A veteran in the digital audio receiver category, Slim Devices launched its third-generation Squeezebox a while ago, but it's recently undergone a series of upgrades (downloadable for free via Slim's Web site) that have made a great product even better.
Like other digital audio receivers, it connects to your home stereo and uses your wireless network to stream audio from the Internet and network-connected PCs.
New features include tight integration with Slim Device's SqueezeNetwork portal, expanded Internet radio capabilities and support for Pandora, a clever service that creates custom stations based on your preferences. Only the Squeezebox's relatively high price of £200 and its absence of support for DRM-protected audio files (those you buy at online stores such as Apple's and MTV's) are stumbling blocks.
The third-generation Squeezebox is far more attractive than previous Slim Devices models -- past incarnations include the 2005 second-generation version, the 2003 first-generation Squeezebox and the company's trailblazing 2001 product, the SLIMP3 -- some may even find it more fashionable than its closest competitor, the Roku SoundBridge M1000.
Measuring in at 193mm by 94mm by 79mm (including the unit's U-shaped metal foot stand), the Squeezebox has a sleek, vertically oriented design. Its body consists of a silver-metallic lower half, accented with black or iPod-esque white side and rear panels. The unit has a bright 320x32-pixel vacuum-fluorescent display capable of showing two lines of aqua-coloured text.
The 30-button remote control provides slightly more direct access to features than you'd get with the simpler 18-button remote of the Roku SoundBridge, but it still manages to keep things intuitive with a four-way keypad for menu navigation, as well as play, rewind, forward and pause buttons.
Because the remote has volume controls, the Squeezebox is suitable for connection directly to powered PC-style multimedia speakers. The 'Size' button enlarges the unit's front-panel text enough so that it's readable from a distance of approximately 4.5m.
The Squeezebox has every sort of jack and connection you'd want in a networked audio device. In addition to the requisite power connector, the back panel includes a headphone minijack (which can double for powered speakers, as listed above), analogue audio RCA stereo outputs (red and white), optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, and an Ethernet port for wired networks. On the wireless front, the unit supports 802.11g, though it's backwards compatible with older 802.11b Wi-Fi networks and WPA/WPA2 encryption in addition to WEP.
While neither feature necessarily boosts the Squeezebox's performance, they'll prevent users from dumbing down their wireless networks to slower speeds and less secure encryption -- both of which need to be done with most competing products. The Squeezebox can also double as a wireless bridge if you connect a device to its Ethernet port -- a nice addition for power users, and something we haven't seen in any previous consumer networking product.
In terms of features, the Squeezebox has pretty much everything you'd want from an audio-only digital media receiver with one notable exception: it can't play copy-protected audio files. We don't expect non-Apple products to play songs purchased from Apple's iTunes Music Store -- the company doesn't license its FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) to third parties, and only a handful of recent products have been able to sidestep the issue.
But the inability to stream WMA DRM (PlaysForSure) files is less forgivable, seeing as it's widely available in many competing products, including the Roku SoundBridge. PlaysForSure support allows users to stream WMA songs purchased from such online music services as Napster, Urge and Musicmatch. Thankfully, the Squeezebox supports a wide variety of open audio formats, so if your music collection consists of home-ripped music, you can be all but certain the Squeezebox will play it. Standard MP3s and nonprotected WMAs are good to go, as are uncompressed AIFF, WAV and PCM formats, geek favourite Ogg Vorbis and a trio of lossless formats: Apple Lossless, FLAC and WMA Lossless.
To stream files from your PC with Squeezebox, the computer must be running the free SlimServer software. Using the device's remote or the SlimServer's Web browser-based user interface, you can navigate tracks by all the usual categories such as artist, title, genre, album and playlist. The remote's 'Add' button conveniently lets you create an on-the-fly track queue as well.
A new Slim Devices feature called SqueezeNetwork serves as the Squeezebox's conduit to online entertainment. To get started, you go online and sign up a for SqueezeNetwork account. You can then access Internet radio, alarm clock features, RSS newsfeeds that can be scrolled across the display, and more. All of the features made available through SqueezeNetwork function without turning on your PC. The hundreds of preprogrammed Internet radio stations include selections from Live365 and Shoutcast, and you can add further MP3, WMA and OGG streams.
One of the best things about the Squeezebox is the fact that anyone can write some code to extend its functions -- take a look at the best here. One of the most useful is the AlienBBC plug-in, which lets you access BBC radio stations, including the 'listen again' programmes you can normally only access through a Web browser.
In terms of performance, the Squeezebox is a class act. The unit's Burr Brown digital-to-analogue converter makes audio sound crisp, clear and vibrant through the analogue outputs, while the digital connections further provide ample flexibility for connecting the unit to just about any AV receiver or speaker set, for instance. Wireless audio streaming performance was consistently smooth and hiccup-free.
In the final analysis, we really like the Squeezebox, but our only hesitation is paying nearly a 50 per cent premium over the excellent Roku SoundBridge M1000, which can be found online for around £125 and offers many of the same features, plus support for DRM-protected WMA files. That said, if you're willing to pay more for superior design, excellent sound quality and a host of high-end features (better networking support, compatibility with lossless file formats), you'll find the Squeezebox well worth the money.
Edited by David Rudden
Additional editing by Kate Macefield