Sunday, February 21, 2010

Squeezebox: It just works - and more!

For a long time, I wanted to write something about Logitech Squeezebox line of products. From my experience, they are different from most other home electronics: Not only they really do everything they should do. They also do much more than advertised. In fact, their capabilities are so vast, most people don't even understand what this system is capable of.

Squeezebox is a line of networked audio and control components. Most of them play streaming audio from your favorite source. Most of them are able to display graphical output of various quality. Some of them are designed to control the audio players. All the communication between all components is through WiFi or standard LAN cable. All the components are connected to your home LAN as if they were standard computers (i.e. they have they normal IP addresses and hostnames, you can log into them and hack them, etc.). Any of your home computers can function as both "player" and "controller" of any other component (yes, including command line scripting).

Squeezebox Duet

First of all, these components "just work" out of the box. For example, you just connect the player to any WiFi network with access to the Internet, it automatically updates its firmware and is immediately able to play any streaming audio from the Internet. That's all. You don't have to install anything anywhere. In fact, you can just connect it to some public WiFi network and don't even have to own any computer.

However, it gets much more interesting when you have your own MP3 collection and a home computer which is running all the time. You install Squeezebox Server on this computer (it supports Windows, Mac and Linux) and then you can play anything from your music collection on any of your Squeezebox players or on any computer connected to your home network. Of course you can play different albums on different devices and everything can be controlled either via Squeezebox remote or via browser interface from any of your home computers:

Squeezebox server

Squeezebox doesn't force you into any proprietary solutions and does not lock you in. Your music collections is simply a collection of folders and subfolders containing audio files and cover art images. Everything is indexed according to standard ID3 tags and Squeezebox's private database and indexes don't clutter your music folders - they are kept completely separate.

I now have Squeezebox Player (just a miniature box connected to external speakers), Squeezebox Remote (WiFi remote control with full color display) and Squeezebox Boom (audio system with built-in speakers and large monochromatic display).

Audio quality obviously depends on what kind of Squeezebox device you are using (the most expensive system costs 10x more than the cheapest one) but my mid-range Boom has perfectly clear sound and is totally quiet when not playing.



I know there are many similar soultions but I have never experienced anything that simply works as effortlessly as the Squeezebox. There are lots of thoughtful touches, for example the way the alarms and display dimming work and can be configured so that the device does not disturb you when you sleep and you can be awakened by your favorite song or your favorite radio station.

On the other hand, Squeezebox is a godsend for all control freaks because the configuration possibilities are staggering and all the software (including the server and firmware in all devices) can be fully customized - the server itself is written in Perl and the devices are running Linux. However, I didn't have to do that - I am perfectly happy with the standard configuration options and I don't even use all of them: For example, your Squeezebox device can display your Flickr photos, your RSS feeds, you can play games on it etc...

I really love tech gadgets and I must stress again that there are not many gadgets that I found as useful and as capable as the Squeezebox family of products.

11 comments:

enTy said...

I've owned similar product from Roku before and it was utter crap with dismal support.
After it finally died, I've purchased Squeezebox and I'm amazed how good it is. Best thing is, that the Squeezobox server has a special Windows Home Server edition, so it plugs nicely into the Home Server console. The only problem i had with it was that once its database got corrupted and 90% of my music disappeared from the catalog. A simple rescan corrected the problem.

Anonymous said...

The joke is, that Squeezebox wasn't orignally Logitech's product line. The've just purchased the "Squeezebox" brand along with it's product line. Luckily, the've not managed to screw everything up yet, as the "big brands" tend to do.

Anonymous said...

Good for you. In my setup, NFS "just works" for a fraction of the price.

Fuxoft said...

Anonymous: If you mean "Network File System", I don't understand how a FILESYSTEM can play music???

Anonymous said...

I mean of course a computer using a NFS (where the music is stored). You _can_ buy
very small (smaller then squeezebox), very low-power
(lower than a squeezebox) computers, with audio specs better than the squeezebox,
for a price much lower than the squeezebox.

The tradeoff is you have to install an OS on them an configure NFS. Still very much worth it, IMHO.

Honestly, with the sqeueezebox you are paying big money for a mediocre audio chip bundled with a perl script.

Fuxoft said...

In my current Squeezebox setup, the music IS stored on external disk and accesed using NFS!

Also, I am not an audiophile but most of the reviewers agree that Squeezebox auio is far from "mediocre".

You forgot to mention the fact that, apart from installing and configuring some sort of mini Linux and writing the software (which is NOT only Perl, I need some database and streaming libraries too and don't try to tell me the existing Perl libraires are not shit), I also have to come up with a protocol for the remote control communication (which, in Squeezebox, is capable of MUCH MORE than just playing music) and program a driver for the remote control (and get a hold of "open" programmable remote control hardware).

Squeezebox Player, Squeezebox Remote control and Squeezebox Boom currently cost around $700 in total. Tell me, how much would I pay for the similar non-branded hardware? Let's say $300. I doubt I could get two micro-PCs and a WiFi remote control with full color LCD for that price, but let's say I could get them for $300. That means I saved $400 and I now have to write two complete operating systems (for the players and for the remote controller) as well as the database server to store and stream my music. I think I could do that but it would take MUCH MORE of my time than it takes me to make $400. The result would be, I'd actually lose money.

Anonymous said...

OK, let's build on your example. For simplicity, let's forget about video now, just audio.


Please correct me where I am wrong: you have an external disk full of music. This disk is attached to a computer that is always running, and this computer NFS-exports the content. This computer is also running the Squeezebox Server software (under some OS). Then, Squeezebox Player
and Squeezebox Boom are clients to this; and Squeezebox Remote controls them. All this costs $700, not counting the computer that runs the server (you already had that computer before, right?), and the OS
running on this computer (I suppose linux, right?).

Also, I assume you already do have a stereo system, which for some reason is not good enough for you. You should elaborate on this: are you replacing something with the Squeezebox setup?

Now, the alternative: you just NFS-export the music disk, without running any server software about it.
You buy a small, low power computer, say, an ALIX (http://pcengines.ch/order1.php?c=4), which is a bit over $100. If the onboard audio chip is good enough or you, good; if not, you buy a decent audio interface, say, USB (well under $100 these days).

You install your favourite OS on the ALIX, and configure it as an NFS client; takes about half an hour if you are over fifteen. You plug the audio output of the ALIX into your already existing stereo system.

You log into the ALIX and run 'play /mnt/music/Queen/*ogg' or your other media player. Or 'mplayer http://your.favourite.rad.io/stream.ogg'. Or whatever.

You repeat this with another minicomputer if for some reason you need to play two pieces of music simultaneously.

Better yet, you play the music on the "central" server computer (that exports the disk) - one client less.

I guess I still don't understand what "database", "streaming libraries" or other "software" or "server" you would need to write to play the music. The media players are out there. The NFS servers and clients are out there, for most OSes. That's all you need, right? Or what was it that you were trying to achieve?

As for the audio specs of the Squeezebox clients, what exactly is the amplifier inside? What exactly is the frequency response of those three-inch loudspeakers? (Don't mistake me for an audio nazi, I just can't seem to find this on the SB page.)

Fuxoft said...

Wait, what? How can I "log into Alix" when I am lying in my bed (in my bedroom) or on my living room sofa, without any computer terminal near me?! I understand how your solution works but that's simply unacceptable for my needs. For example I want to just set my player to "random play" and when I hear something nice, just glancing at the remote control or Boom display to see what is actually playing. I want to be able to say "Now play something from John Williams for 60 minutes, then switch off and wake me up with some ambient online radio at 8:30 am". I want to do all of this while I am in different room than my music server. I know I can make scripts for all this but it's simply not worth my time. Also: No, I did not have any Hi-Fi setup in my bedroom before, that's why I bought Squeezebox Boom and not another Duet.

enTy said...

Exactly, i agree with Fuxoft. While you're talking computers, we're talking consumer goods. No setups, installs, updates, hassles. Just a remote which works out of the box. Oh, and btw, the screensavers when the SB is in "off" are alone worth it. You can have RSS readers, weather forecasts, games etc. out of the box as well.

Anonymous said...

[I want to be able to say "Now play something from John Williams for 60 minutes, then switch off and wake me up with some ambient online radio at 8:30 am".]

Right. If _this_ is the "added value" you are willing to pay for, it starts to make sense.

So how exactly does "play something from John Williams for 60 minutes, then switch off" work?
Without a computer terminal near you, you do this from the SB Remote? I suppose at a certain point you _have_ to type "John Williams" (or scroll to it or whatever) and type "60" (or pulldown to it or whatever). And when I say "type", I mean click through some interface of the SB Remote.


For $700, you can buy some very fine audio equipment (I mean an amplifier and quality loudspeakers); that's what actually plays the music, which is what matters, right? What amazes me is that instead, you spend it on a pair of three-inch tweeters bundled with an unknown amplifier and a piece of software that let's you express things like "play Williams randomly". It's your money, of course. I still tend to view the things besides the real audio gear as overpriced crap.

Anonymous said...

[I want to be able to say "Now play something from John Williams for 60 minutes, then switch off and wake me up with some ambient online radio at 8:30 am".]

Right. If _this_ is the "added value" you are willing to pay for, it starts to make sense.

So how exactly does "play something from John Williams for 60 minutes, then switch off" work?
Without a computer terminal near you, you do this from the SB Remote? I suppose at a certain point you _have_ to type "John Williams" (or scroll to it or whatever) and type "60" (or pulldown to it or whatever). And when I say "type", I mean click through some interface of the SB Remote.


For $700, you can buy some very fine audio equipment (I mean an amplifier and quality loudspeakers); that's what actually plays the music, which is what matters, right? What amazes me is that instead, you spend it on a pair of three-inch tweeters bundled with an unknown amplifier and a piece of software that let's you express things like "play Williams randomly". It's your money, of course. I still tend to view the things besides the real audio gear as overpriced crap.