Squeezebox

Just about two months ago I took the plunge, bought a SlimDevices Squeezebox network music player and finally committed to digitizing my music collection. Here’s a two-month report.

First of all, a quick rundown on my setup. I’ve got:

  • A Squeezebox 3 digital music player, connected to…
  • A pile of unremarkable cheapo stereo components in my living room
  • A garden variety PC running Windows XP in the office
  • A 500 GB external hard drive connected to the PC

Why did I choose the Squeezebox in the first place? Couple reasons.

  1. I have a lot of music, and I wanted to digitize it once, without data loss, and in an open, non-proprietary format. So using an iPod as my primary music storage device was right out.
  2. My computer is fairly far from my stereo, and running either speaker wire or ethernet cable from computer to stereo wasn’t feasible.
  3. I didn’t want to spend money on a NAS (network attached storage) device, or clutter up my living room with a computer. (I briefly thought of buying a Mac Mini, but $600 was a bit rich for my blood.)

The $300 Squeezebox (plus another $220 for a big ol’ external hard drive) was an affordable solution that would let me store and play high-quality digital music with few compromises.

So, how are things going, two months in?

In a word, I’m thrilled. I’ve all of my and Molly’s ~200 CDs ripped, plus a bunch of live music I’ve downloaded from archive.org. We’re finding that we’re listening to a lot more music than we used to, simply because it’s all so accessible.

I was somewhat surprised at the number of technical decisions I had to make, and the variety of software tools I wound up employing along the way. I could have just used iTunes for the entire process. But in the end, I wanted to avoid locking myself into their proprietary file formats and software. (I did come away with a renewed respect for how hard Apple has worked to make their digital music experience seamless and easy, and for just how many decisions Apple’s software makes on your behalf.)

Here’s the workflow I used:

The first big decision I had to make was what file format I wanted to store my digital music in. I’ve got tons of hard drive space. I want high quality. I want open formats. I want to be able to easily transcode my music to other formats as needed in the future. And I never want to rip 200 CDs again. These criteria eliminated “lossy” formats such as MP3, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis, which achieve high compression factors by throwing away audio information. In the end, I was left with “lossless” file formats such as FLAC and Apple Lossless, both of which create bit-for-bit perfect (or, “lossless”) copies of the original digital information on the CDs. Choosing between FLAC and Apple Lossless was actually pretty easy; FLAC is open source and Apple Lossless is not. The fact that the Squeezebox can easily play FLAC files without needing to reconvert them was an extra bonus. FLAC it would be.

Now, how would I got about ripping 200 CDs without driving myself crazy? After a bit of investigation on the SlimDevices wiki, I identified the Exact Audio Copy as the CD ripping software of choice. It’s a free, ultra-high-quality program for extracting music from CDs without errors. It even handles scratched CDs (although slowly). While setup involved setting lots of wierd settings I didn’t fully understand, I just followed the directions on the SlimDevices wiki and pretty soon I was up and running. I particularly appreciated the ability of EAC to automatically access the FreeDB database of CD metadata and automatically tag each track with correct information.

Most CDs took about 7-8 minutes to rip; scratched CDs took longer as EAC read and re-read them to correct the errors caused by the scratches. A few tracks couldn’t be read at all. (I’m going to have to go back and rip them with less paranoid error correction; a few audio glitches may result.)

Once I’d digitized my CDs, I used a few additional programs to further enhance my new digital music library.

  • Foobar2000 helped me set correct “ReplayGain” metadata on each file so that tracks would play at a consistent relative volume.
  • Album Art Aggregator helped me download cover art for my albums.
  • Mp3Tag helped me correct tag information on my tracks.

All of these are great freeware programs — big thanks to their authors for creating such useful and easy-to-use tools — and giving them away to the world!

The icing on the cake, however, turned out to be a piece of software called MusicIP Mixer. It does some sort of patented acoustic analysis on your music library, and then it can build playlists of songs that it thinks sound similar.  It can shove those playlists over to iTunes or your Squeezebox.  And thanks to the handy MusicMagic plugin for Squeezebox, you can automatically build MusicIP playlists right from the Squeezebox remote control.

What I’ve really loved about MusicIP is that it lets me take a not-quite-random walk through the far corners of my music collection.  Instead of total, jarring randomness, I can pick a “seed” song, artist or album, and then the MusicIP system generates a not-quite-so-random playlist that “sounds like” my seed song.  Smooth.

The Squeezebox hardware is a really nicely engineered unit with a high quality display and really good electronics.  But most of the real magic happens in a piece of software running on my PC called SlimServer.  And even better, it’s open-source. That means that there’s a strong community of add-on developers, a reasonably transparent process for reporting bugs, and nightly builds with the latest features.

I suspect that SlimDevices has managed to get away with under-resourcing their software development department a bit, and the open-source community has taken up a good chunk of the slack. But not quite all.  What’s cool is that SlimDevices have incorporated a lot of community-built functionality into SlimServer along the way. What’s less cool is that they haven’t really managed to build a simple, fast, responsive user interface on top of all that power.  Hire a couple more UI guys, y’all! :-)

All in all, though, I’ve been really delighted.  I’m not a “nerd toy” kinda guy, but this a pretty great toy for this music-loving nerd.

39 thoughts on “Squeezebox”

  1. Hi Jon!

    My name is Rachel and I’m part of the MusicIP team – thanks for writing about us! If you ever have any questions or ideas for how we could improve, definitely send me an email.

    Rachel
    rachel[at]musicip[dot]com
    http://www.musicip.com

  2. This is a great review, thanks!

    I was going to suggest that you just use iTunes to rip your songs into MP3 format, which is what I’ve done, at extemely high bit rates. I do always wonder what I might be missing though, even though I’ve tried just a couple of experiments and haven’t noticed a difference.

    You’ve nearly sold me on buying a squeezebox :)

    By the way, if you want to play FLAC on an iPod, you can always put rockbox on your ipod, and have an open lossless codec cornucopia.

  3. Paul-

    Thanks for the comment!

    One of my explicit design goals for the project was to archive my music in an open-lossless format. While it’s true that I can’t hear the difference between a high-bitrate MP3 and a FLAC, I figure that formats will change over time, and I wanted to be able to easily re-encode over time from a perfect original. So I didn’t consider MP3 format.

    I could have used iTunes and Apple Lossless, but I didn’t want to chain myself to Apple’s proprietary software stack and file formats. I’m not an open-source zealot, but I do like to use open formats whenever I can.

    And part of this project was a bit of an experiment to see what it would be like to use open formats and mostly open-source software. (I did take a few shortcuts, I confess.)

    If that’s not as important to you, I am confident that you could do a great job with iTunes + Squeezebox.

  4. I forgot to add in a clause! Whoops! After “at extremely high bit rates” pretend like I put, “until I read about FLAC.”

    I must confess that now I’m contemplating whether I should rip the half of my CDs over again into FLAC… and put RockBox on the iPod I got for christmas :)

    Thanks again for the review of the squeezebox.

  5. Great into. – i am in the process of ripping my CD’s into FLAC. browsing a huge directory of music, can be quite a challenge so i am looking forward to trying MusicIP

    BTW Squeezebox is far the best gadget i have invested id.
    - combined with a low power/no noise VIA EPIA PC (533 MHz, 128MB, 80GB) as music server in the back of a closet, it realy rocks.

  6. Hi Jon,

    Very very random that I found your site. I’ve been looking at Squeezebox for some time (an audio website I frequent is full of people who love squeezebox because of the nice DAC they put in it, also a bunch of people doing high end mods to it). I was waiting until I bought the new computer (with Vista) last weekend to take the plunge with squeezebox. We’ve been listening to even more music now that little Bradley is with us. Need to give you and Molly a call.

    Andy

  7. Thanks for your Squeezebox article…very helpful. I am a rank beginner with similar goals to yours, and at the moment have no wireless network setup in my house. I have little or no need for a wireless network other than to get music data from the computer’s phsical location to a stereo set, so I want to get and use the simplest and cheapest wireless connection.

    Please tell me a little about how you got the music from the Squeezebox to your player, with some ideas about how to setup the required wireless network.

    Thanks,

    Paul

  8. Paul-

    I already had a simple home wireless network setup, so getting music from my computer to the Squeezebox was just a matter of plugging in the Squeezebox and letting it connect to my network!

    Setting up a home wireless network is pretty darn simple these days — lots of decent consumer-grade wireless hardware is reasonably easy to set up.

    http://www.microsoft.com/athome/moredone/wirelesssetup.mspx is a decent guide to getting started. Google can help you find more.

  9. Thank you very much for your great overview — popped up very high in Google as I was searching for info/updates on Squeezebox. I’ve been eyeing the system for some time, and I have just about the same exact setup/conditions as you have, but I had also looked at the Logitech Wireless DJ, and received the Wireless DJ as a Christmas gift.

    Unfortunately, the Logitech has not proven to be the solution I had hoped for. The device remote is great-looking but the software is buggy and I’m having all kinds of problems with dropouts (songs cutting in and out). On its forums, Logitech officially attributes these problems to my wireless network, as the Wireless DJ uses Bluetooth, not my network itself, to communicate. It’s been a real disappointment. I keep hoping Logitech will come up with a solution — getting rid of my wireless network is in no way an option, as I use it for TiVo, my printer, laptop, and, oh yeah, those Logitech speakers I’m playing my music on!

    Long way of saying, I am still eyeing the Squeezebox and if I can’t get the Wireless DJ to work, I just might make a new investment.

  10. In your review you said that you downloaded cover art, but I’m curious as to where it gets used. I don’t have a Squeezebox, but from looking at the pictures it doesn’t look like it displays cover art. Does the Slimserver show cover art? If yes, how often are you looking at it?

    I have hundreds and hundreds of CDs, and I’ve ripped most of them to MP3. When I’m looking for a certain CD, I really like to look at the cover art instead of a long list of CD titles. Does anyone know of any Squeezebox solution that does anything like that?

  11. Steve,

    The Squeezebox itself does not display cover art on its LCD display. But the SlimServer software that manages the Squeezebox does display cover art, if you want it to.

  12. Jon,

    Great review. Lots of useful info for someone considering this gadget.

    I have two questions.

    1. Do you tend to make your music selections at the stereo with the Squeezebox, or on your PC? It looks like it might be a little awkward to find a particulair cd using the Squeezebox and its remote.

    2. Are you able to use your computer while listening to music on your stereo without having the Squeezebox bog down the PC’s CPU? In other words, does it slow down your PC?

    Answers to those questions would help me make up my mind.

    Thanks

  13. Brian,

    I use Erland Isaacson’s awesome “Lazy Search” plugin which makes it really easy to find specific albums, songs, etc. via the remote. I tend to build playlists using the computer, though.

    The Squeezebox has a pretty negligible impact on my 4-year old 2GHz Celeron Windows XP box with 512 MB RAM. It slows down a little when it is doing a full rescan of my music library, but that is an extremely rare things for me to do.

  14. Hey- Random google search, when I should be 10,000 other things. How are you? Looks like you are doing exactly what you always wanted. How fabulous! Hope you are well.
    xxxGoo

  15. Jon, thanks for an excellent review. I’m writing in from New Delhi, India & am contemplating on investing in a SB3.

    Most of my music collection (~500 CDs) have NOT been ripped and I listen to them using a convential 2 channel Home Audio setup. I am not sure when I’ll get time to rip these CDs.

    HOWEVER, I do have a WiFi network setup at home, and like the idea of being able to listen to Internet Radio via the SB3.

    Question 1: In case all I want to do is listen to Internet Radio via the SB3, is it mandatory to install the Slim Server? I don’t really have a desktop/music-server and was wondering whether I need to invest in one of those too.

    Question 2: Where do you find your PLUGINS for SB (eg: Lazy Search etc.)?

    Thanks in advance.

  16. http://www.patwanet.co.uk
    Hi and thanks for the great round-up. I’ve been looking at expanding and enhancing my network now that I have my own ADSL line at home,and part of that was getting something geeky enough to keep me occupied for the 3 months of summer holidays I have. the other part was a NAS, but I’ll get to that. So thanks for the tip, I’ll check out Squeezebox as it looks like it’ll do the job just fine. I’m a bit concerned at the amount of space FLAC will take up compared to MP3 (I mean, if it’s so good I could use it on my iPod as rockbox can play it, but, having almost 7500 songs on my 30GB iPod video at the moment,I don’t want to find I’m down to half that much with FLAC – I’m a music junkie). Anyways thanks again and keep up the good posts.
    cheers.
    H.
    http://www.patwanet.co.uk

  17. Hi,

    I’m not convinced … I want to have a media system that will allow me to stream music to my stereo, but also video and photos to my TV.

    Does anyone know a product that I could plug into my stereo, which would log onto my wireless network and build up a media library from nominated shares then i’d buy that. Key point is no PC side interaction and the music shares could be on NAS instead of a physical computer.

    Similarly, does anyone know if products exist that could pick up media content (photos, videos, etc) from network shares and display on my tv?

    Thanks,
    Dan.

  18. If you haven’t checked out slimserver “remote” implementation on a nokia 770 (or N800), you definitely should. It is pretty swanky interface implementation for controlling a single or multizonal audio system based on slimserver. Recent online retail has put the 770 at around ~$100. (not too mention all of the other interesting things it can do via maemo community).

  19. Read your review and have a couple of questions.

    I have all my music stuff ripped in (30,000 songs), when at the computer I fire up winamp and drop and drag songs into playlist. I just keep adding as I sit and sometimes rearrange queue. I don’t set up playlist and really am not quite sure what or how to use. When I load my mp3 player I just drop and drag from collection into player.
    Player automatically plays in that order.

    Does SB allow dynamic songlist/playlist. Can you view (like in explorer)
    songs that are on your hard drive and just randomly pick and choose?

    Do you have to use their software?

  20. Jon, I just came across your article via google. You say you have a 500 GB External Harddrive. Did you divide this so that you could mirror the ripped cds? If so, how did you do that? Thanks.

  21. Hi Jon,
    Thanks for the great review of SB3 – I had a question about EAC, can I change mp3s’ that I downloaded from P2P sites like limewire etc…, into the FLAC format? Hope this doesn’t sound too dumb? Sorry! I am not tech savvy.
    I actually bought the Roku SoundBridge M1001 quite similar to the SB3 and cheaper only $150 from Rokulabs direct. It is a great gadget if you don’t have distance/location issues between your music server and audio equipment like I do. My preferred audio set up is in my basement and my server is on the 1st floor in my bedroom. I had to buy a Linksys range extender in order to get a decent signal to play my music seamlessly. I am not sure if the SB3 can handle that as well? Any thoughts on this or will I have the same issues as I do now? Would love some feedback on this too!
    Thanks in advance.
    Deval

  22. Deval
    There is nothing to gain by converting MP3 to FLAC.
    In fact you will loose further detail from the music if you try
    Just “shop” around and get the best bit rated mp3s you can find

    Your range extender will not affect the SB3 or roku in theory.

  23. Hi Ashley,
    Thanks for replying. You are absolutely correct about the range extender – it did not work! The tech support guys at Best Buy thought it would be the solution to all my problems! Yeah right!
    Anyway, what do you think about the SB3? Will it work better in my set up as explained earlier? My preferred audio equipment is in my basement – one floor below where my wireless networked PC is located which has all my music files. I did order the SB3 today though after talking with their tech support person and he thought that the distance should not be an issue with the SB3 because it has a better wifi card and two antennas. Since I bought it from Slimdevices website – they do offer a 30 day free trial – so I figured why not try it and see for myself. But just in case you know or have experience with it may be you could shed some light!
    Thanks in advance.

    Deval

  24. For Hillary and others who may be interested: I received an invitation from Pandora (and Logitech) announcing that they are joining forces … it invites me to a free BBQ and presentation in Mountain View CA on Tuesday, Sept. 11 … That e-mail led me to a Google on Squeezebox and to Jon’s excellent review … I have been puzzling over how to digitize hundreds of CDs and delaying purchasing anything more current than a (now probably obsolete) CD-MP3-Etc. player until I figure out the best course. The closed source problem with so many approaches troubles me, but Jon’s review has me leaning toward Squeezebox and some of the other programs he mentions. Perhaps together, Logitech and Pandora will come up with a solution to your problem, Hillary. Someone out there must either be working on that or already have achieved it?

  25. Jon – Nice review indeed. It seems as if you’ve done quite a bit of research. I have been a squeezebox owner for quite some time as well. A few posts suggested running FLAC files on an iPod. While that may be possible storage consumption and more importantly power consumption are what make this not the most ideal approach. The iPod battery drains much more quickly when playing FLAC. Maybe not a problem if you keep it plugged in at your desk all the time, but otherwise the constant recharging is a pain. I keep 2 separate folders, one for MP3s from my FLAC files and another for MP3s from other sources and use the same folder naming structure to keep track.

    Encoding on the fly never works for me because I usually remember the iPod last minute before going on a trip. Given the cheap cost of disk drives these days, an extra 300-400 GB is not really a big deal for the convenience.

  26. @Peter E:
    I don’t own an iPod, but if I did, I’d probably do what you’re suggesting. Thanks for the suggestion!

  27. This pursuit of musical purity is amusing, but quite specious. Ripping with EAC+FLAC has no discernible benefits over iTunes+AAC (or MP3), other than givng you a false sense of superiority. Your listening environment will overwhelm any theoretical benefits of FLAC over AAC, all the more so if you’re using “unremarkable cheapo stereo components”. Most home stereo setups are so sub-optimal that you may as well make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear than spend time squeezing out all those FLAC bits.

    The open format advantage is also mostly theoretical. The market domination of iTunes+iPod has led to the creation of an unrivalled array of hardware and software for that platform. Is the theoretical future-proofness of an open format worth the very real cost of being locked out of the iPod economy now? It isn’t for me. And I’d wager that in 20 years, Apple is still around but FLAC isn’t.

    I’m neither an Apple evangelist nor an open source opponent. I just think this is a convoluted solution to an imaginary problem.

  28. Rahul-
    I’m not in pursuit of any kind of musical purity. I did, however, choose to base my solution on open source standards and software, rather than buying into Apple’s attempt at fostering lock-in.

    I don’t have an iPod, and I don’t want one. I wanted a solution for digitizing my music on my desktop computer, and playing it on my existing stereo. The Squeezebox fit the bill perfectly.

    I can’t hear the difference between FLAC and MP3 or AAC, but I figure that audio formats will evolve, that disk space is cheap, that ripping CDs is a pain, and that lossless open-source digitization makes a lot of sense for someone like me who has moderate technical skills.

  29. Yeah, I recently bought a Squeezebox too, after investigating a lot about what was best for me, and you are right, you use a lot of different software to achieve what you really want, but I must say it was actually fun trying to come up with the best posible way of experiencing my music. And I use too almost the same software: Slimserver, Foobar2000 for Replaygain, EAC for ripping, FLAC for digital format, but instead of Mp3Tag I use MusicBrainz Picard and I’m trying to run MusicIP Headless Server, since I have all my music on a Debian PC dedicated to my music, and I use mp3fs for transcoding FLAC to mp3 on the fly.

  30. You’re making me really want one. I’m using an old phillips wireless transmitter that works surprisingly good but would like the quality of the Squeezebox. The guy above didn’t understand why you use EAC at all. You use it so you don’t have to listen to every song on every album to make sure it ripped correctly. I think he has such a “false sense of superiority” that he didn’t even look into EAC because it wasn’t made by beloved Apple. I love my Rockboxed Nano but there are a lot of other great things for music out there, like the programs you described. Thanks for the info.

  31. I’ve got one! It’s got to be one of the funnest and best tech devices I have ever seen. I added the XM radio plugin and now I have almost too much selection. Very slick, I’ve been playing a lot of Flac and ogg along with mp3 and all work great. I upgraded to a new Yamaha receiver at the same time and it all sounds fantastic through my, new sounding, B&W speakers. Anyway, thanks for pushing me over the edge on my Squeezebox.

  32. PS: You might want to look into dbpoweramp. It’s ripper is just as or better than EAC and it will rip and encode to 2 or more codecs. Plus it will convert any music that you have. I have mine rip mp3′s or ogg to my itunes music folder and flac to an archive folder. I also have it set the replay gain at the same time. Then I make a folder called slimmusic and put shortcuts to both folders in it and make it my music folder for the squeezebox. That way if you have more than one folder you just add shortcuts and it will find them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Subscribe without commenting