- Written by John E. Johnson, Jr.
- Published on 12 January 2009
We have all noticed the proliferation of media servers on the market over the past several years. The problem is, they are quite expensive, usually in the thousands of dollars, and some in the tens of thousands.
Face it. You know you want one. We all would l like to be able to play our music collection in any room where we have a hifi system. But, going into the main listening room and digging through the collection of CDs to find the ones you want is a chore. Some of them are probably in your car as well.
- Design: Wireless Music Streamer (802.11b, 802.11g)
- Formats: AIFF, WAV, PCM, MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, MP2, MusePack, WMA
- Receiver and Hand Held Controller (Handset) Each Have 64 MB RAM
- Wolfson DACs for Analog Audio Output
- Maximum Analog Output: 4.8 Volts
- Connections on Receiver: Stereo RCA, Coaxial Digital, Toslink Optical Digital, Ethernet
- Hand Held Controller Uses Rechargeable Battery (Charger Cradle Included)
- Dimensions: Receiver: 1.25" H x 6" W x 4" D; Controller: 6" H x 2" W x 1" D
- Weight: 1 Pound Each
- MSRP: $399.99 USA
Well, finally, there are some products that will let you play your music in any of those rooms you want, by ripping your CDs to a music directory on your PC and using a wireless "Music Streamer" in the room where you want to listen to them. Your PC acts as the media server, since media servers are basically computers themselves. So, you save a lot of money by just using your office PC. You must have a wireless network of course, so that the music receiver (streamer) in another room can access the music on your PC. You can connect your network to the receiver with long Ethernet cables if you like, but wireless is really the way to go.
There are several music streamers on the market, including Squeezebox, which has several models. Their newest entry is the Squeezebox Duet, which is the subject of this review.
The Duet consists of a receiver, which is about the size of a book (seen in the photo above), and a hand-held controller, i.e., a handset. In their earlier model, there was only one piece of hardware (the receiver) and it had an LED readout panel to access menus, including your list of albums. With the Duet, all information is displayed on the handset, shown below.
The handset has an LCD panel at the top, and the controls are at the bottom. You move your thumb around the wheel, just like an iPod, to move up and down in the LCD menus. The small house-shaped icon at the bottom right corner of the wheel is used to turn on the handset. You can also adjust the volume, pause the music, and move forward or backward in the list of music tracks, as you would with a CD player. The small arrows next to the wheel let you move forward or backward in the various menus.
The latest handset version has a 1/8" stereo jack on the top that you can plug in a set of earphones and set the menu option to play the music from the receiver to the handset. In this case, obviously, you would not need to turn on your hifi system. Only the receiver and handset would need to be powered on. Communication between the handset and receiver is by RF, not infra-red, so the handset doed not have to be pointed at the receiver to work. There is limited range however. The receiver was on the second floor in my living room near the two-channel hifi setup, and I had difficulty using the handset on the bottom floor, even though it was only about 10 feet from the receiver, so the RF was not penetrating the floor sufficiently to communicate with the receiver.
Apparently, you can control the receiver with an iPhone or iPod Touch, but it requires some Perl script. Script has been written, but you may need to browse the various Mac forums to locate it.
The interface on the handset is necessarily limited because of its small screen and relatively small amount of RAM, compared to a dedicated server which can hold as much RAM as any conventional computer. As a result, by comparison, dedicated servers have much more sophisticated user interfaces, often with touch screens that let you drag and drop albums and tracks from one place to another. And, it is such powerful user interfaces that you are really paying for with these dedicated servers.
The receiver is shown below.
After you have installed the Squeezebox software, called SqueezeCenter (latest version is 7.3.1), by downloading it from the Slimdevices website, you will be able to access all the albums stored on your PC.
The first menu on the handset controller is shown below. The first thing to do is scroll down to the bottom of this menu and turn on the Squeezebox receiver (that option is out of the range of view on this screen). Then, select Music Library as shown in the photo. (You press the center button in the center of the wheel on the controller to select options. It is essentially the "Enter" button like on your PC.
That takes you to the next menu, where you select Albums.
Now you will see the list of all the albums stored on your computer. In my case, I ripped them using Windows Media Player with it configured for Windows Medial Audio Lossless (WMA). This reduces the file size by about half, but the quality is the same as the original CD, compared to MP3, where there is "lossy" compression, and the quality of the sound is not as good as the CD itself. Hard drives with huge storage capabilties are so inexpensive these days, there is no reason to store them in a lossy format to reduce the file size even further. If your computer is an old one with low storage capability, just add a new drive (I would suggest a drive with a terabyte of storage) just to store your music. In fact, add two drives, because you will need to back up all your music files on a different drive.
So, in the case of the photo below, I highlighted a John Williams album.
Pressing the Enter button takes you to the list of tracks, shown below. "Play All" is highlighted, and you press Enter to begin playing the album. You can scroll down the list and play certain tracks if you wish.
There are other menus where you can connect to the Internet, including SqueezeNetwork, and subscribe to music services, as well as download the latest firmware for the receiver.
The SqueezeCenter software installed without any problems. I then had to turn on the handset and receiver, and go through a process of connecting to my media server wirelessly, which requires putting in your network password. Once this is done, the handset will display your albums. If you leave the handset out of its recharging cradle, it will last all day long, but if you don't put it back in the cradle at all during the day, the handset will shut down by the end of the day because the battery power is weak.
I did encounter an initial problem getting the receiver to connect to the server. I called Squeezebox tech support, and they said I had an early version of the receiver firmware that had connection problems. They stepped me through the process of getting the updated firmware, which required a hard wire Ethernet connection from the receiver to my network router. If you end up with this same problem, simply call their tech support, which I feel is the best I have ever encountered with any product. It was superb. Note that you should use the handset to download firmware updates for the handset and receiver, and use your PC connected to the Squeezebox website to download updates for the SqueezeCenter software.
The SqueezeCenter software needs a lot of work to make it more user friendly. One of the main things you will do with it is to manage playlists (it's more difficult to do this using the handset, so you should do this from the SqueezeCenter software interface on your PC). The process involves displaying your albums in a left side window and moving the ones you want in the playlist to the right side, where the contents of a playlist are shown. The problem is that you have to go back and forth between several menus to add each album, and it is not intuitive in the least. You have to choose an album, move its contents to the right window pane, click save, and then name the playlist. Secondly, the playlist does not just list albums. It simply has all the tracks in the album. There is a small album icon next to each track, but if you put several albums in the playlist, you have to do a lot of scrolling to see what you have in the playlist.
This whole process needs to be streamlined with a drop down menu labeled "Playlists". Items in the menu should be "Create Playlist" and "Open Playlist". You should be able to drag and drop albums shown in the left window pane to the new playlist or existing playlist that has been opened in the right window pane. You should be able to rearrange the order of the albums in the playlist. The list of albums should remain visible at all times in the left window pane. That is not the case with this software and is a reason you have to go back to another menu to get them listed again after moving one album to the playlist. The current software operates based on obscure little buttons and arrows rather than right clicking and seeing menus. It appears to be more of a Macintosh type screen, and since this is the Windows PC version of the software, I suggest the programmers put more things in that PC users are accustomed to, namely lots of drop down menus and right click options.
On the handset, when you click on an album, you see the track list and an option to "Play All". If you want to set things up for the evening with several albums, there should be a second option when you click on subsequent albums, so that it offers "Play All" and "Add to Que". You should be able to go back to one of those albums in the que and it would say "Play All" and "Remove from Que" should you change your mind about having one of the albums in the que, or if you accidentally added the worng album. In the que, you should be able to right click on an album, or one of the tracks in the album and see a menu that says "Display by Album", "Display by Track Listing".
Many albums that you rip to your music directory on your PC will show up in the Squeezebox with typos, Japanese characters (not a problem if you can read Japanese), or it will say Unknown Album, with no title, no artist, no identified tracks. What you need for this problem is software that is called a "Tagger". This lets you change the metadata that identifies what is on the album. You should use the tagger when any one album is ripped and shows up with such problems rather than ripping a dozen albums and you see that six of them are unidentified, and you have to figure out which ones are which. If you tag the album data whenever you rip an album and see that it is not identified, you won't run into trouble.
My issue here is that SqueezeCenter software does not have a tagger, and I feel that it should. That way, you could rip an album, see it listed in SqueezeCenter, and edit the metadata. Since it does not have the tagger, I used Windows Media Center to do that. It does have a tagger, and you simply click on an album, click Edit, and you can change the title, artist, category, and titles of music tracks. For Windows XP, you need the Media Center version. For Vista, Media Center is included. Otherwise, you need to get tagging software (do a Google search for all the programs that are out there).
Once you have ripped albums, you have to use a menu in SqueezeCenter to read the contents of your music directory again so that the new albums will show up in the hand held controller.
In terms of quality though, the music sounds terrific. I was not able to tell whether the Squeezebox or my CD player was delivering the music, and I have very high quality CD players here in the lab. I suspect there might be a bit more distortion and noise, but if so, it was not noticeable. I used the RCA analog outputs from the receiver to my preamplifier (Balanced Audio Technology VK-5i). If you use the coaxial or Toslink output from the receiver to a high end DAC in your system, that might deliver an improvement, although it might not be audible. Nevertheless, if you have a good DAC, use one of the digital outputs from the Squeezebox receiver, as this will eliminate noise in the receiver's analog circuit, and if you use the Toslink optical connection, this will prevent any cable impedance mismatching.
We all would like to be able to play our CD collection in several rooms of our house, but rummaging through the pile of CDs is a pain, and they could be spread out in all those rooms and difficult to locate. A Media Server solves that problem, but dedicated units are very expensive. Using your PC to rip and store your CDs, along with an inexpensive wireless music streamer in the other rooms is the answer for those of us on a budget. The Squeezebox Duet is just such a product, is easy to set up, does have a bit of a learning curve, but the music plays and it sounds great. All at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated music server.
UPDATE 11/16/09: I have had a Squeezebox Duet for more than a year. I had initial difficulties getting it connected to my network, and several months later, same thing. Tech support on the phone helped me through the process, but it was not easy. Lots of unplugging things, taking the battery out of the handset, etc.
So, today, I had the logging onto my network problem again, reset everything, put in my 128 bit password, and it froze at the point of setting up the receiver. Got on the phone with tech support, went around in circles unplugging the receiver, taking the battery out of the handset, unplugging the router, around and around and around, over and over, but it still would not get through the receiver setup.
I have decided that this product is just not worth the hassle. The handset, receiver, and wall warts are in a big blue can on my driveway now, waiting for the trash collector on Wednesday. On the forum for the Squeezebox Duet, there is a thread entitled "Who regrets having bought a Duet?" Here is a link to the thread: http://forums.slimdevices.com/showthread.php?t=59863
Sorry, but I have to now retract my recommendation for this product. I don't want potential new victims to have to go through this experience of getting the Duet to do its thing. When it works, it's fine, but when the connection goes astray and you have to reset the whole thing, it's a nightmare. I plan to review some other products in this category, so hopefully, we will discover one that is easy to set up and use.