March 21, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
Daddy's Gotta Squeezebox, by John Atkinson
Beyond the Specialist Press, by Ken Kessler

From the Editor's Desk: Daddy's Gotta Squeezebox, by John Atkinson

In last November's eNewsletter, I reported on two of my efforts to integrate PC-based audio into my high-end audio system. First I used an inexpensive Mac Mini running iTunes as a server, with the optical S/PDIF output of Apple's Airport Express WiFi hub feeding the Mark Levinson No.30.6 or Benchmark DAC 1 D/A processors in my listening room. Second, I used the dedicated but Mac-centric Olive Symphony CD player/server. Although the Olive impressed the heck out of me as a one-box turnkey solution, I had to return it to the distributor—though not before I'd written more about it in the April 2006 issue of Stereophile.

The iTunes/Mac Mini/Airport Express system worked fine, but with its server located in my test lab, it was a little inconvenient—there was no easy way of selecting individual songs from the comfort of my listening room. Either I'd play whole albums or playlists, or I'd use iTunes' Shuffle feature on songs, which was fine considering that the main use was to provide background music while I was writing or editing.

And once your iTunes library gets above 1000 songs, Shuffle becomes a delightful way of choosing what to play. The program comes up with random but pleasing song sequences that you wouldn't have come up with yourself. For example, as I write these words, the Mac Mini has served me Bill Evans' "Peace Piece," Mary Chapin Carpenter's "This Old Shirt," the first movement of Dvorák's "American" String Quartet, one of five free-jazz improvisations by Stereophile reviewer Bob Reina's new quartet that I recently recorded, and the final movement of Brahms' first violin sonata, performed by Ani Kavafian at the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The musical connections were ones I never would have made; the inspired randomness of iTunes Shuffle mode does not suffer from my preconceptions.

306squeezebox1.jpgBut I still had to leave the room to choose another album or a playlist, which is why I became increasingly interested in the Squeezebox from Slim Devices. The size and shape of a digital alarm clock, finished in white or black with a turquoise fluorescent 320x32-pixel display running its full width, the Squeezebox can be networked to a PC system (the Ethernet version costs $249, the WiFi/Ethernet version $299). And, joy of joys, it has a remote control that allows song selection to be carried out from the listening seat. Like the Airport Express, the Squeezebox offers both digital and analog outputs, but unlike the AE, it has a volume control, a headphone jack, and a coaxial digital as well as optical digital output. Also unlike the AE, the Squeezebox uses a 24-bit DAC (a Burr-Brown PCM1748) with optimized, regulated power supplies for the DAC and output amplifier stages. Perhaps more important, the S/PDIF output and DAC clocks are driven directly by two dedicated crystal oscillators running at fixed frequencies. An outboard D/A processors driven by the Squeezebox thus doesn't lose lock between songs and should enjoy the benefit of lower clock jitter.

I asked for the WiFi version of the Squeezebox for review and set it up in my listening room, connecting its optical S/PDIF output to the Levinson DAC with a 1.5m length of AudioQuest's OptiLink-5 quartz-fiber TosLink cable. My WiFi network runs on an Airport Express hub, and connects the PowerBook in my basement listening room with the Mac Mini and measurement PCs in my test lab down the hallway, and my children's PC upstairs.

The next step was to download the latest version of the SlimServer program, which runs on the host computer, from the Slim Devices website. This is open-source software, available in versions for Windows XP, Mac OSX, and Linux. I installed the OSX version on the Mac Mini and clicked Start Server, then Web Access. This launched the Safari browser—the SlimServer interface is a custom Web page—and the program started to scan my iTunes library while I went back in the listening room and plugged in the Squeezebox's wall-wart power supply. The instructions in the Owner's Guide for connecting to my WiFi network were clear and unambiguous. After a welcome message from the SB, I pressed the Right arrow on the remote and the Squeezebox listed the networks it found. Preferring not to access my neighbors' networks, I selected the Airport Express's "Atkinson Network" and "Automatic IP Address Assignment." The Squeezebox quickly found the Mac Mini running SlimServer, by which time the latter had listed all the songs, albums, artists, genres, and playlists in my iTunes library.

Sitting in my listening chair, I browsed my iTunes library on the distant Mac using the remote's Left, Right, Up, and Down buttons, found something I liked, and pressed Play. Music came from the speakers, and pressing the remote's Now Playing button displayed the song's metadata on the SB's screen. When the Squeezebox is put in Standby mode, it displays the current date and time (this functions only while the server is running, of course). An alarm-clock function can used to turn the unit on automatically at a preset time.

The setup menus in SlimServer allow a staggering range of options, including setting the SB's digital output to operate at maximum level only, deactivating the volume control, setting the default analog output level from 0dB to –63dB in 0.5dB steps, and fine-tuning the wireless network performance. I had very few playback problems, though one session was marred by dropouts. (It turned out my son was using the microwave in the kitchen.)

SlimServer handles a wide range of file formats, including MP3, AAC, AIF, WAV, Vorbis, Windows Media, and FLAC. However, it can't handle DRM-wrapped AAC-encoded songs you've downloaded from iTunes (grrr). The Squeezebox also offers native Windows Media support, not only providing playback of WMA files, but allowing many Internet radio stations to be decoded. The Squeezebox can also use the SqueezeNetwork via its owner's Internet connection, allowing access to Internet radio stations and more without the host computer needing to be on. (I didn't check this out.)

When SlimServer serves compressed audio files to the Squeezebox, it decodes them on the fly from whatever file format they're in—MP3, say—to uncompressed PCM and sends that over the WiFi link. Two channels of uncompressed, 44.1kHz-sampled audio represent a data rate of just over 1.4 megabits/second, which seems well within the 11Mbps capacity of an IEEE802.11b WiFi link, even when you take into consideration the fact that you have to double that figure because the data packets are sent twice, once to the hub and from there to the SB. The 54Mbps capacity of the SB's 802.11g link would seem overkill, therefore, and as the Squeezebox has a 64-megabit data buffer, it's hard to see why anyone would have problems with data transmission.

That, of course, is in a perfect world without cell phones, wireless phones, microwave ovens, and your neighbors' networks running on the same WiFi channel as your network—all sources of 2.4GHz interference that reduce the WiFi link's effective bandwidth. SlimServer can therefore be set to compress the audio on the fly before transmission, using the popular FLAC lossless format, which runs at half the broadcast bit rate as PCM—or even a lossy compression such as LAME MP3, which reduces the basic bit rate to around 128kbps. The Squeezebox's native FLAC and MP3 decoders turn compressed data back to PCM before serving them to its DAC and S/PDIF circuits. The forums and Wiki pages on the Slim Devices website offer a wealth of information on troubleshooting network problems, as does the Squeezebox Help file (one of the best I have encountered).

Compared with, say, the Olive Symphony, the beauty of the Squeezebox is that it recognizes iTunes playlists (although SlimServer has its own playlist function) and, more important, it can recognize and play audio files encoded with Apple Lossless Compression, which the Symphony as yet can't and was the primary reason for me deciding not to buy it. The introduction almost three years ago of ALC with iTunes 4.5 was, I think, the major step in making PC-sourced audio a true high-end endeavor—no longer did the phrase "computer audio" automatically mean "sucky MP3 sound quality." Provided everything along the playback chain preserved the digital data, CD-quality sound was what you got from PC-based audio, with ALC allowing just over twice as many files to be crammed onto your hard drive.

Of course, I hear people say, you could always get that quality using FLAC-encoded files and the Winamp program. However, I strongly believe that the iTunes user interface is a prime reason for the popularity of the iPod, and that something that allows iTunes to play lossless-compressed files is a doorway into the audiophile space for the world at large. (Pace Ken Kessler—see later in this newsletter.) The FLAC/Winamp scenario is aimed at nerds like me.

So what about the Squeezebox's sound quality?

For the purposes of this short report, I auditioned the Squeezebox exclusively from its digital output feeding an outboard DAC. (I'll report on the quality of the SB's analog outputs, and provide a full set of measurements, in a future issue of Stereophile.) The Squeezebox performed superbly in this role. There was a cleanness to the sound that I didn't get from the Airport Express's digital output feeding the same D/A. Comparing the original CD on the Ayre C-5xe disc player, its digital output driving the Levinson DAC via a 1m DH Labs AES/EBU link, with SlimServer feeding an ALC-encoded file to the Squeezebox with its digital output feeding the Levinson via the AudioQuest OptiLink-5, I was hard-pressed to hear much of a difference. Perhaps there was an increased sense of authority to the sound of the CD on the Ayre used as a transport, a better sense of extended low frequencies—but when I'm not listening seriously, the difference is irrelevant. Even when I am listening seriously, I have to strain to hear that difference (as long as I'm not listening to lossy-compressed files).

Idiosyncrasies? The beginnings of some files were occasionally clipped by a small fraction of a second. I reset the audio startup delay for MP3 files to 0.25s in the SlimServer's setup menu, which appeared to fix the problem. One anomaly was with 48kHz-sampled files, such as some of the tracks I'd ripped from Brian Bromberg's Jaco DVD-Audio (a must-have for all Jaco Pastorius fans). The version of the file in my iTunes library was apparently sample-rate-converted to 44.1kHz, even though it was flagged as "48kHz" both in iTunes and on the Squeezebox's display when played using SlimServer. The original file in my Mac's Music folder, selected and played with SlimServer, was served to the SB with the proper 48kHz sample rate. (I suspect that Quicktime converts 48kHz files to 44.1kHz when they are imported into iTunes.) And even when you select original files, SlimServer ignores them if they were recorded with a word length greater than 16 bits.

I thought hard and long about buying the Olive Symphony before I finally returned the review sample. There was no such heartsearching with the Squeezebox. Not only am I buying the review sample, I might get another to use in the bedroom. (One server can handle multiple SBs.) Love that remote control. Daddy's got a Squeezebox, Momma's not gonna get any sleep tonight!

Simaudio Ltd.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at
Beyond the Specialist Press, by Ken Kessler

For those addicted to the news, nothing is so satisfying as watching TV shows in which journalists assess the week's hottest stories, as covered by various newspapers. In the UK there used to be a show, What the Papers Say, that was peerless in its acidic critiques. And I never miss Fox News' NewsWatch, with its deliciously diverse panel, ranging from a prim but wry academic to a soft-core liberal to a couple of career reporter-columnists who seem to be straight out of Central Casting.

What such shows provide are the sort of footnotes appended to, say, the recently revised and republished The Annotated Sherlock Holmes—two huge volumes that inform you in great detail about every minutia mentioned in every Sherlock Holmes novel and story. Wouldn't it be handy if we had our own hi-fi version that concerned itself only with audio coverage outside the hi-fi press?

I don't want to suggest that there's lately been a plethora of hi-fi stories in the mainstream media, but there've been enough—especially when the papers have to deal with such odd phenomena as new video formats, or crazes such as the Apple iPod. And maybe it would help manufacturers appreciate how high-end equipment is perceived by the very people who do not buy into our passion, or show retailers what they need to do to reach the unconverted. Lord knows we have to do something to increase interest in audio. I mean, how many more articles do you want read—written by the ill-informed for the need-to-be-informed and published in everything from newspapers to color supplements to slick lifestyle magazines—about how the iPod is the be-all and end-all of sound reproduction?

It's not all bad, though, outside the pages of Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound and the other keepers of the flame. The British TV program The Gadget Show actually seems to get it right on those rare moments when the topic veers away from cell phones and plasma screens and notebook computers. What's more worrying are the newspapers, which dumb down the subject more and more.

Recently, we in the UK were treated to coverage of football (soccer to you) star David Beckham's new home theater. Beckham, for those of you lucky enough to have never heard of him, is an amazing player of dubious taste and unlimited funds, and on whose intellectual prowess or lack thereof comedians have built entire careers. But he is a role model for every young British male who has never read a book, and he and his clothes-horse wife, née Posh Spice, née Victoria Adams, are staples of the gossip columns.

The press was much amused to report Beckham's purchase of a home-theater system as an example of disgusting profligacy ranking alongside bathing in champagne or feeding one's cat Beluga. And just what did Beckham—who buys a couple of $100,000+ cars every season—spend on his system? A total of $17,500. On some Denon equipment. And the bulk of that sum was spent on the plasma screen.

Those who understand what's available in home-theater gear to someone with a fortune in nine figures also know that an outlay of $17,500 not only isn't comical, it's barely risible. Victoria Beckham is proud that she's never read a book—she's said so in print—so one must assume that they watch a lot of DVDs, or at least reruns of Beckham's best matches. They have three kids to amuse, and their home could easily be converted into a sizable hotel. You might even argue that they could have easily justified spending more, given that they don't economize anywhere else. The point is that, even to the superrich, home-theater quality doesn't seem to matter. Beckham probably pays more than $17,500/year to insure his Ferraris.

As for the angle the papers took, whoa. Here's the superrich misbehaving!! $17,500 on a home cinema?!? When there are kids starving in Rwanda!?! The same newspapers are decidedly less critical when it comes to dissing buyers of Manolo Blahnik shoes. The chattering classes are disgusted he spent so much, while audiophiles will be upset he spent so little when he could have had a system to die for. Go figure.

None of this, however, explains why a downmarket color supplement in a major British newspaper devoted a full page to—I kid you not—Italian tube amplifiers. There I was, fortuitously reading The Mail on Sunday's Live Magazine (March 5, 2006) in the smallest room of my house, when I turned the page to see an 8" by 9" full-color photo of the Unison Research 845 Absolute, probably the least conventional-looking hi-fi amplifier on the market today, all curved wood and sheet copper, with exposed capacitors and huge tubes and a price tag of about $40,000. Below it were the Pathos Classic One and Cinema-X and the Graaf GM50.

Bravo! you're thinking. Recognition at last! Well, yeah, and in a magazine more typically concerned with Madonna's Kabbalah wrist string, or which celebs use BabyBjörn baby slings. And—knock me over with a feather—the Mail on Sunday wasn't being sarcastic or bitchy. The spread was simply the latest in the weekly series "Justify My Love: Do the World's Most Expensive Gadgets Live Up to Their Price Tags?"

Naturally, no verdict is ever published. It's just a way of featuring costly items, from multi-gyms to watches. But this time it was extreme hi-fi equipment, and not just extreme but a cult within the cult. Think about it: Italian tube amps enjoying a full-color spread in a magazine with a few million circulation, whose sister paper had been both awed and disgusted at Beckham's $17,500 for an entire home cinema.

As for the UK distributor of all four Italian amps, he was unable to explain what good fortune, or which entrepreneurial skills on the part of his marketing man, had resulted in such coverage. But I will report back on one thing in a future column: Whether or not the distributor gets even a single inquiry about Graaf, Pathos, or Unison Research from a Mail on Sunday reader.

Alas, more typical of audio's appearances in non-hi-fi publications is its use as an indicator of something negative. In addition to the sheer envy revealed by the papers' response to Beckham's system, there are features produced by better-educated observers, such as Personal Computer World's estimable Guy Kewney, possibly the best computer journalist in the UK. Kewney was using the iPod's and iTunes' decimation of the hi-fi industry to make a point in his April column about a possible downside of high-definition television. (Though the UK is some years behind the US and Japan in receiving HDTV, hopes are high for summer 2006.) As is Kewney's wont, he was cautioning readers about leaping into the HDTV fray. I repeat a particularly salient observation that the A5ers might have printed on the back of T-shirts: "Look at the sales of iPods and iTunes downloads. Doesn't this make you suspect that high-fidelity audio isn't the bulk of the market? It doesn't mean there's no market for quality audio, but it does mean you'd be wrong to suspect most people want full-frequency range recording."

How true. We just have to admit it. And it took someone from outside the high-end community to tell us in plain English.

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