Logitech Squeezebox Duet
on 25 March 2011 at 8:48
Digital audio is great--especially if you've got a multigigabyte music collection sitting on your computer, or you subscribe to an "all you can eat" music service like Rhapsody. The problem, for a lot of people, is that they're stuck listening to all that great music on the tinny speakers of[...]
Digital audio is great--especially if you've got a multigigabyte music collection sitting on your computer, or you subscribe to an "all you can eat" music service like Rhapsody. The problem, for a lot of people, is that they're stuck listening to all that great music on the tinny speakers of their computer--or perhaps patching the laptop into their living room stereo system. Dedicated audio streamers have helped somewhat, but they have tiny little screens, which--like docked iPods--aren't very useful if you're sitting on a sofa across the room. And the best solution to date--the excellent Sonos Digital Music System--costs a pricey $1,000 for a two-room bundle. Enter Logitech's Squeezebox Duet: the $400 network digital audio streamer employs a winning handheld remote with a brilliant color screen (not unlike an iPod) that lets you navigate your entire music collection--including several online services and the majority of free Internet radio stations--from the palm of your hand, while you hear the music from the big speakers of your home stereo.
The Duet is so named because it's a two-part system: the Squeezebox Receiver base station and the Squeezebox Controller remote. The base station is a nondescript black brick that pulls audio from a networked PC (Windows, Mac, or Linux) or the Internet via your Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet home network. The single button on the front of the base station is used to manually sync it to the network during setup. In addition to the Ethernet jack, the rear panel boasts both analog stereo (red and white RCA jacks) and digital (coaxial or optical) jacks. That means you can output your music to pretty much anything you want--be it a high-end AV receiver, a lowly boombox, or a pair of PC speakers--so long as it has an auxiliary input jack. There's no power button, but you can shut it off via your computer (more on that later) or the remote.
Speaking of the remote--the "Squeezebox Controller," that is--it's the real innovation here. Beyond the 10 buttons controlling standard functions (volume, play/pause, track forward/reverse), it features an iPod-like scroll wheel and a brilliant 2.4-inch color LCD screen (240x320 resolution, 256,000 colors). That puts the song navigation where it belongs: in your hand, instead of a small LCD readout halfway across the room. In addition to the wheel, the menu navigation is also largely iPod-like, so anybody who's familiar with Apple's ubiquitous music player should be able to pick up and use the Squeezebox Duet with no trouble. That said, the Controller's scroll wheel isn't quite as good as the Apple version: it's an actual wheel, not the solid-state touch-sensitive version on the iPod, and it lacks the iPod's speed-sensitive ability to quickly jump up and down through long lists.
The Controller includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery (it's removable, too, so you can replace it a few years down the line when it eventually expires). The included charging station is heavy and metallic, so the remote won't be tipping over when docked. Interestingly, the Controller also includes an SD slot behind the battery compartment, a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, an IR transmitter, a small speaker (for menu clicks and other feedback), and a three-axis accelerometer (a la the Wii controllers). Few of those features have even been tapped yet, but they show how much room the controller has to grow with future firmware upgrades, both from Logitech and the avid developer community that's been active in developing past Squeezebox products. (Both the Receiver and Controller are firmware upgradable--just choose the "update" option on the controller menu for an automatic download.)
The Squeezebox Duet is an expandable system, so the two components are also available separately: add additional Receivers for $150 each and additional Controller remotes for $300 (thus, you're saving $50 by buying the Duet bundle). Moreover, the Duet system has been designed to be backward compatible with earlier Squeezebox models. That means that the Squeezebox "Classic" and the high-end Transporter can double as receivers within a home network, and the Controller remote can interact with those models as well. Logitech recommends not exceeding six to eight Squeezebox nodes (Controllers and Receivers total), after which the bandwidth constraints are likely to overwhelm most home networks. But if you're going for a home music system larger than that, you probably should already be considering stepping up to the Sonos Digital Music System anyway.
The Squeezebox Duet can draw audio from two main sources: the Internet or a networked PC--Windows, Mac, or Linux. The breadth of the online sources is impressive and varied:
Online music services: If you like online music services, chances are you'll love the Squeezebox Duet. Thus far, supported services include Rhapsody, Sirius, Last.fm, Slacker, MP3tunes, Pandora, Live365, RadioIO, and RadioTime. (These are mostly premium services, but all of them offer a free trial period.) Also available is the complete catalog of the Live Music Archive, a free resource that includes thousands of live concert recordings.
Internet radio: Prefer free online music? The full panoply of online radio is available. Either access Shoutcast servers (divided by region or genre), or add your own bookmarked favorites through the SqueezeNetwork interface (see below).
Podcasts: As with the Internet radio bookmarks, you can add the feeds for your favorite podcasts on the SqueezeNetwork home page.
You'd think that controlling access to that wide range of online music sources would be a challenge, but Logitech and Slim Devices couldn't have made things simpler. All of the online music sources are aggregated under a single online location called SqueezeNetwork. Set up a free account (it takes about 30 seconds, and you don't need to give more than your e-mail address), and the SqueezeNetwork service provides a single location to coordinate everything: all of your account information for any of the premium online services to which you're subscribed. (The Squeezebox generates a unique PIN code during setup that you input to the SqueezeNetwork page, linking the two together.) The SqueezeNetwork home page is also where you add your Internet radio favorites and podcast RSS feeds (just cut and paste the appropriate URLs). You can even add text RSS feeds, for viewing Web clips on the Squeezebox Controller's screen.
In all, the SqueezeNetwork site provides a quick and easy way to pull together all of the online assets available on the Squeezebox Duet. Anything we added was instantly available on the Squeezebox remote just a couple of seconds later. Moreover, because everything is accessed via the Web, it's effectively universally compatible, regardless of what browser you're using (Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Safari, whatever) or from what sort of computer (Windows, Mac, Linux--or even a portable device, for that matter).
Of course, many of us have a multigigabyte library of music sitting on our computer's hard drive--and the Squeezebox can access that as well. Download and install the latest version of the SqueezeCenter software (7.0 or later). It was previously known as "SlimServer," but aside from the name change and added Duet support, it's largely the same great software that's been developed by the Squeezebox community for years. Thanks to its open-source roots, the software is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux machines (it can even be installed on Infrant NAS drives). During installation, just point the software to the directories holding your music files and playlists, and the SqueezeCenter will make them available to your Squeezebox.
A few things we liked about the software: like the SqueezeNetwork site, the controls are all browser-based, and it's very noninvasive--it doesn't change any of your file preferences or make itself the default music player. In other words, it works in concert with your existing music management software--namely, iTunes, Windows Media Player, and Winamp--so any DRM-free music and playlists you add in those programs will be instantly available to the Squeezebox as well. As a result, iPod users can continue to use iTunes for their music management, and let SqueezeCenter do its thing in the background.
Note that we specified "DRM-free music." If the Squeezebox has one caveat, that's it--by default, it can't stream any files purchased from the iTunes Store, Zune Store, or any service that uses the Windows Plays For Sure DRM scheme. (Rival Sonos and some other products support Zune and Plays For Sure files, but Apple refuses to license its FairPlay DRM--ensuring that only Apple's own Apple TV and AirPort Wireless products can handle stream purchased songs from the iTunes Store that are so encoded.) At this point, that's not a huge knock against the Squeezebox, thanks to the fact that there are plenty of DRM-free music stores online--most notably, Amazon, eMusic, and some songs at the iTunes Store ("iTunes Plus"). The DRM issue notwithstanding, the Squeezebox's file compatibility is otherwise stellar: MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, and Ogg Vorbis files can all be streamed without issue. In other words, if your music files are free of DRM restrictions, there's a good chance the Squeezebox will play them.
Another advantage of the SqueezeCenter software: it's effectively another "remote control" for any Squeezebox Receiver on the network. Using the browser interface, you can set preferences on the Squeezebox from afar (change the audio outputs from variable to line-level and back again, for instance), as well as build playlists, access music services, and the like.
The Squeezebox Duet also includes a few extras. Aside from the RSS newsreader, there's built-in support for environmental sounds (babbling brook, crickets, thunderstorm, waves hitting the beach) and alarm clock functions. The background wallpaper for the remote screen can be set to a variety of colors, patterns, or photos. Default screen-saver options include a simple clock (analog or digital) or you can even pull in Flickr photo streams.
If you're an advanced user looking for more elaborate options, the Squeezebox Duet includes a wide range of software plug-ins (again, thanks to its strong support from the open-source community). But you don't have to take our word for any of this: the SqueezeNetwork site and SqueezeCenter software are both completely free, whether you have a Squeezebox or not. Feel free to set up an account (SqueezeNetwork) or download the software (SqueezeCenter) and test drive it yourself.
Setting up the Logitech Squeezebox Duet wasn't quite as smooth as our best-case scenario--the Apple TV--but it was still remarkably straightforward compared with a lot of network devices. Connect the Squeezebox Receiver to an amplifier, stereo, boombox, or anything with speakers (we used a direct hookup to a set of M-Audio AV40 powered speakers). Fire up the Squeezebox Controller remote, and log in to your home's Wi-Fi network (WEP and WPA security is supported--just dial up the password on the remote scroll wheel). Then select "Setup receiver," which links the Receiver to the Controller, and links that to the network as well.
Once the hardware is setup, you need to provide the Squeezebox with a music source. To do so, either set up the online account at SqueezeNetwork (for online music providers, Internet radio, or podcasts) or download and run the SqueezeCenter software on your computer (to access music on your hard drive). Switch between the two by accessing the "music sources" menu option. In fact, that dichotomy is the only real annoyance when using the Squeezebox Duet. Toggle to your computer, and you lose access to the online bookmarks (radio station and podcast favorites) you've set up; choose the SqueezeCenter online account, and you can't get to your local music. It's easy enough to go back and forth, but it would be even better if the Squeezebox could "see" the totality of your local and online music options simultaneously.
Similarly, the organization of the Controller's menu could be a bit better organized. "Music library" includes either your local music (via SqueezeCenter) or your Rhapsody/MP3Tunes library (if you have accounts on those services). But the latter ones are also available under "Music services." Likewise, podcasts are buried under the "Extras" menu, but--to our minds--that's a category that should be elevated up to a primary selection on the main menu. Even playing a song is a bit unintuitive--clicking the center click wheel button doesn't start playing the song, it brings you to a screen with the song data (you need to click the dedicated "play" button instead). The Controller remote was nearly always responsive, and it was easy to dial up any song, artist, or playlist. While we did experience a hiccup or two--usually when the remote was "waking up" or shutting down, we only needed to reboot the thing once (popping the battery out).
If those issues sound like quibbles, it's because they are. By and large, there's little not to like about the operation of the Squeezebox Duet. Wireless performance was largely flawless, whether streaming from online services or locally networked PCs--that's compared with other wireless music systems, which occasionally have dropouts. Rhapsody performance was particularly impressive, offering near gapless playback between tracks. Another great thing about the Duet was the ability to create an "on-the-fly" playlist, using pretty much any source available. For instance, we created a single playlist (using the "add" button on the remote) that encompassed music from our PC, Rhapsody account, and the Live Music Archive.
From one perspective, it's hard to call the Logitech Squeezebox Duet a groundbreaking product because it follows in the footsteps of the Sonos Digital Music System, which first appeared in 2005. Indeed, the Sonos still has a lot going for it: in addition to many of the same music services and Internet radio streams delivered by the Squeezebox, the Sonos also offers compatibility with a variety of Microsoft-blessed DRM download stores, including the Zune Marketplace. But the fact is that the Squeezebox Duet delivers much of the same functionality of the Sonos, including the option for multiroom setups, at a far lower pricepoint--and without many compromises. Existing owners--and anyone looking for a large (more than five room) whole-house audio system--will probably want to stick with the Sonos. But for everyone else--including digital music fans who've been interested in the Sonos but couldn't stomach the $600-$1,000 price tag--the Logitech Squeezebox Duet is an easy recommendation.