum system requirements for the SlimServer are as follows:

* All systems: 256MB RAM, ethernet or wireless network, and 20MB hard disk space
* Macintosh: Mac OS X 10.3 or later
* Windows: 733Mhz Pentium running Windows NT/2000/XP
* Linux/BSD/Solaris/Other: Perl 5.8.3 or later

Given
my experience, I think the hardware requirement is realistic. Almost any PC made in the last five years or so should do just fine.

One Caveat: Back up your Music HDD! — It seems obvious, but I did not run across this suggestion on the Slim Devices web site. Hard drives do suffer wear and damage, and sometimes become unusable without warning. If this happened to me on a drive that I’d ripped a few CDs to, no problem. But if I’d filled a 300GB with ripped CDs and paid-for MP3s, I’d be pulling my hair out if I didn’t have a backup. Drives are cheap; I’d certainly recommend an occasional backup of the music folder to something like an external USB 2.0 HDD.

Product Support for such a complex and multifaceted device is probably pretty important for a lot of people. I found the SlimDevices web site to have a huge database of technical and practical information pertaining to every aspect of the Squeezebox. The FAQ alone is worth studying. Then there is the forum, with what seems to be a big base of highly devoted and technically savvy users.

CONCLUSIONS

It’s a foregone conclusion: The Squeezebox 3 is a great toy for any music loving computer geek, and a viable music collection/playback tool for anyone who owns both a stereo and a PC. The huge range of supported formats, the multiplicity of ways it can be used, the functional cleverness of its display and remote, the wireless connection to the PC, easy access to Internet radio, and the capability to fit into even a no-hold-barred high end audio system — these are compelling strengths. In truth, Squeezebox 3 has rekindled my interest in music. I haven’t listened to so much music at home or had so much fun with my stereo in years.

It’s not a no-brainer two thumbs up for everyone, though. If you are not computer savvy, then it’s really worthwhile to have someone in the house who is, or to have a friend who likes to help with computers. Once a more technical user has figured out the best configuration and setup, it’s not difficult for him to show a less technical user how to do all the basics, not just with the remote, but with ripping recordings and working on the server side of things. Also, if your PC and stereo are in the same room, or your PC audio system is really nice, and you have a good control interface to access the music files easily, then there’s not much point in inserting a Squeezebox. It makes most sense when there is some distance between PC and stereo, or if you want a nicer interface between them for non-PC users.

My wife actually expresses interest in obtaining a second Squeezebox, one that can be positioned for access with the remote through a window from the back deck. This multi-unit functionality is one of the many advertised features of the Squeezebox; the second unit can connect to the network wirelessly and access the same collection of digital music files in the SlimServer PC. With the second Squeezebox connected to a couple of small self-amplified speakers installed under the eaves, the rear deck could be awash with good quality music without resorting to cranking the main stereo on the other side of the house. Nicely detailed, clean music with control over volume and selection at my fingertips while relaxing with a beer on the sunny deck. It sounds good to me. I’m getting ready, ripping another half dozen CD even as I type.

Much thanks to SlimDevices for the Squeezebox 3 sample.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT: AN AUDIOPHILE ANGLE
Dec 12, 2005It was Edward Ng who opened my eyes to the Squeezebox. Edward Ng and his father, Mr. Wing Hing Ng, 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, which are presented in the postcript on the following page.

– Mike Chin

Discuss this article in the SPCR Forums.

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.

* * *

Discuss this article in the SPCR Forums.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *