April 18, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• More WiFi Audio Adventures, by John Atkinson
• High-End Only, Bien Sur, by Ken Kessler

More WiFi Audio Adventures by John Atkinson

When I wrote about the Squeezebox from Slim Devices (in the second of the two March Stereophile eNewsletters, I wasn't prepared for the response I would get from readers. I recently got an e-mail from a reader complaining about how much analog gear was featured in the April issue's "Recommended Components" compared with the amount of digital. I responded that if analog playback gear was where our readers' passions lay, then that's what we would cover. Judging by the amount of Squeezebox feedback, it appears that we should devote more space in the magazine to the subject of setting up music servers!

As I wrote in March, the Squeezebox, now in its third generation (SB3), is a small box the size and shape of a digital alarm clock that can be networked to a PC system either by WiFi (IEEE802.11g) or by Ethernet. (The Ethernet-only version costs $249, the WiFi/Ethernet version $299.) It offers remote control, a volume control, a headphone jack, and coaxial and optical digital outputs as well as analog outputs. It allows you to access music files on a remote server and play them back on your high-end audio rig, your bedroom system, even the bathroom if you have a system there.

For the eNewsletter piece, I auditioned the SB3's digital output into my Mark Levinson No.30.5 D/A converter , using an inexpensive Mac mini as the server. I will be writing about the sound quality of the SB3's analog outputs in the July Stereophile, but reader "gordyb" tells me that companies such as Red Wine Audio and Bolder Cable are offering modifications of the SB3, such as a better DAC chip, Cardas RCA jacks, and audiophile-grade capacitors. I haven't tried these, so can't comment, but gordyb also recommends using battery power from, for example, Red Wine Audio, rather than the SB3's standard wall wart.

Peter Truce also recommends Red Wine Audio's battery power for the Squeezebox, though he cautions that even a modded SB doesn't begin to compare with his primary passion—vinyl.

"One thing you might try," Peter adds, "is controlling the Squeezebox from your listening position with your PowerBook." (The Mac mini that plays the role of the music server in my system is in another room, which is why I was so enthused over accessing my iTunes library with the Squeezebox.) "Just log into the server using port 9000 and voilà, you have total control of all of the songs. Since my equipment is out of sight at the listening position, I tend to use it more than the remote."

Easier said than done. I couldn't open the port (using System Preferences>Sharing>Firewall)—my laptop told me I was running a third-party firewall program. This turned out to be my EarthLink connection, so I turned that off, restarted the PowerBook, and opened the port, with the desired effect. I would imagine that this function allows the Squeezebox to access music files on any server hooked up to the network, but that's something I didn't have time to explore for this newsletter.

The SlimServer software supplied with the Squeezebox that runs on the host computer doesn't require the Web-browser interface to be active for the Squeezebox to be controllable from its remote. When I ran the Web interface on the Mac Mini using the Safari browser, I had occasional Java-related problems. Changing the default browser to FireFox appeared to work more reliably. I also had a problem where the songs in some albums were listed twice when I rescanned the iTunes library. This appeared to be connected with iTunes' track-numbering metadata, as it happened only with albums where the track number was added to the song title when it was originally ripped.

I had mentioned that an obstacle to my simply using iTunes on the host server to stream music to my listening-room system via the Apple Airport Express WiFi hub was the fact that you can't access iTunes remotely. Dave Brazzle had the solution to that problem: "Greetings, JA, I've been following your server-based music source writings, as I have been down this path as well (and I'm not going back!). The solution to the 'How do I control the Mac mini (iTunes) from my listening chair' question turns out to be an easy one! The answer is a program called Clicker, which comes from Salling Software.

"Clicker is available for both the Mac and a PC. It uses a Bluetooth RF link to allow either a cell phone or a PDA to communicate with the Mac mini. You can now control iTunes on the remote server from your chair. It is bidirectional: you can see your album art, what's playing, your playlists, your individual songs by author, album, etc., go forward/backward by song or by time within the song, even control iTune's volume (albeit with throwing bits away, but that's okay for noncritical listening). It even automatically pauses the music if the phone rings (when using a cell phone as the control device). It's unbelievably good. Plus, the guy who runs Salling (and writes the code) is a great guy.

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"So, you take a Mac or a PC, an outboard DAC (I use the Apogee MiniDAC), add Salling Clicker, add a supported PDA or cell phone, rip your music collection using Apple Lossless, and you've got it made. You'll never look back."

I downloaded Clicker, and installed it on the Mac mini (which is Bluetooth-capable) and the client program on my Treo 650 PDA/cellphone. Clicking on Clicker on the PDA screen the first time involved the usual Bluetooth handshaking using a onetime key; after that, it was plain Salling—er, sailing, with Clicker Playlist appearing in the iTunes window on the host computer. It was initially a bit confusing, as the PDA's Off button now behaved as a mute button for the Airport Express, but Clicker worked just as effectively as Dave Brazzle had promised.

Except: Bluetooth is a short-range RF link. It works fine for my wireless keyboard and mouse, but my listening chair is 15' and two walls away from the Mac mini, which was just out of range for reliable operation in my room. To use my Treo as an iTunes remote, I had to stand up and walk to the back of the listening room. Which sort of defeats the purpose. But if you can get a good Bluetooth connection from your listening position, Clicker, iTunes, and an Airport Express will be all you need.

I got a number of e-mails from readers who recommended replacing the WiFi link for both the Airport Express and the Squeezebox with a hardwired Ethernet connection. "If the computer and Airport Express are located in separate rooms, you can have a professional come in to wire two Cat5e wall jacks for a couple of hundred bucks or less (or run a long, ugly Ethernet cable between the rooms)," wrote Robert Maran. "When you consider what some audio systems cost, and the annoyance of frequent dropouts, it's well worth the small cost."

Except the beauty of a WiFi network to those of us who live in old buildings, where not all the walls are of drywall construction, is that it allows hardwiring to be dispensed with. I must say that, once I had the Squeezebox optimally set up—mainly by making sure that the WiFi channel was not one being shared by my neighbors—dropouts were extremely rare. Again, as I wrote last month, the forums and Wiki pages on the Slim Devices website offer useful information on troubleshooting network problems, as does the Squeezebox's Help file.

So far, all of my experiments with music servers have involved general-purpose networking gear. But as I write these words, I have just taken delivery of a system from Sonos. Superficially, it resembles the Squeezebox, but with two main differences: 1) it moves the display from the WiFi/audio box to the remote, which is an advantage when the Squeezebox is across the room from the listening chair, even with its display set to Large; and 2) it automatically sets up its own secure WiFi network, which is said to have better signal strength/range than a normal 802.11 link. The Sonos system accesses any music files on the network, including those on a networked hard drive not directly connected to a computer. Like the Squeezebox, it plays back all the usual file formats, including AAC, MP3, WAV, AIF, Apple Lossless, and FLAC, and it can recognize and import an existing iTunes library. However, also like the Squeezebox, it cannot play DRM-protected content, whether Microsoft- or Apple-sourced.

There are three basic components in a Sonos system: the new ZP80 zone player ($349), which is similar in functionality to the Squeezebox (with the addition of the ability to digitally encode line-input signals), and needs to be hooked up via analog or digital outputs to an existing system; the older ZP100 ($499), which adds a 50Wpc stereo amplifier to the ZP80 so that it can make use of the owner's speakers; and the Sonos Controller ($399), which has a four-color LCD screen and an iPod-like rotary touch control.

I will be writing about my experience with the Sonos Zone Players in a future newsletter. In the meantime, I welcome feedback from readers who have experimented with music servers in their systems. Physical discs seem so 20th century!

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High-End Only, Bien Sur, by Ken Kessler

You couldn't help but think of Marie Antoinette's insouciance. While the rest of the world was distracted by France's recent troubles, the country's audiophiles were enjoying one of the best purist audio shows of recent times. Every newscast in the world showed French students protesting the arrival of laws that would stop the country's sclerotic rot, due to typically European employment laws. Those who wanted to attend the Salon Hi-Fi Home Cinema show at the end of March risked incidents on the Metro on their way to Paris's southern reaches. So the result had to be worth it.

And it was. Show organizer Jean-Marie Hubert, whose résumé goes back to the superb Paris shows of the 1980s and 1990s, was adamant that the city could host an event of which it could be proud. By assembling the most powerful of the French importers, Hubert was able to entice visitors with active demonstrations that included the latest products from the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, including the Wilson Audio Specialties Duette loudspeakers, Audio Research's complete Reference lineup (plus the new CD7 player at the front end of a system featuring Wilson's Alexandria speakers), the latest MartinLogan electrostatic speakers, the long-awaited darTZeel preamplifier, AudioValve's 240W Baldur 300 monoblocks, a complete McIntosh "2K" system with massive loudspeakers and triple-chassis power amps, and more.

What made Salon Hi-Fi Home Cinema even more special was the Sofitel Sèvres rooms: huge, and mainly devoid of sonic aberrations. Even when the crowds were thickest, there was no sense of claustrophobia. And the hotel's elevators worked!

Among the highlights were the launch of Stereo & Image, a brand-new French audio magazine, and the first in years to focus on the High End. One of its founders is Patrick Vercher, the J. Gordon Holt of France, so its credibility is all but assured. New items from French brands exhibiting at the show included Waterfall's mini subwoofer, the teensy High Force 1, which measures a nearly cubical 9.75" (250mm) by 10.9" (280mm) by 10.1" (260mm). Inside is an 8.2" (210mm) woofer powered by a 150W amplifier. Mikey Fremer will want to follow up on the Epure, a belt-driven turntable from Pierre Riffaud (p.riffaud@wanadoo.fr). It features extensive use of stainless steel (including the pulley), a synchronous motor, and a unipivot tonearm.

041806JMHubert.gifOne thing that always amuses me is the fact that France's Magavox (magavox@wanadoo.fr) has become the poster child for the oh-so-British Lowther drive-units. Lowther's only presence in the UK these days seems to be via imported systems! Magavox featured the enormous Walhall loudspeaker to showcase their new versions of classic Lowther drive-units. Magavox has always been a great source for Lowther drivers, and their latest catalog is filled with new models featuring heavily modified centers. Art Dudley, they're calling you!

It seemed, though, that the French launches were outnumbered by the Chinese, and tube-driven bargains were everywhere. Consonance's Cyber 20 single-ended-triode tube headphone amp, with two outputs, was small enough to fit in your pocket—a big contrast with the company's utterly breathtaking Forbidden City combination of preamp and power amp, with their red front panels. The preamp is digital, the power amp a tube-transistor hybrid good for 200Wpc, and the combined weight is 165 lbs (75kg).

Crowds gathered, too, around an impressive display of Shanling goodies, including the STP80 integrated amp. The French were clearly taken by its fabulous styling and beautiful construction, a chic way to extract 25Wpc from two EL34 tubes per channel. Speaking of small headphone amps, the Brocksieper's much-loved, all-tube EarMax, from Germany, has been upgraded again, and with the new version, the chassis has finally gotten the finish it deserves.

What Jean-Marie Hubert has accomplished with Salon Hi-Fi Home Cinema defies logic. Though France has never been known as a high-end paradise, the show was well-attended and brimming with optimism. And though France has always been known as a nation of cinéastes, home cinema has barely made a dent there. The French economy may be in the toilet, but show attendees seemed as if they were there not only to drool but to buy. If the Salon Hi-Fi doesn't prove to be a fluke, maybe there's hope yet for the High End in France.

Photo: Salon Hi-Fi Home Cinema organizer Jean-Marie Hubert sporting the now highly covetable "High End Only" T-shirt

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