At a Glance
Once you've transferred your music collection onto a Mac or an iPod, and gotten used to the freedom of having your entire music library at your fingertips, it's hard to go back to using your stereo's primitive CD changer. CDs don't afford you the luxuries of an MP3 library -- for example, shuffling through an artist or a genre. Slim Devices' Squeezebox bridges the gap between your hard drive and your stereo, giving you control over your music from an easy-to-use stereo component.
Like its predecessor, the excellent SliMP3 ( ; April 2003), the Squeezebox has no moving parts or hard drive. Instead, you run the free Slim Server software on the computer that holds your music collection. If you're running OS X and iTunes, installation is a snap -- Slim Server appears as a system preference pane, and the software automatically links to your iTunes library and playlists. With its bright fluorescent display and infrared remote, the Squeezebox fits right in as a home stereo component, letting you navigate its iPod-style interface by remote control. (You can also control the Squeezebox via a Web browser.) The device's standard display size is a bit too small, but its double-size mode works fine when you're all the way across the room.
The Squeezebox will please casual users and audiophiles. Its built-in support for 802.11b wireless networking is great for people who don't have Ethernet jacks behind their stereos. Slim Devices also sells the $249 Squeezebox Wired, which offers only Ethernet connectivity. Connecting to my home network was easy, but AirPort users should write down their Network Equivalent Password if they're using WEP encryption to secure a local network.
The Squeezebox comes with many audio-out options, from the standard RCA stereo plugs to coaxial and optical digital outputs. It even includes a minijack for headphones or powered speakers. (Unfortunately, we found that the beginnings of some audio tracks were cut off when we connected the Squeezebox optically. Slim Devices says it's working on a fix.) Audiophiles will thrill at the Squeezebox's support for raw uncompressed audio, which means it can play back AIFF or
WAV files natively, without any compression artifacts. Slim Server can also convert other formats, including AAC and the lossless FLAC, for playback on the Squeezebox, and will play Internet radio streams in MP3 Shoutcast format. However, the Squeezebox can't play encrypted files from the iTunes Music Store, and you have to edit a text file hidden deep within Slim Server's package if you want to change its format-conversion preferences (another issue Slim Devices says it will address in a future release).
Macworld's Buying Advice
The Squeezebox is the perfect device for anyone who wants a seamless stereo-component experience from an iTunes music collection. Its support for wireless networking reduces a major hurdle in bringing MP3s to the living room, and its digital outputs and ability to play uncompressed audio make it a must-have product for audiophiles.