While we wait for Logitechs UK PR company to send us our review sample, Automated Home Reader Tim Morris has sent us his own review of the new Squeezebox Duet (search for it on eBay) streaming audio system…
I went looking for alternatives and the option for quality players boiled down to two choices, the Sonos and the Squeezebox. The Squeezebox won for me for a number of reasons:
- At the time the ZP80 and bridge didn’t exist so I’d have had to buy two ZP100s. As my server sits in my workshop one of them would be totally redundant
- If I did want to increase the number of zones I don’t think the MESH network would have coped. I’d have one player at one end of the house, and the other three 50m away in the main house’s media rack with two outside walls in-between filled with foil backed insulation
- The colour of the ZP100 just wouldn’t have fitted in with my all-black equipment rack
The thing that finally swung it for me is that I’d seen countless posts on the Meridian Unplugged forums regarding the quality of the Squeezebox comparing favourably with £1500 CD transports when playing lossless music. There are Sonos users on there too but as far as I know there isn’t a back to back test of one versus the other. I downloaded and installed the software and put a software player on my desktop PC. After a couple of days of fiddling I bought my First Squeezebox (V3). It didn’t take me long to decide on a file format. As storage is cheap now I decided to use FLAC lossless, for two reasons: 1) the Squeezebox supports it natively so you can stream compressed audio across the network, and 2) because you can recreate the original WAV file then you have a perfect archive, and only ever have to rip your CDs once which will always be the time consuming part in establishing networked music. If a new more efficient codec comes out for a portable player you can simply transcode your entire collection without adding any extra artefacts.
One of the things I really like about the Squeezebox was that in addition to the IR remote I could control it with anything that has a web browser. In the past two years I’ve used an iPaq 5450, Nokia N91, Nokia N95 (all using the handheld skin) and more recently Nokia N800s using a custom skin originally designed for the 770 web tablet, and the odd PC too. The PC remains the best way to create and manage playlists. I’ve since extended the network to four zones – three in the main house replacing an iMerge Soundserver feeding QED MusiQ multiroom amplifiers.
I had a lively discussion one evening with AutomatedHome’s Editor Mark, where we were both adamant that our chosen solutions were the best. I couldn’t see the need for the expensive Sonos remote when I could control my music with so many different devices. I was wrong! If the Sonos controller is anywhere near as good as the new Squeezebox controller, it is faster, more intuitive and simply just easier to use. If you can use an iPod, you can use the new controller. My luddite brother picked it up and used it without instruction – I had to spend half an hour talking through using the Nokia N800 as a controller. The web interface still has its uses for example when setting advanced options at both the server and player level. The web pages are still great and they’ve done a lot to improve upon the speed of loading, only refreshing what they absolutely have to when moving between sections. The main controls (play, skip track, volume) operate with no discernable lag whatsoever when using either the controller or the web interface.
I saw a few online reviews of the Squeezebox Duet and it didn’t immediately tickle my fancy. It wasn’t until I saw the video at MacWorld that I decided to get one. Unfortunately I couldn’t just buy a controller at the time, as it looked unlikely that stocks of the separate controllers and receivers would arrive until late April at the earliest I spent the extra £80 and bought the full Duet system (Total cost for one node £280)
Video of Duet fromMacWorld
I managed to miss the cut-off for delivery for delivery before the Easter Weekend by half an hour, so I think it was the longest wait I’ve had for a UK delivery – 6 days! It was however worth the wait.
They’ve continued a trend that started with the first Logitech branded SB3 – if they aren’t using a design firm in Cupertino to produce the packaging they’ve briefed the one they do use to make it look like Apple packaging with a nice red contrast. The whole thing looks and feels like it should have a piece of fruit on the back with a bite taken out. They’ve even nicely weighted the charging stand to stop it tipping over as you pull it out. The menus are similar in operation to an ipod too, and you can browse albums showing a thumbnail of each cover and it loads the art almost as quickly as you can scroll even with my Athlon XP+ 3200 heavily loaded with 5 hardware players, 2 software players running and with either the remote or a web browser open for each device (the web browser puts the same demand on the server as the remote does, as with version 7 of the server software it updates in real time so I’m simulating 7 players and 7 controllers). Despite what you might have read there’s no lag at all. Part of the design brief was obviously to make it comfortable to use with one hand.
Setting up SqueezeCentre (the new name for version 7.0 of the server software) is a breeze. It installs a web server on port 9000, through which everything is controlled. Once installed it runs you through a wizard that needs to know where your music and playlists are stored, and whether or not you want to integrate the database with iTunes. It then scans your folders for music and artwork. On my relatively small collection of 350 discs it takes 8 minutes. The first thing I would recommend you do while it is scanning is make your first customisation. The controller, receiver and classic are thin clients. Although they can decode various different file types natively, and handle the display etc. most of the hard work is carried out at the server end. In the Advanced tab select the performance option and set the priority of both the server and the scanner to -20 (the highest available). It doesn’t have any impact on any other programs or services running on my server.
Setting up the remote is again easy. Once you’ve told it what region you’re in it scans for wireless networks and prompts you to enter a key if necessary. If your SSID is hidden then you can set up a network manually. If you have existing players they will pop up on the screen, if you need to set up receivers you simply plug them in. As they aren’t associated with any network the last few digits of the mac address pops up on screen. One click is all you need to transfer the network settings to the receiver and gain access to it. It is likely that both units will need a firmware update straight out of the box. It is automatic and should take no more than five minutes. It does support other wireless configurations. Peer to peer if you don’t have an access point, or bridged mode where the receiver is connected to a wired Ethernet port and the controller uses the receiver to send its commands to the server. I’d suggest though that if you have more than one zone, an access point is definitely the way to go. I have three Linksys WAP4400N units installed, and have had no problems with signal dropouts or throughput issues.
The UI takes no time at all to get used to. The main navigation buttons are Home which takes you to the top menu, or from the main menu to the “Now Playing” screen, add, which adds the currently selected item to the current playlist (or if you are viewing a playlist removes it!) Play and Back which takes you up one level in the menu structure. These surround a click wheel with centre button. Unlike the iPod, the button is mechanical, but it rotates pretty freely and has software acceleration for browsing through long lists. It would be nice to be able to customise the acceleration – perhaps that will come in the future. Like with the Squeezebox Classic (the new name for the Squeezebox 3) you can set “screen savers” with a customisable delay, one for when music is playing and another for when it is stopped. The default “Now Playing” screen, and clock seem to work very well. The backlight turns off after a user defined period too (unless it is in the charger and you don’t want it too). When you pick it up, or even nudge it the screen wakes up where you left off. As well as your own music it is possible to listen to internet radio and subscription music services, if decent ones are ever re-introduced to the UK. There’s an easy to install plug in which allows listening to all of the live BBC streams plus the weekly archive in addition to several other stations from the UK and abroad. It is possible to set up multiple music servers on different PCs and select them from the remote, something that was next to impossible when controlling with a web browser. Great for households where parents and children’s musical taste are particularly divergent.
You can tell that there’s more to come – it has a 3 axis accelerometer like the Wii and although not active yet a headphone and IR port (it’s not going to compete with Crestron or Pronto TSU9600 but it will be useful to switch the volume up and down on an amp in a “proper” HiFi room, or pull up a keypad to use lazy search on a “Squeezebox Classic”). They’ve even managed to squeeze an SDcard slot and USB interface in.
I’ll have to find somewhere to deploy the Duet receiver, or perhaps it will find its way to Ebay. I’m going to stick with the Classic for main listening as I have a huge brick of a linear power supply bought from Farnell to avoid switching noise from the plug top power supply (most people won’t notice it), and I use the IR blaster plug in to control my Meridian G68. The headphone socket on the back of the Classic can be set to transmit IR signals through either emitters or an IR input port for power on and off, and volume up and down. Unfortunately the headphone socket on the Duet has been moved to the controller. Provided you turn the display off when playing music (again a source of noise, but only to those who are really picky) the Squeezebox when fed with a linear power supply does seem to have the edge sonically when the digital output is used. That could be power supply noise (the receiver needs 9.0V and the classic takes 5.0V so I can’t directly compare). The differences are however incredibly subtle so if the receiver looks better in your chosen location I wouldn’t necessarily shell out the extra cash and buy a Classic instead.
There is no way of changing the sort order from alphabetical by album name with the current level of software when selecting to browse by album. Not a massive issue but with the N800 I tend to browse with albums sorted by artist, year and then album name something that is still available with any of the web browsing skins but not via the front panel of the Squeezebox which is what I should be comparing it with. You can still list all artists, select an artist and drill down to show all albums for that artist.
There is still huge potential for customisation, but if all you want to do is install it, link it to your iTunes library and set up the controller and players then it will be equally at home. Members of the forums have been working on a solution that can be used as a turnkey solution on a NAS. They’ve successfully got it working on ReadyNAS now so expect suppliers to start shipping it pre-installed before long. Personally I would take a different route. A desktop PC from 3 or 4 years ago (or perhaps older) shoehorned into a quietPC case with an efficient PSU would make an ideal music server. Windows XP SP2 is very stable now providing you leave it alone to do its job.
Conclusion – The Duet and Squeezecentre 7.0 is a big improvement in usability over the previous Slim Devices offering. In my opinion they’ve succeeded in making what was the player of choice for the tinkerer and technically minded suitable for the mass-market. It plays music incredibly well and the new remote does make it quicker and easier to select music. It will only get better over time but it is already a top notch piece of kit, I remember of all the doomsday predictions on the Slim Devices forums when Logitech first took over. None of them have come to pass so far – the software is still open source (for the controller too), users are developing plug-ins, and the product continues to grow.