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as reviewed by Danny Kaey
In the coming series of articles surrounding computer based music playback, a certain level of computer literacy is expected and required—if you don't know how to download pictures from your digital camera, chances are you will be helplessly tied to many painful phone calls to various help desks when attempting to configure and / or use any of the described devices.
Slimdevices was recently acquired by Logitech, the Swiss computer peripheral manufacturer, for a reported $20 million—not bad for such a young company, and one so full of innovative spirit. Slimdevices pretty much invented the notion of wirelessly streaming your music collection and playlists from your computer or media server to your audio system. It wasn't that long ago that the idea of doing this caused vigorous headshaking from typical stereo junkies, much less audiophiles. Slimdevices, with its third-generation Squeezebox in high demand, has proven us all wrong.
How have they done it? First, the Squeezebox 3 is cheap. At $299 (available exclusively through Slimdevices' online order site, www.slimdevices.com), it's within reach of just about everyone who is serious about music playback. You can, in fact, get a 30-gigabyte iPod for the same amount of money, but the SB3 will sound better. (Okay, you have to stay home to enjoy music with the Squeezebox, so get both!) Second, the Squeezebox runs on an open software platform, which means that it is available to anyone, and that anyone with the proper expertise can improve it, adding features at will. This is perhaps the best thing about Slimdevices—instead of having to pay engineers to write code, the world does it for them. Of course, the company employs highly paid engineers, but having hordes of unpaid volunteers makes things that much easier.
Every existing and prospective Slimdevices customer owes it to themselves to check out the fabulously humorous forum hosted on the company's website. You will find everything you could possibly want to know, and in the exceedingly slim event that you don't, an answer will be provided to you in a nanosecond by the worldwide user base. Sometimes you run into issues like the reversed channel I encountered when I installed the newly released software. Instead of having a panic attack, I typed a query into the search engine and got an immediate answer: Update to the next version, where this glitch was fixed!
The Squeezebox 3 is small, approximately bedroom-clock-sized. It features a two-line LCD display that you can alter in size, from small to very large fonts that you can read from thirty feet away. The back offers the usual left/right analog RCAs, an RJ45 wired LAN access, a mini jack for the wall-wart power supply and, most impressively, a digital and optical output. This is of particular interest to audiophiles, as it allows you to bypass the internal mass-market DACs and use your $12K EMM Labs DCC2 should you so choose. Other than the supplied plastic remote (with full functionality), that's it!
Unlike the Sonos system I discuss elsewhere in this issue, the SB3 doesn't use a proprietary WiFi system. Instead, it plugs into your existing 802.11b (preferably g) network. Getting it going is a breeze, with about the same ease of setup and use as the closed Sonos system. Do note, however, that I am very knowledgeable about computers and networks, and your mileage may vary. If WAP, IP numbers, and other such terms sound foreign to you, it may be a good idea to ask a knowledgeable friend to assist you. If you can't download photos from your digital camera to your computer (Mac or PC), chances are you will need help.
Having configured the SB3 in all of five minutes, I proceeded to set up the web-controlled UI of the Slimserver software running on my host computer. Setup there was also a breeze, pretty much just point-and-click. As with the Sonos system, I wasn't expecting miracles from a mass-market wall-wart power supply powering mass-produced DACs with lots of OP amps in the signal path, but I was very positively surprised. In fact, I challenge you to find a similarly priced digital playback component that performs on an equal footing with the SB3. My music files sounded calm and inviting, yet genuinely high-fidelity.
My typical round of demos starts with track 14 of Yello's The Eye—a thunderous track that will push any system to its limits. Holy cow! Subterranean bass lines are followed by fantastic synth effects, and the SB3 had no problems. Though the bass was missing the oomf I hear with my reference digital rig, it was extended and reasonably articulate. Acoustic bass was similar—it was good, but not as good as I expect from reference gear. What's to complain about when the darn thing costs $299?! Most importantly, the SB3 got both male and female voices right. Johnny Cash's American V is filled to the gills with great tracks, and the SB3 reproduced his voice with all of its heft and drama. It gets the basic strokes of definition, imaging, and resolution, but lacks the final refinement of a no-holds-barred DAC output stage. The SB3's top end, typically a shortfall of inexpensive digital gear, was surprisingly well mannered, neither harsh nor offensive sounding. The Squeezebox 3 will invite you to listen to your music collection.
The kicker is the digital output. A simple hookup to outboard DACs yielded dramatic sonic improvements, but I didn't have enough time to run the SB3 through its paces in that mode. I'll report my findings in a later article.
The Slimdevices Squeezebox 3 is a real winner. It is a superb little wireless network audio player that will serve your needs until you are ready to move up. I venture to say that once you get used to accessing your favorite music via a network, you won't be able to go back easily. Tired of your ripped CD collection? No problem. Browse the thousands of online radio stations streaming every imaginable musical genre, all at the tip of your fingers via the remote. Add the SB3's rock-solid reliability, and what more could you ask? Danny Kaey