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Forget CDs: Distributed music is next

Gary Krakow get to listen to two distributed music systems based on Slim Devices' Squeezebox and its more expensive Transporter, and he's very pleased with what he's hearing.
The Squeezebox device allows you to stream digital music — wirelessly — throughout your home.
The Squeezebox device allows you to stream digital music — wirelessly — throughout your home.Slim Devices

Forget everything you know about home audio. It’s all about to change. First there were vinyl records, turntable and needles. Then reel-to-reel, cassette and 8-track tapes. Finally, in the 80’s, CDs became the next “big” thing. Now, it’s compressed music files and portable players that are all the rage.

But iPods and the like are very personal devices. For the most part, they’re designed for one person to listen at a time using headphones. What about a system that would allow you to distribute, control and listen to those same computerized music files throughout your home?

That’s why the engineers at Slim Devices devised a pair of network music devices. They call one Squeezebox and its bigger, more expensive brother, Transporter.

The premise is simple: You’re already storing your music files on your computer’s hard drive. So why not have a device that could stream those files via your home Wi-FI network? You could listen to your favorite songs on any hi-system in any room.

Squeezebox is a clever box that receives, converts and plays back your computer’s music files, distributing them to your stereo. The Squeezebox connects to your computer via an Ethernet cord or via your 802.11b/g wireless network and its audio outputs plug directly into your music playback system. There are also digital outputs if you prefer to listen through a separate DAC (digital-to-analog converter.)  There’s even a mini-headphone jack on the back.

The enclosure itself is a reasonable 7.6 by 3.7 by 3.1 inches in size. There’s a large, high resolution, 320 by 320 pixels vacuum fluorescent display which can show you song titles or what Slim Devices calls “full-screen visualizers,” which are amazing-looking digital representations of VU meters (digital or analog) or a whole lot more.

Squeezebox’s internal operating system is Flash upgradable, so the first time you plug it in, the system will search the Internet to see if there's a new version of its internal OS then automatically install it.

Setup is a snap. In my case, I let Squeezebox find all the wireless networks in my neighborhood then entered the password for my Wi-Fi system.  Squeezebox did the rest. It was ready to rock within 60 seconds.

I store lots of music files on my computer. But the SlimServer controller software found all my music automatically and make it ready for playback. You'll need to download the server software, which runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD, Solaris Web browsers, from the Slim Devices site.

SlimServer plays MP3, AAC, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, MP2, MusicPack, AIFF, WAV, PCM, FLAC, Apple and WMA Lossless files. It can import files from your computer’s music player programs including iTunes, Windows Media and Winamp.  SlimServer and Squeezebox also let you listen to hundreds of Internet radio streams from all around the world. Some sound amazingly great.

Actually using Squeezebox to listen to music is easy. Let the SlimServer find your music files and then you choose the songs you want to hear. You can select by song, album, artist or shuffle. And all of Squeezebox’s functions are handled by the included remote control.

Think of Squeezebox system as a computerized, wireless jukebox. No discs to store, carry or load when you want to hear some tunes. If you have the bucks, you can place a Squeezebox in each room, plug them into amplifiers and speakers and you have an amazing multi-room distributed music system.

If you don’t want to rip your own music, you could use Squeezebox to access Rhapsody’s vast, online music library. You don't even have to own a computer to do that. A free 30-day trial subscription to Rhapsody comes with your Squeezebox.

But remember the general rule concerning compressed music files: the less the compression you use, the better your music it will sound. That means when you’re given a choice of smaller files versus larger files (ripped at better rates) I would recommend larger files for better sound.  Consider FLAC, Lossless, AIFF or WAV files for CD-quality enjoyment.

Squeezebox comes in white or all-black and retails for $299. Sound quality is very, very good.  But, there’s better.

The Transporter
Slim Devices also makes the brand new Transporter model. This is an all-out attempt at the best digital file distribution solution that Slim knows how to make. I have to admit that Transporter sounds amazingly great. It should. It retails for just under $2,000.

Physically, Transporter is a full sized audio component — especially when compared to the Squeezebox.  It measures 17 by 3 by 12.25 inches and weighs 13 pounds.  It’s a sharp looking machine, befitting its price point, utilizing an aircraft-grade aluminum case with matching front rack handles.

There are two user configurable fluorescent displays.  Rack mounts are optional.  I've customized the display to have the left side show the song name and artist, while the right side simulates analog VU meters.

There are all sorts of audiophile-grade inputs and outputs on the Transporter — from gold plated RCA jacks to balanced XLR, BNC, coax and optical connections. Overall, the quality of Transporter’s parts is on a much higher level than the Squeezebox. It should be for that price.

The biggest difference between the two products is the built-in DAC. This one is top-shelf all the way. It utilizes an AKM AK4396 multi-bit Sigma-Delta digital-to-analog chip with amazing dynamic range plus there’s additional super-highest quality audio circuitry to match.  The beefy, internal power supply only adds to the superior quality of the sound.

Overall, while both devices under review ultimately perform the same tasks, one does it very well and the other does on a much higher plane. Squeezebox is great — especially for the price — but Transporter is a super-high quality audio component worthy of the best quality music reproduction systems you can buy. 

The guys at Slim Devices are on to something here. This is what music systems will look like in the near future. Computer-based files, wirelessly distributed throughout your home, sounding great.  Squeezebox and Transporter are only the beginning.