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If you own a personal digital music player, you're probably accustomed to the benefits of having access to your music collection or at least part of it anywhere you go. However, listening to that same music at home sans-headphones can be somewhat of a hassle unless you're willing to stay tethered to your PC or your portable device.
A better option is to use a media player like the Slim Devices Squeezebox, which can stream music from your PC or the Internet to any room in your house.
Design and Features
Measuring barely 3 1/2 inches high, the $299 Squeezebox is compact enough to fit just about anywhere you'd care to put it, and it's pleasing aesthetics should blend well with most decors. It's available in white with an aluminum accent or all black.
Since the Squeezebox doesn't come with its own speakers (and that's good, because small speakers generally don't sound very good), to get sound out of it you need to connect it to a spare input on a stereo amplifier or home theater receiver. You have a choice of digital (both optical and coaxial) or analog RCA outputs (though only the RCA audio cable is included with the unit), and there's a standard headphone mini-jack too.
Every Squeezebox supports both wired 100 Mbps Ethernet and 802.11g wireless connections to your home network. If you choose the latter, the Squeezebox can act as a wireless bridge, providing connectivity to another device you plug into the Squeezebox's Ethernet port. This is a nice touch and handy if you have something like a networkable game console or DVR nearby.
The Squeezebox's display is a vibrant blue and very readable even from across the room. It's visibility can be tweaked by four brightness and three font size settings, and display text scrolls as necessary. You operate the Squeezebox from afar or from up close, as there are no controls on the unit itself via a substantial remote control.
Setup and Software
Configuring the Squeezebox even for the first time is simple and handled entirely through the remote. The most challenging part really more tedious than difficult is having to enter a long and complex wireless encryption key using the remote's arrow buttons. (Happily, the Squeezebox supports not just WEP but WPA and WPA2 as well.)
The job of streaming music from your PC to the Squeezebox is handled by the device's SlimServer software, which doesn't come in the box but can be downloaded from the Slim Devices Web site. (We installed SlimServer on an XP system, but are also Mac and Linux versions.) Once you install SlimServer and specify where your music files are located, it will stream audio files located on your PC over to the Squeezebox.
SlimServer runs in the background on your system, and its interface is available through your browser. SlimServer lets you control the Squeezebox and customize seemingly limitless network settings, though the defaults should work just fine for most. (SlimServer also includes the detailed product documentation and has links to additional support information online; the printed manual is pretty sparse, really just covering basic setup and usage.)
SlimServer's user interface isn't as attractive or sophisticated as, say, iTunes, but it easily lets you browse or search your music collection, manage playlists, and so forth. For iTunes users, SlimServer can access that application's playlists and will reflect any changes made to your iTunes library.
The Squeezebox supports most popular audio formats MP3, WMA, AAC WAV, FLAC, and Ogg but the catch is that it can't play any DRM-protected material. Therefore, you won't be able to stream anything you bought from iTunes, Napster, Yahoo! Music, etc. unless you find a way to create to create unprotected versions of your songs (possible, but not always convenient or legal). This limitation is by no means unique to the Squeezebox unfortunately, such issues are all to common in the world of DRM.
Once SlimServer is running and the Squeezebox is connected to your network, you can sit back and operate it from the comfort of your couch. The device's menu hierarchy takes a little while to get accustomed to, but once you do it's easy to locate and play music. The remote helps in this regard with its many dedicated function buttons, including for favorite songs and for searching your collection (albeit without the benefit a full alphanumeric keypad for entering text).
Even if you're an aficionado with a vast music collection, it's likely a mere drop compared to the ocean of music available on the Internet. You can access some of it by connecting your Squeezebox to the Slim Devices SqueezeNetwork, a free service that lets you stream material directly from certain online music and Internet radio services.
Supported services include Rhapsody, Pandora, MP3Tunes, Live365 and some others, and you, of course, need to sign up for these services separately (and pay subscription fees when required). Then you set up a SqueezeNetwork account with the login info of the services you subscribe to and access them without using a PC. When you're not in the mood for music, you can use SqueezeNetwork to access talk/news radio stations, podcasts, and RSS newsfeeds. We appreciated the ability to even stream natural sounds like a babbling brook or roaring fire when we needed a moment of Zen.
We used the Squeezebox connected alternately to an Onkyo home theater receiver and a Logitech PC speaker system, and in both cases the audio quality was excellent. We didn't experience any connectivity problems, and streaming performance was always flawless with no gaps in playback. We did encounter an issue where each time we switched the Squeezebox between the SlimServer and the SqueezeNetwork, a mandatory firmware update was triggered that usually forced us to re-enter WLAN configuration info. The problem was resolved with a firmware update provided to us by Slim Devices' support line, and that update should be available on the site by the time you read this.
Although it's a little on the pricey side (the Roku Soundbridge provides a similar though not identical feature set for $100 less) the Slim Devices Squeezebox will satisfy music lovers with a wealth of features plus simple setup and ease-of-use.
Pros: easy to set up and use; streams from PC or from certain online music services (like Rhapsody); built-in Ethernet and 802.11g
Cons: expensive; can't stream DRM-protected content,
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