Monday, June 11, 2007

Life with a SqueezeBox is good!

Ten years ago, few people had any idea what a MPEG-1 Layer 3 encoded audio file was, fewer actually possesed any. With the help of the free automated tools, the Internet and peer-to-peer file sharing, MP3s have grown dramatically in popularity. Today, MP3 audio files have become arguably the most pervasive format of audio. However, one of the biggest problems with having MP3s has been the inability to play them outside of the PC on which they reside.
Companies such as Creative, Apple and others addressed this with personal MP3 players, with much success. Nowadays, you can't go very long without seeing someone with little ear buds and dangling wires, walking (or jogging) by. However, for audiophiles (and couch potatoes alike), having to connect your iPod to the home stereo system has been awkward at best. This is where companies such as Roku and Slim Devices come in. They specialize in high-quality MP3 players for home and office use with their SoundBridge and Squeezebox products, respectively.
After looking around the industry for a means to stream my vast MP3 collection within my home and to my office, I settled on the Slim Devices Squeezebox. I had heard good things about the Squeeze Box so I decided to give it a try and took advantage of their discount on the purchase of two. I purchased one for home and one for my office. This is truly one of those devices that makes me wonder how I got along without one, especially at work.
The Squeeze Box is a very nice design. It supports both wired Internet connections (via Ethernet) or wireless (802.11 -WiFi). It also supports several audio ouput options including a 1/8" headphone jack, left and right analog RCA jacks and optical and coaxial digital audio outputs (S/PDIF). The SqueezeBox also has a very nice, large, vacuum-fluorescent display which can be seen from across the room. The included remote control is nice, especially from the couch. The Squeeze Box requires a server application to run on the PC containing the MP3 files, but also supports several Internet radio solutions. One of the things I really like about the server software is that it is free, has a nice web interface for controlling the SqueezeBox and is very open for development of third-party plug-ins. It is refreshing to see companies open to third-party development.
As I mentioned, I own two SqueezeBoxes. I have one at home, connected to my Home Theater system via the coaxial S/PDIF cable. All of the family's MP3s are on our home computer, where the Slim Server is running as well. While they can use the web interface to select the Album, Artist, Genres, Playlists and Years, the included remote control works very nicely as the sole interface to our over 50 GB audio library. The kids often dial up their favorite music on the audio system in the family room, just by switching inputs on the A/V receiver and selecting the Artist, Album, etc using the Slim Devices remote control. Now, with our new Logitech remote control (see below), it is even easier for them to listen to their favorite music.
At work, I have one sitting on my desk, connected to my PC speakers via the headphone jack. Clearly, this type of setup would make audiophiles cringe, but it gets the job done. I can either access my home library (via port forwarding in my home router) or I can access my library which I host on a server connected to the Internet. I am amazed how much more productive I am with the music playing in the background instead of the steady, white noise of the air conditioning system at work. The beauty of the SqueezeBox is that, similar to a personal iPod, I can select the music I want to listen to throughout my work day based on my current mood, musical taste, etc. Further, if I want to listen to the radio, I can do that as well thanks to the Internet Radio support offered by Slim Devices, RadioTime, and other Internet-based radio stations. Sometimes I want to listen to the radio, but couldn't with a traditional FM receiver due to the shielding, electromagnetic interference, etc in my office. However, with the SqueezeBox, I can listen to my local radio stations anytime, not to mention listening to radio stations all over the country and the world.
Interestingly, I found that owning such a high-quality audio device meant I needed to upgrade my MP3 library. I started converting to MP3 about 10 years ago when the first MP3 encoders became available. Over the years, I have amassed quite a library of MP3s through converting my CDs and purchasing via iTunes. However, the songs are not necessarily of the highest quality, especially those ripped early on. As such, it was a waste of the digital audio connection and my high-end sound system to stream 80K or 128K MP3s to it. So, I have been slowly reconverting my library to MP3 at much higher bitrates, so that the files are of high enough quality that my electric-guitar damaged ears can't tell the difference. Fortunately, with the low price of hard-disk storage, MP3s are becoming more of a de facto standard audio format and less of a means to squeeze as much music as possible into a small space. There are other formats out there which can offer high-quality audio, but none are as universally supported as MP3.
Finally, one additional feature of the Slim Devices solution that I find extremely useful is their support for a third-party developed software implementation of the SqueezeBox, known as the SoftSqueeze. While I take my iPod with me everywhere I go, it is not always charged. With the SlimServer and the SoftSqueeze java applet, I can listen to my music ANYWHERE I have internet access and a PC. I used to keep my MP3s on my work laptop, but the corporate police don't allow this anymore. However, with the SoftSqueeze and the pervasive availability of WiFi, I have access to my MP3 library almost everywhere. I am eagerly awaiting third-party players for my Motorola Q phone and my Sony PSP. Since the SlimServer is a free download from the Slim Devices website, you can setup and use the Slime Server without buying a SqueezeBox. But I would recommend buying one and enjoying music...

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