Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Whole house streaming audio and more

Have you ever been to one of those new model homes with some incredible feature that you really lusted after (backyard fireplace, pool overlooking the valley, being next to a golf course, etc)?  For me, my first love has always been audio.  So when I walked into a home that had speakers in every room of the house playing some nice Jazz, I was in heaven.

Okay, so maybe having the same music in every room isn't such a great idea all of the time.  I could have separate audio systems, but it is really nice to be able to share music without having CDs or MP3s scattered about the house.  This is a problem that screams out to have technology solve it for us.

SlimDevices (now owned by Logitech) created a product family that really does fit nicely into the home.  I've owned every one of their products since they introduced the Squeezebox (rev 2) five years ago.  I will say that the products have taken a while to mature, but I now finally have that whole house audio system and it was a lot cheaper than buying a new house!  Here is what is great about the squeezeboxes and system in general:
  • I can listen to music in my collection (or any streaming Internet audio source), in any room in my house.
  • All boxes are wireless G, so can be moved freely in the house
  • I can operate each squeezebox independently or synchronize them if I like
  • Family friendly (my kids love theirs)
  • Audio quality is superb.  As an audiophile, I'm impressed with features like loss less audio support, high quality digital and analog outputs, etc.
  • For the enthusiast, endless opportunity to tinker with plugins ranging from live weather updates to (amazingly enough) complete digital room correction.
  • Smart-phone apps for remote control
Strange as it sounds, I also love the fact that this product comes from a company other than Apple, or Microsoft.  I like the smaller companies and their support for open standards.

Here are the details...
A little background about me

I've been interested in computer audio for years, and audio in general since childhood.  My first computer audio system was by a company called TurtleBeach (they made the AudioTron).  This was a revolutionary (in my option), music streaming appliance that could play MP3s from anywhere on your home network (or stream internet radio stations).   Not very impressive today, but this product was made in 2001!   Use of this product (and later products by M-audio) convinced me that computers and audio were made for each other.

I'm currently a fan of  SlimDevice's products, and really consider this my third generation of home computer audio system.

What is a "Slim" device anyway?

The Squeezebox family consists mostly of products that are essentially (what us nerds call) "thin" clients.  You don't store music on them (except as noted below).  This is actually really nice as it forces you to stream your music from a central location making sharing music trivial.  I still remember my kids fighting over who had their favorite CD, no longer a problem with their squeezeboxes.   Even with MP3s, keeping copies of your music in multiple places is a hassle.  With squeezeboxes, all of my music is in one place, it is easy to manage and available to me literally anywhere I choose to stream the music.

Do you need a computer too?

Maybe.  These devices are actually really flexible and can be used in a variety of ways.  There are currently three main ways you can use them:
  1. Without a computer (but with Internet access), you can connect the boxes to Logitech's servers and stream just about any Internet radio, audio, podcast, etc source you like.  You also can access a variety of music services like Pandora (with a free account), Raphsody, Slacker, etc.
  2. With your own computer (with or without Internet access), you can do everything mentioned above as well as stream any local media you have.  Their system supports just about any audio format you can think of (excluding DRM formats).
  3. Finally, their latest product (called the touch) has a tiny built-in music server.  All you need to do is attach a USB disk and you can play music directly.  Arguably, this isn't a "slim" device anymore...
Does my computer have to be on all the time?

No.  One really nice feature of the Squeezeboxes is that they automatically can wake up (via WOL) your music server if it happens to sit in standby most of the time (as mine does).  This is a great power (and money) saver that makes using your current desktop computer as a music server very practical.

Also, just about any computer will do to store and serve your music. It doesn't have to be running Windows:  Linux or Mac OS will work just fine.  All you need to get started is to load the SqueezeCenter software and point it at your audio files on your hard disk.  The SqueezeCenter software will take care of finding and streaming music to any Squeezeboxes that it can find.

Note:  You might not even need a traditional computer.  Some NAS boxes, like Netgear's ReadyNAS include enough additional compute power and can run the SqueezeCenter software.  Logitech kindly offers ready-to-run software builds for users of ReadyNAS and ReadyNAS pro.

How do you get started?

If you own a computer (or laptop), you don't need to buy anything to get started.  Just download the SqueezeCenter software.  Once you load it (and tell it where your music is), you are ready to go.

There are free software clients that emulate squeezeboxes allowing any computer to play your music.  This is exactly what I do with my Media PC as I want it to double as an audio-only streamer.

I also use software clients on my laptops (or work desktops), to stream music over the Internet to where ever I happen to be!

Here are some of the software clients:
I recommend SqueezePlay if you like a GUI, or SqueezeSlave for a bare-bones version.

Even though the software is free, I think you will find that having the Squeezeboxes very, very handy to have throughout your house (as I do).

How do you control them?

There are multiple ways you can control your Squeezebox systems:

Some squeezeboxes come with remote controls, and most have front panel controls.  In general, the controls and UI is pretty well thought out having evolved over several years.  Shown here is the Radio with a remote (from the Boom).

Logitech also makes a controller specifically designed to work with the squeezeboxes (called the controller or duet when bundled with a receiver).  I had a duet and liked the controller.  However, if you already have a smart phone, you might (as I do) prefer using one of the SqueezeBox apps instead.  In general, I vastly prefer devices that have multiple functions.  Besides, it is one less device around the house that I have to keep charged.

However, the easiest way to control the system is with a web browser.  If you are running your own computer, you can simply bring up any browser (using any web enabled device) and point it to your desktop.  You can browse your music collection, control each squeezebox, add to your favorites, etc:

Similarly, if you are using Internet only music services, you can bring up mysqueezebox.com.  This web interface is much simpler, but allows you to do most of what you want to do.

NOTE:  Logitech is still struggling with trying to reconcile the two main ways of driving your squeezeboxes (via mysqueezebox.com or via your computer).  Clearly they would like to make the distinction seamless and they are pretty far from that goal right now.  However, I'm sure they will get there eventually.

Finally, you can use your SmartPhone running a app that understands the SqueezeBox protocols.  Here I am running iPeng ($10 in iTunes)

My music server

For my music server, I use a rather unimpressive Dell Vostro 400.  It is a couple of years old, but functions well as my desktop.  It runs the SqueezeCenter software and has all of my families' music stored on it.

It sits in standby when not in use, and automatically wakes up whenever one of my Squeezeboxes tries to access some music.  It is not the most power efficient computer (drawing 90+ watts while running), but my use of standby mode makes it's power use pretty much a non-issue.

Plus, since I need a desktop anyway, I don't need a dedicated music server.  Again, I like devices that do multiple jobs.

My Boom box / Audio streamer / Clock radio

In my bedroom, I have the Squeezebox Boom.  Not only does the Boom have fantastic sound (audio geeks must read the white paper), but it makes a really good alarm clock.

This was one of those products that I bought on the first day that they released it (and haven't regretted it).  I often unplug it and move it into my garage when I'm working on projects as it is easily portable (Yes, I really should have two, but I'm cheap).  The display is also nicely compatible with a bedroom as it auto-dims and it can be read from just about any angle.

The sleep function works great and with Pandora I can drift off with a nice mix of Jazz and Blues.

The product is aptly named as it really does rock the house.

My Kid friendly SqueezeBox Radios

One of the things that I want to pass on to my children is my love of music.  So naturally, I have squeezeboxes in each of their rooms as well.  Logitech recently came out with a new product called the Squeezebox Radio.  Think of it as a mini-Boom with a few added features.  First up, it has a color screen and can also take an optional battery pack (so it becomes truly portable).  It is smaller, but is also "mono" as it only has one speaker.  Like the Boom, it has fantastic room filling sound, but doesn't quite have the "punch" of a Boom.  However, it is fine for smaller room and less discerning ears (and is cheaper!).

It also has an auxiliary input for plugging in an ipod, just in case you want the Radio to double as a powered speaker for an ipod or computer.

My main listening room

In my living room, where I do most of my listening, I used to have a Squeezebox 3 (no longer being made) and a Transporter, but have since replaced them with a Software version of a squeezebox running on my Media PC.  BTW:  I loved the Transporter, and only reluctantly got rid of it as I really couldn't appreciate it given my current living room setup.  One day I hope to have it back!

The software package I use is called Squeezeslave and performs many of the same functions of a Squeezebox.  If you already have a Media PC, this may work for you as well.  Here are instructions on how to setup your Media PC as a SqueezeBox like me.

Latest Product

One really interesting product that they just came out with is called the "touch"... I know, someone else took that name too.   Think of the touch as a squeezebox Radio without a speaker, but it has some really cool features that make it really tempting.

The most compelling thing about the touch is that it has a SD Card slot and USB port.  Unlike any other Squeezebox product, the touch includes a tiny built-in music server.  All you need to do is put your music on a USB hard drive and plug it in to have a complete system.  For some, this might be the perfect all-in-one setup.

Also, the touch has a big 4" touch sensitive screen so your artwork or pictures should look really nice on it.
Note:  The touch is the only product from the Squeezebox line that I haven't owned yet.  I'll update this post once I buy it.

What I don't like about Squeezeboxes

Obviously, no product is perfect and the Squeezeboxes have their share of flaws.  There are a few nits that I could point out that I'd like fixed.  However, none of them are deal breakers and some are probably highly personal.

I think the most common criticism is that many of their products have been slanted towards the enthusiast. This is both a plus and a minus.  Logitech clearly has a challenge in attracting users who want a simple device while keeping audio geeks happy.   The latest designs are solving many of these problems, but it is a tough challenge for any company.

With that said, I know of no other company that has put this much effort in to supporting older products, adding new features to products, and fixing bugs.  Who knows how long this will last, but so far both SlimDevices (and now Logitech) have done a good job.


I may not have some of the cool features of the latest model home, but my I'm pretty happy with my audio system and everything it can do.


  1. Nice write-up!

    I've got three SB3's and I'm always contemplating expanding, especially with the interesting units that have been brought out recently.

    Do you have music in your bathroom? We currently have a shower radio, and I'd like to replace that with ceiling speakers from some sort of squeezebox source, but I can't decide how it should be controlled.....

  2. Hello Richard,

    Thanks! No squeezeboxes in my bathrooms yet, but that would be nice.

    Interesting problem. You could certainly use a squeezebox receiver (and a powered amp) for your ceiling speakers. You'd still have the issue of controlling it, so getting the controller too makes sense.

    However, if you don't mind having the squeezebox accessible I would imagine that the touch would be better. You could have the touch on the counter, or even better, wall mount it. I believe they sell wall mount kits. When not in use, the touch would nicely display a clock, weather, etc.

    It is kind of cool that we can have this kind of functionality at a fraction of the price of what people pay to remodel bathrooms, etc.

    Have fun.

  3. I have a BOOM in my bathroom....Very nice.

  4. Nice blog! Thanks :)

    BTW: I enjoy the music off my pc via 1/2 watt FM transmitter I got off of ebay for about $100. Covers the entire house and my yard.
    Unfortunately, I have to run inside the house to my pc to control the music or change internet stations.

    I could remotely access my pc through my iphone and control it that way, just have not done it yet..

    Thanks again!

  5. How do you put this through a decent A/V receiver if I don't have a Media PC hooked up to that. I've been concerned about the fan noise of a media pc interfering with music (or TV)

  6. @Anonymous:

    The Logitech slim music players are silent (except for music, of course).

    The Logitech Touch and a Media PC have numerous outputs that connect to an A/V receiver.

    Media PCs (which could be a music server and/or player) can be nearly silent. I know mine is and I'm pretty picky.

    However if absolute silence is your goal, you would need to choose different components for your Media PC or put in another room (and have a long audio out cable).

  7. With these features, I should definitely buy a house like that one. Thanks a lot for sharing that information.

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