January 21, 2004

Momma's got a Squeezebox...

Momma's got a Squeezebox, Daddy doesn't sleep at night...
- The Who

The Squeezebox is the second product of the Slim Devices company (http://www.slimdevices.com), following on the heels of the SliMP3. Put baldly, it is a streaming MP3 receiver. Like too few products, however, the Squeezebox is more than the sum of its parts!

The Box

The Squeezebox is a textured plastic device that looks like nothing so much as a super-stealthy clock radio. It is around seven inches across, curved in the back, and the face is entirely taken up by a bright teal vacuum fluorescent display. The right side has a mini-stereo jack, amplified for headphones. The back contains a power supply jack (it comes with a wall wart), a socket for a whip 802.11b antenna, a S/PDIF miniplug optical port, RCA stereo ports, and an RJ-45 100 Base-T Ethernet jack. It weighs all of five or six ounces, not counting the power transformer. It ships with a standard-looking infrared remote control.

The Software

In order to use the Squeezebox, you'll need to have a computer somewhere that is running the SlimServer software, available for download at Slim Devices' website. The SlimServer is most of the 'brains' of the product, and is Free Software - you can download it, use it, modify it. As a result, it has been ported and extended fairly well - there are versions that run on Linux, Windows (of various flavors), Mac OS X, Solaris and various BSDs. It consists of a set of Perl libraries and a web-based interface. It performs two critical functions: one, it allows you to control your Squeezebox (or other stream - more on that in a second) and two, it streams mp3 audio to the device or app that you're using.

Note that if you'd like to try the server software, you don't need a Squeezebox. You can download it and install it, and it will handle as many separate streams as your server computer and network will. I personally use mine not only for running my Squeezebox but for streaming music to my work computer (running XMMS, gag puke choke, or iTunes if I'm on my laptop) and to 'take' my music wherever I go. The Squeezebox talks to the SlimServer using the aforementioned Perl libraries, so when you hit your IR remote, you're really talking to the SlimServer.

If you're a Mac OS X user (as I am) you'll be happy to know that the SlimServer completely groks iTunes. This means if you're running iTunes, and you tell it to do so, it will utilize all existing iTunes tag info as well as playlist information (including the dynamic 'Smart Playlists' that do stuff like offer your top 25 most-played tunes). It doesn't need iTunes (it can keep its own data, and let you construct your own playlists entirely) but if you choose to use iTunes connectivity, you can still manage your own playlists and the like. It just assumes that the iTunes music library is where all your music lives.

What it Does

Put simply, it is the Killer Music App. It makes your digital music available to you from anywhere you have a browser and net connection (SlimServer) or just a net connection and power (Squeezebox). To give you a taste of how well-done this thing is, here is the complete sequence of steps I went through to set mine up once I'd installed the SlimServer:
  1. Plugged it in in another room in my house. It came up and said Free your music!
  2. Then it asked 'Wireless Network?' -I indicated 'yes' using the remote.
  3. It sniffed around, and asked 'Network xxx (my SSID)?' -yup.
  4. Sniff again. 'Server " Navi"?' -...my Mac. Yup.
  5. A moment's pause, then "Ready! Select Playlists:" ...and it offered me a selection menu of all my iTunes playlists.
I hit 'Play' - and music flowed out of my headphones.

While in use, it uses approximately 4% of my Mac's CPU cycles ( PowerMac G4/500DP) and around 25K/sec of bandwidth per active stream.

Why it's so damn cool

...because, for the first time (coupled with my iPod) my music is always with me, anywhere on the internet, and anywhere in my house. I have had six or seven friends around the U.S., and myself at work, and the Squeezebox in my bedroom all pulling music off my Mac simultaneously - no stutter. Although it has to transcode on the fly, it's capable of playing Ogg Vorbis files and a variety of other formats through server add-on modules.

Folks have found out how to use it for other cool stuff, too. There are CallerID modules that display CallerID information on the Squeezebox display; stock tickers, clocks (the Squeezebox is truly a passive device, and despite its resemblance to a clock, doesn't have a local time source), several Windows Media Player remote controls that use the IR remote to control a computer app, library browsers, and apparently at least one RSS feed that someone is working on. It can act as an alarm clock, using the server's smarts, and start streaming at a predesignated time. The display can be turned off (handy when you're trying to sleep) without interrupting the music; there's a local volume control, which is nice.

How's the sound?

Darn good. I encode at 160k or 192k, and the sound out of the device is fairly clean. It does come out at a fairly high line level, so downing the volume can be necessary if you have sensitive headphones and/or ears. There are treble/bass adjustments on the Squeezebox, and the sound it puts out sounds cleaner than that which comes out of my Mac's sound ports (less EM noise, I guess).

What's the catch?

The price, for one. The box is $299 US, which is a bit steep for a dumb component. However, that's around what the Audiotron costs, and this is a much smarter component, with 802.11 onboard, to boot. For another, it's a fairly flimsy looking, odd-shaped box you can't stack - so it looks out of place in a typical home stereo cabinet. The VFD display looks slightly 'cheap' compared to even cheap home stereo gear. It'd be really nice if it could run off batteries, even for a limited time, making it truly portable around the home. There is no onboard speaker (not a big loss, AFAICT). The remote button layout is non-intuitive, and the buttons aren't easily distinguished by touch in the dark.

The Verdict

...a Custodial two thumbs up. I got mine as a present, and hence was not put off by the price. However, I use it every day, and use the server software daily as well to listen to my home audio library from my office. I strongly recommend picking one up, if you have the means. They are so choice. Posted by jbz at January 21, 2004 11:32 PM
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