Technology

The Squeezebox's Seamless Stream


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Editor's Rating: star rating

Logitech's affordable streaming device brings music and Internet radio to your stereo in a snap, but building playlists can be a chore

Until recently, if I wanted to listen to the music stored on my personal computer, I had to transfer it to an MP3 player, burn it to a disc, or listen to it straight off the PC. A computer is fine for listening to music while surfing the Web or editing stories, but it's hardly the way to introduce my daughter to Edward Elgar's "Enigma" Variations or play Count Basie over cocktails. As a result, I was still playing CDs over an embarrassingly dated Sony (SNE) stereo system.

But then I got my hands on the Squeezebox wireless digital music player. By linking it to the stereo in my living room, I took a big stride toward transforming my PC into an entertainment hub. I'm reviewing the device, made by Logitech International's (LOGI) Slim Devices division, as part of an occasional series on wireless music systems. Here's my short take: If you're looking to cut yourself and your music free from the confines of a PC—but don't have the budget for a more sophisticated multistream, multiroom audio system—the Squeezebox is well worth its suggested $299 price.

Easy Setup, Good Looks, and Quality Sound

The glossy black Squeezebox, about the size of a VHS cassette, has a vacuum fluorescent screen in the middle and stands upright on a shelf or table. It made for a handsome but unobtrusive addition to the book shelves in my living room. The mostly clear instruction manual and streamlined design make setup simple. First, I downloaded Slim Devices' open-source SlimServer software from the Web. Next, I connected the Squeezebox to my stereo using a supplied RCA cable (the device can also handle the digital optical and coaxial cables used by other stereo systems, though neither comes in the box). Then I linked the Squeezebox to my home network using a Wi-Fi connection, prompted by the machine's straightforward on-screen instructions. (You can also use an Ethernet cable.)

Once Squeezebox recognizes your wireless network, you'll need to input your network encryption information and password on the device. Then simply tell it where on the PC's hard drive to scoop up your songs, whether they're stored in an iTunes library or some other music application. Squeezebox is compatible with most formats, including MP3, AAC, and WMA, but don't bother trying copyright-protected Apple (AAPL) iTunes songs.

As I started to play my music, I was duly impressed with the sound quality. Squeezebox uses digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) technology to ensure a digital track—whether the sublime Nessun Dorma belted by Pavarotti, rest his soul, or a more hard-driving With You by Linkin Park—doesn't degrade as it moves from PC to stereo to speakers. I found I had to turn up the volume pretty high to get the desired level of loudness, but that may have more to do with my receiver and speakers than with the Squeezebox.

Playlists and Other Features

In keeping with the easy-to-use features, I had no problem navigating menus on the Squeezebox with its unfussy remote control. One beef: I had the darnedest time making playlists. In some cases I found it hard to add new songs to lists I had already created on the device, and at other times I inadvertently banished several songs to what the machine calls a "Zapped" list. User error? Maybe. But considering the ease of the Squeezebox's other tools, building a list of favorite songs shouldn't have been so taxing.

Playing a stored collection is just part of Squeezebox's appeal. The machine works with a wide array of online music services, and comes with a free 30-day trial for Pandora.com and RealNetworks' (RNWK) Rhapsody music library. My kids and I also had a lot of fun playing with a tool that streams any of several dozen sounds—from a babbling brook and the chug of a freight train, to crickets chirping and meadowlarks whistling.

At first, I was pleasantly surprised by a feature that lets you scroll headlines from news services including The New York Times (NYT), the BBC, and CNET Networks (CNET). But I was jarred by the dissonance of reading about death and violence while flipping from techno to jazz to country and western. I get my fill of news elsewhere, thanks, so I shut it off.

Gateway to Internet Radio

Most impressive about the Squeezebox is its role as gateway to the world of Internet radio. Sure, I can access those same sites over a PC, but Squeezebox let me hear them over my stereo elsewhere in the house, toggling elegantly from one station to the next. The box also takes a stab at placing them into categories. But be warned: There are thousands, including stations from Albania to Uganda. When you find one you like, save it as a favorite or make a mental note of how you got there. With a seemingly endless variety of ways to categorize a given station, it may not be easy to find your way back.

I won't relish sending my Squeezebox back to Logitech. If you're looking for a machine that lets you stream music to various rooms in the house, you can certainly find more sophisticated (and usually more expensive) systems from makers such as Sonos, Bose, Sony, and even Logitech. Many include tools such as equalizers and high-end speakers that let you bypass a receiver altogether. But you'll be hard-pressed to find one that crams this many fun features into so small and inexpensive a package.

Giles is editor of the Technology channel on BusinessWeek.com .

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