The following review was written by Patrick Schoonveld
A few weeks back, I noticed a shiny and lonely piece of kit hanging around the Slashdot offices. Ever the inquisitive [nosey] individual, I asked and was told it was an MP3 player for review. Thinking this an excellent use of my limited free time, I took it home to play with.
The Slim Devices Squeezebox is a networked MP3 player that can either play music from your collection via its open source SlimServer or via Internet streams. Shipping with a power cable and RCA tulip cable, it also provides digital optical and coax outs as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack. This edition is the third generation, which comes in a much more attractive stand up form factor than two previous editions.
There are two versions available, one with 802.11g capabilities built in and one only with Ethernet. The 802.11g edition also ships with an Ethernet jack and can double as a bridge for other Ethernet-enabled devices. The wireless edition is available for $299 and the wired-only edition is $50 cheaper, both from their website.
The first step was to install the software provided by Slim Devices from their website. It is open source and written in Perl, with installers for Windows and Mac OS X as well as RPMs for Linux. I used a Windows laptop with an external drive that had a backup of my music. The installation went extremely smoothly, using a typical Windows installer. Within seconds, the server icon was in the system tray. My biggest issue was that the external drive was connected via USB 1.1 and scanning the 35 gigs of music stored there took over an hour.
On plugging in the device, I was very surprised to find a fluorescent display instead of the usual, inexpensive LCD. Flouros are much easier to see across a room or in the dark. The Squeezebox walked through a wizard-like process of configuring the network choices of wired vs. wireless, WEP key and IP address (DHCP or static) via the remote control. Although punching in a 128-bit hex key may seem inconvenient, it was quite easy due to the mapping of the characters to the numbers on the remote, similar to sending an SMS with a mobile phone. The Squeezebox even found the server on its own and was playing music in just a few minutes.
After it finished scanning my library, I played a few MP3s. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the audio and the speed with which hitting play via the web interface caused music to appear; lag was less than a second. I had assumed that as the laptop and the Squeezebox were both over 802.11g, collisions and traffic issues would be a problem. However, at no time did I ever notice any hiccups. I ran the Squeezebox for several hours while working and downloading a few Torrents, with no issue whatsoever. I also tried adding music to the queue via the remote control. The software on the device makes it very easy to navigate a large music collection using the remote to zip to the first character of any title, again like sending an SMS, hit 1 three time for 'C'. The + button on the remote allows you to add albums, songs or artists' libraries to the queue very easily.
I also played with the Internet radio tie-ins. It took very little time to sign up for a Live365 account and configure the Squeezebox for my account. Although the streams I found were low quality and quite busy, there were many options available including other streaming networks or purchasing a Live365 subscription for better quality streams.
After a week of use, I was very pleased with the SqueezeBox. It sounds fantastic and even using my wireless and USB 1.1 external drive didn't deter the ease of use. However, I had my PowerBook returned to me, which is my main music library and iTunes host. I proceeded to set it up as the primary server for the device. The installation was fairly easy (finding the long forgotten firewall settings took the most time), but the performance was atrocious. I read in the forums on Slimdevice's site that the daily builds have some performance fixes. I downloaded the latest build and still had no luck getting it to reliably play for more than a song. I then switched off the AirPort and plugged in an Ethernet cable and since, have had no problems whatsoever. As it worked fine with my Windows laptop, I am inclined to think it a problem with the Mac.
Since using the Mac, I've also turned on the iTunes integration. Supposedly, it will scan the iTunes library XML file to find playlists and new music nearly instantly compared to searching every MP3 file in a directory tree. I've not found that to be as reliable or easy as rumored on the forums on slimdevices.com. It would be much nicer if there was a "Reload iTunes file" button instead of trusting it will find your music after a user configurable period of time. It did, however, eventually find all of my playlists and make it very easy to play any one of them.
I've used the Squeezebox for another couple weeks with the Mac and have been very happy. The best parts are the reliability and audio quality; 192kb MP3s sound as good as my older Denon cd player to my non-audiophile ears. At $299, it is not an inconsiderably cheap piece of kit as one could build a basic PC to do this and more for a similar cost. However, with the attractive form factor, and great ease of use, I'm inclined to say it's worth it.