For a few years now, we've all been complaining about MP3's and digital compression schemes in general. I've had a nice hand in bashing them myself. I can't resist a good poke at lossy codecs. For the past couple of years I've been listening to streaming audio on my computers at home and at work. I mostly listen to radio and KZAM streaming feeds. These are some of the higher bit rate streams out there. I've found tons of new music listening to their stations. In turn, I'd have to guess that I've bought 40 to 60 discs based on the new artists I've heard on their stations.
That's how it's supposed to work. A radio station plays new and different (good) music, you as a consumer become interested, and then you buy that groups music. For me, when I hear a tune I like, I quickly jump to Amazon, find the group and album, and then drop it into my Wish List. Once a month or so I go and explore the rest of the album by listening to those short 30 second clips Amazon offers. If I like it, I add it to my basket, if not, I delete it. It's a great way to sample and buy music.
Now this review isn't about streaming music. Well, maybe it is... partially. The reason I bring up radio is because they play so much great music. Best part is, its commercial free. It sort of reminds me of the way AOR (Album Oriented Rock) FM stations were back in the 60's and early 70's before the exec's discovered money could be made on ‘underground' radio. When the stations started broadcasting back then, they didn't have any commercial sponsors. In turn, the DJ played whatever he felt like. What a great concept. It's exactly what we do for ourselves in our own listening rooms.
Since I've been listening to high bit rate streaming audio on my computer, I've found that the sound quality for near field listening really isn't too bad... considering. Now keep in mind, I'm using one of the better sounding computer audio systems in the Monsoon PFT 100. This system uses the same ribbons that VMPS uses as their midrange panels. A decent sounding 6.5-inch subwoofer augments these. Unfortunately, they don't make this system anymore. On their way out I bought a pair of them for like $35 bucks (each) on eBay.
Besides listening to streaming music, I've burned a number of my favorite CD's to the hard drive in WMA format. In turn, I can give these a spin using Windows Media player or Winamp (I personally prefer the sound of Winamp). The WMA codec honestly doesn't sound too bad at all played on my computer audio systems. The Monsoon sound systems really do have good resolution.
Needless to say, I've started getting soft around the edges (OK, no fat jokes) when it comes to computer audio. I don't know if you've paid much attention but the audiophiles out there that are also computer geeks have run across a nifty little interface that installs between your computer and your preamp. It's called the Squeezebox by Slim Devices. I've followed a number of the threads on the forums regarding this little device. I really started paying attention to them when a couple of the people with more discriminating ears started talking about them. Shortly after that, I noticed some of the ‘Mod Guys' out there beginning to offer audiophile approved mods to the stock units. That is usually a good indicator that a piece just might sound decent. After reading about the mods, I raised an eyebrow and grunted, "hmm."
\Still not completely convinced (because of the lossy codecs that are all too prevalent out there), I kept reading and researching. It seems that there are a couple of lossless compression schemes that do a couple of things. First and foremost, you supposedly don't loose any information at all. No critical losses of 1's and 0's when you rip your music to your hard drive. Second, they actually compress the file size so you don't need terabytes of storage for your CD collection on a hard drive.
So with this information in hand, I decided to check all of the hoopla myself. I decided to contact Slim Devices and see if they wanted to have a formal review done on their new offering, the Squeezebox 3 (SB3). Of course, they said yes. As I waited, I began clearing off old files on my computers D drive so I could use it as a music server drive.
Setup wasn't too difficult. I did end up having to make a phone call or two to get some support. I fully expected the guy on the other end of the phone to answer with "Hello, my name is Jnyaneshwar but you can call me Bob.", but that wasn't the case. When you call the support line, you get a real person who is located here in the States. I'm not sure if the guy I talked to was actually a service specialist or just some guy that knew the system (the latter is more likely) but bottom line was he got me up and running and that's all that mattered. In my case, I forgot to turn set my firewall to accept the SB3... DOH! That's why I couldn't get it to connect.
Once you are connected to your network and have your favorite flavor of interconnects installed, you are ready to start playing with all of its features. The Squeezebox can play all sorts of music files including MP3, WMA, FLAC, AAC, WAV, and Ogg Vorbis. This player handles them all. For this review I'll only be talking about CD's ripped with the FLAC lossless compression software.
The Squeezebox also streams Internet radio. Slim Devices has paired up with several major streaming audio providers to give you a plethora of choices in what you listen to as sort of a station preset or favorite. Not to mention, you can physically type in any stream out there on the web and have it come through providing the format is supported.
Rather than listing all of its features and specs in the heart of this review, the Slim Devices home page has a link to all the specs and everything this thing does. If you don't want to go through all of the factory specs, I will tell you this about the DAC and analog output section of this player. The DAC is a surface mount, 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM1748 with dual linear power regulators. The analog output stage generates 6 volts at full power with a signal to noise ratio of over 100dB. The digital output comes via a coax or Toslink connector. The sample rates are 44.1kHz, 48kHz. The opamps used are of average quality, JRC's.
In my case, my server is upstairs and my listening room is in the basement. The little Netgear wi-fi router that I use puts out the signal just fine for my connection. When you actually start the player in your system, you can use the remote control that is provided with each unit. The remote is your typical plastic cased infrared device that is specific to the Squeezebox. On the remote you can control the volume, scroll the onboard menus (which are many), play, pause, go forward or back, or any number of other preprogrammed options Slim Ddevices have setup.
Although there are several other interface devices (remote controls) that can be utilized like a wi-fi enabled PDA, to control your music, the factory remote does just fine. It will take you wherever you want to go.
Just in case you were wondering, you can attach more than one Slimserver to your network. I've currently got two installed, one Bolder Cable modified (that I'll review in the next installment) and one bone stock SB3. When you have additional Squeezeboxes installed, they are each controlled independently. In other words, you can play different tunes in the individual SB's, they aren't synced or ‘master slaved', they operate totally independent of each other. Very cool.
Another nifty feature that the Squeezebox has is you can set screen savers to pop up while playing music or when the unit is powered down. The screensavers can vary from VU meters to RSS feeds from your favorite website. Guess what? Enjoy the Music.com has just the feed for your new Squeezebox as we now offer an RSS / XLM feed (click here to get it). I thought I'd throw in some shameless self-promotion to try to suck up to the Boss... Hi Steve! (Editors note, said in good humor: the stack of non-sequential $20 are behind the rock that looks like it down
Ripping And Compressing Tunes
Once you rip your CD to WAV files, you now must choose one of the lossless compression schemes supported by the Squeezebox. Me, I chose FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression). This is a separate program that compresses the WAV file to save space on your hard drive. I'm getting about a 40 percent reduction in file size over the raw WAV format. As it stands, I've got 236 albums ripped containing 2442 songs with a playing time of just over 198 hours and this takes up approximately 75 gig of drive space.
If you are truly anal about ripping your CD's to a hard drive, there are several programs that will do a bit-by-bit comparison of the original file to the compressed file so you can feel better that you haven't lost a half dozen 1's or 0's somewhere in the translation. Me, I could care less. I've talked to several people who have tried the comparison and the audible difference is imperceptible when you pick back up those few missing bits and bytes. Not to mention, the comparison then re-ripping required all takes time. With a thousand CDs and counting, life is too short (for me anyway).
All told, between ripping a CD to your hard drive and compressing those files, it takes about fifteen minutes per CD. Obviously, this time will vary on a number of factors. First, your processor speed, next is your CD drive speed and compatibility with the FLAC front end software. Now that I'm up and running, lets talk about some music.
Next is the software version that you use to drive the digital volume control on the SB3. Keep in mind the volume control is done with an algorithm before the DAC. There are no volume pots on this unit. It's all done with software and a remote. That means that depending on the software version, the unit can sound slightly different.
I happened to pick this one up from some of the guys on one of the audio forums. They had mentioned that the new 6.2 firmware had been released and several of them upgraded. They began to notice that the units didn't sound quite as good as they did prior to upgrading firmware. In turn, one of them rolled back a portion of the firmware to the previous version and found that the great sound reappeared. Sure enough, I did the same thing and it definitely sounded better than the new firmware.
Since those discussions first popped up, the software gurus at Slim Devices have incorporated some new programming language into the latest firmware update that addresses this issue. The truly great part about this little faux pa is that when the issue popped up, within three weeks (or so) the company had addressed the issue with a downloadable firmware upgrade. Lets see one of the majors try that one on for size.
Listening To Streaming Music
Granted, this isn't like listening to a CD or piece of vinyl but it's WAY better than the heavily compressed FM that gets broadcast in many local areas (or at least my area). And to top it off, there ain't no damned commercials. It's pure streaming music, interrupted (with the exception of the occasional station ID). The radio of the future is here today. Myself, I've gotten hooked on a couple of different streams. One is the Shoutcast Digitally Imported European Trance Techno Hi-NRG station. The others are just about anything radio streams.
Now, if you've ever listened to streaming music on your computer, you know that there are a limited number of users that can be on a stream at any given time. Keeping that in mind, you may run across a station that you can't log onto. Hopefully isn't one of your favorites but if it is, there are (no doubt) numerous streams that will trip your trigger. In listening to the streams (at least with the DirecWay satellite), I occasionally get a momentary interruption or hiccup in the feed. Heavy weather is completely disruptive to my stream but I guess that's my fault for living in an area that doesn't have DSL or cable modem. In the same vein, my DirecWay has a screaming fast download speed of over 1.3mbps.
As an additional feature, Slim Devices has included what they call the Squeeze Network as a menu option on the SB3. The Squeeze Network allows you to listen to streaming music without having your computer turned on. That's a pretty cool feature providing you've got a direct pipeline to the Internet via your network server.
Getting back to the sound quality of the feeds. When you lock onto a station like radio Classical that streams at 128kbs/44.1kHz, the sound can be quite impressive. Granted, it isn't lossless but can be extremely satisfying. The sound is fairly natural with an acceptable amount of digital overtones of artifice. If you aren't doing critical listening, the stream is completely enjoyable. If you are reading a book or doing some work around the house, or even trying to find some new music to sample these 128kbs/44.1kHz streams won't stand out as being inferior in the least.
With an external audiophile DAC the highs are nice and extended without being too splashy, the midrange is full and almost believable and the bass is quite taught. The sound of these feeds don't give you the feel of ‘being there' as a good piece of vinyl or a quality CD does, but it is FAR better than you might think. I'm pretty picky when it comes to sound and I find myself listening to the streams quite a bit, and I enjoy them. Of course, if you lock onto one of the low bit rate streams, it sounds pretty crappy but you always have alternative streams to listen to.
One of my favorite things about the streams is the fact that I get exposed to new music. Stuff that I never hear played on commercial radio, even on my Sirius feed in my car. Listening to radio, I have found more new music over the past two years of listening to it in my office and at home than I ever would on my own. Just like right now, I'm listening to Stacey Kent. She's a female Jazz vocalist who has a more than attractive style. I kinda like her. In turn, I can't say that I've ever listened to her before. This makes me want to go up to Amazon and sample (and maybe buy) some of her music.
The best part of all, these are free streams.
Commercial Radio Is Dead
But then at a concert, I ran into one of those un-named DJ's and we started talking. Eventually the conversation turned to my planned article. We talked for a while between the artists sets and Rich (the DJ) said (paraphrasing), "Everything you mentioned is right, but lets look at this a slightly different way. Today, we are exposed to more music than at any time in the past. You and I grew up listening to one or two FM stations. Now, everywhere we turn we have music, from the commercial radio stations, to Sirius and XM, to nightclubs and concert venues, to MTV and VH1, to the Internet. The Internet alone has thousands of streaming feeds of music. No matter what your tastes in music, you can find it on the internet."
That got me thinking. Rich was exactly right. I'm not normally a negative type of guy. Occasionally something sticks under my craw (like the music industry) but rather than focusing on that, if I can find a viable alternative, I'll definitely take that path. Such is the case with streaming music and the Squeeze Network. Here we have in front of us a wonderful piece of technology that can connect us to one of our first loves, music. Best part is its music in its purest form, non-hyped, non-commercial, and nobody has been bought and paid for by the music industry and its cronies (at least none that I know of). These streams really remind me of the Golden Age of FM radio.
Listening To Ripped CDs
Oh, and BTW, downloading music from allofmp3.com is officially the same as stealing music. Forget the fact that you pay by the megabyte to download files; allofmp3 isn't paying royalties to the artists whose music they are selling. The IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) is currently in negotiations with the Russian Government to shut that site down and bring the offenders to trial, and rightly so.
OK, so I went two paragraphs, sorry.
Let us talk about the sound of the stock Squeezebox playing ripped CD's. As I mentioned earlier, the SB3 really needs a power supply upgrade if you plan on using it in your multi-thousand dollar two channel audio rig. On the typical consumers Big Box system, you probably won't notice much of a difference but on the gear that we play with the difference is immediately noticeable. A cheap, regulated power supply (wall wart) that delivers 5 Volts at 1.5 Amps or better will give you better dynamics, cleaner highs, firmer lows and far less hash than the switching power supply supplied with the stock SB3. Plus, a cheap regulated power supply costs all of about $7. Don't think, just buy one, honest. Now, when you get into custom built power supplies like Bolder Cable sells, everything gets tons better but I don't want to give away too much. I'll save that for the next installment.
After giving the stock player about 100 or so hours to completely break in, I gave it a critical listen. Although the stock Burr Brown DAC seems to be a nice feature I'm afraid that the opamps and other components used in the analog signal path aren't quite up to the hardcore audiophile standards we are used to. Don't get me wrong, the unit sounds better than the vast majority of the entry level players out there (read = $300 or less). In fact the SB3 may even compete with some players that are slightly more expensive but unfortunately I haven't fooled around with that price range of player in a while.
What I can say is that the onboard, analog output stage of the SB3 doesn't do anything wrong. It's not aggressive sounding in the least. It has a very laid back presentation. The soundstage is rather flat and two-dimensional. Placement of the instruments and vocals are nice. The lows are nice and taught. The mids are decent, although veiled, and the highs are polite and slightly rolled. The sound quality is extremely smooth and infinitely listenable. All in all, not too bad considering the overall $300 price tag.
Where this little unit begins to really shine is when you add an external DAC. In my case, I plugged in an old CAL DAC Sigma. As you all know, not the greatest DAC but not the worst either. After giving the digital output some time to run in, the Squeezebox started to show some serious signs of life. The insertion of a mediocre DAC like my old standby CAL DAC Sigma II (tubed) makes a marked improvement in the sound. The soundstage increases in depth and width, the music takes on more ‘life' as a whole.
Listening to one of my favorite performers, Pat Metheny and the album he cut with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes titled Question and Answer, the music nearly came to life. On this particular recording, Roy Haynes drums are superbly mic'ed. When Roy snaps the snare drum or does a mini-solo, you almost feel as if he is in the room with you. I started to get a real sense of how good the Squeeze Box could become using the digital output and the CAL DAC. I can't wait to plug in a true high end DAC into this little treasure.
As I listened to other music that I had ripped, I found that the addition of the external DAC was the way to go. Everything came much closer to what we all love about high-end audio. I do have to say that it still lacked a bit though. There was still some slight veiling to the overall presentation partially due to the stock digital output and part due to the CAL DAC. It wasn't horrible, but it was there. Not to worry, remember those Mod guys I mentioned earlier? They've fixed that (and inexpensively too) but I'll save that for the next installment.
Quirks (Sort Of)
Since hard drives are limited to (about) 400 gig for an internal drive, it would be nice if on the next software release the ability to more than one music folder were incorporated. As the version 6.2 software stands, it can only read a single directory. Also, if you are using a laptop to communicate to your music server (and its folder), the network location must be typed in manually. The Slim Server music folder settings don't support reading across a network automatically. Again, this isn't anything that the software gurus can't add in future releases.
So Why Does This Sound Better Than a Standard CD?
If you read my articles on a regular basis, you know I'm a hardcore analog kinda guy. I love the sound of valves and vinyl but this little interface device now has me listening to more and more ripped CD's. The sound of a CD doesn't sound like a CD any more. It's hard to explain, much yet rationalize (for my pea brain). The only thing that I can figure is that now on each playback of a CD, no longer do we have all of the issues associated with a transport mechanism the pick up (optics) and error correction (and resulting jitter).
Ripping CD's to your hard drive, there are no more read errors on the fly, no more laser beams reflecting inside the CD players case causing what ever they cause (think green Sharpie's and blue LED's inside the case), no more 500 RPM (and less) vibration issues of the transport shaking the rest of the electronics inside your CD players case, no more issues of the CD not being perfectly balanced or being slightly out of round causing read errors. From read errors caused by micro pits and imperfections on the glass master that are magnified by the manufacturing process, to additional pits in the plastic formed during the manufacturing process, all of these contribute to jitter.
When you rip music to your computer, the ripping software utilizes a second, more intensive level of error correction with the CD/ROM standard (IEC 10149) which the typical music CD player excludes. This ripping software differs from music playback software. When you are making a bit for bit copy of ones and zeros, it is crucial that the copy be exact. Otherwise, you end up with a corrupt file. The ripping software and computer looks at the music file as a data file. If a computer data file is corrupt, it doesn't work, where if a music file is corrupted while you are playing it, you get a pop, hiss or maybe a slight reduction in definition. Music playing software (both read and write) isn't mission critical to a CD player or computer.
Once your CD/ROM drive has extracted all of those little ones and zero's to your hard drive, you have just eliminated all of the problems inherent with a transport leaving you with a pure, bit for bit, digital stream that is then converted to the analog domain (in the form of your favorite DAC). The end result is you have a more pure, less harsh sound. If you've ever listened to an extremely expensive CD player ($3,000 to $5,000), you know that the sound is much more 'analog' than that on a low to medium priced CD player. Ripping CD's to your hard drive, then using the Squeezebox, a quality power supply and an external DAC now gets you much, much closer to the sound of a true high end CD player.
Here is another biggie in my eyes. The Squeezebox has upgradeable firmware. In other words, the software program that makes this thing work, is constantly being upgraded to give it better performance. Slim Devices has a forum where you directly communicate with the software developers and the owners of the company to report bugs, make a suggestion or just talk with other Squeezebox owners. When a firmware upgrade becomes available, you just download and install it. It's that easy. If you don't mind playing with pre-releases or Beta versions of future firmware upgrades, you can do that too. Since thins software is Open Source, there is a myriad of ‘Plug Ins' that are (or will be) available for the Squeezebox. The ones I'm waiting for is the Up Sampling and the Polarity Reversal plug ins.
In The End
If you've ever wondered just how good computer based audio can sound, I'd like to suggest trying the Squeezebox 3. Be sure to pick up a decent power supply and I highly recommend using a quality external DAC. The quality of sound you get from this little gem will depend on your DAC (obviously). Even with the stock unit and a decent DAC, you are likely to find a serious improvement over what you are used to hearing from CD's and conventional players. Again, the reason (as I see it) all boils down to bit for bit digital copies of the music and the resulting reduction of jitter.
The Squeezebox is extremely easy to use and is highly configurable to suit your personal preferences. You have all of your CD's right at your fingertips, organized in any fashion that you wish. And let's not forget the fact that you get some pretty decent sounding streaming music as side benefit of the Squeezebox. The Squeezebox is definitely worth checking out.
Analog RCA outputs
Digital S/PDIF outputs
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