Note: This is a combined review of both the Logitech Squeezebox Duet and the Logitech Transporter, however the ratings and price are for the Squeezebox Duet alone.
Digital media streaming is, in theory, the ultimate way to manage your music collection. Wherever your music is stored – on one PC, a bunch of PCs, a hard drive – as long as all those devices are connected to your unit, your digital music streamer can just pull down audio as you require it.
Enter Logitech with its Squeezebox family. From the everyday Squeezebox – a simple thin client that pipes your music to a regular set of speakers or modest AV rack – up to the audiophile-grade Transporter which, Logitech claims, has the cojones to give the very best CD players a run for their money.
Since all these products work together and can be managed via the Controller (which looks like a universal remote crossed with an iPod), we’ve decided to set them all up on one network and review them together.
Firstly, despite Logitech’s boast that Squeezebox unleashes your music and makes digital streaming simple enough for everyone, that only really includes people who: a) know their AV gear, b) know their PC and c) really know their wireless network.
These are not simple devices, by any stretch of the imagination. In the couple of weeks we had with them, they were much like owning an Alfa Romeo sports car: when they worked, they were sublime, fantastic, the ultimate. But at least once a week – sometimes once a day – the whole system fell down, not because of a bug or crash, but because these products are so complex you need to think of at least half a dozen things every time you turn one on.
Don’t be scared: Squeezebox is cool enough to be worth getting a degree in network management to be able to operate. Here’s how it works.
You install software on your PC called SqueezeCenter. This software runs in the background and looks for all audio files on the computer. It even has a special ability to watch your iTunes library and update itself every time you load new music onto your iPod.
Meanwhile, in the lounge room, the Transporter is plugged into your component-style AV rack. As the ‘daddy’ of the Squeezebox family, it offers audiophiles a long list of features that they look for when purchasing, say, a high-end CD player. Even down to a word-clock controller, for folks to whom that means something. (It helps synchronise the signal from digital audio devices.)
While the family audiophile is fiddling with XLR ports and whatever in the lounge, the Squeezebox client – a simple black box with a single button on the front – is connected to the consumer-grade all-in-one stereo system in the family room (or bedroom, or study or kitchen), via either an optical-out or ordinary RCAs. You can even run all five areas simultaneously, with each one receiving a different audio stream. In fact, Logitech claims that up to 55 clients can perform at once, although real-world results will be limited by your network.
Then, the music master of the house wanders around with the Controller, variously sending an uncompressed FLAC recording of a Beethoven symphony to the Transporter, while at the same time dialling in internet radio or perhaps an MP3 album onto the Squeezebox.
In short, different audio streams, to different players, in different rooms, at the same time. The only thing you have to fight about now is who gets to use the Controller.
The theory of Squeezebox sounds great, and a simple configuration of one PC, one Controller, and one Squeezebox client works perfectly. But when you start pushing the capabilities of this system, that’s when things get difficult.
Here’s what Squeeze Box setup looks like on paper: unpack your Squeezebox, install SqueezeCenter on your PC, plug the Squeezebox into your AV rack, push the button on the front, use the Controller to select your wireless network, and you’re away!
In reality, there are roughly 90 billion variables that make this process anything but straightforward. Physically attaching the Squeezebox or Transporter to your AV rack or stereo is easy, using plugs you’ve used for years.
It’s the wireless networking that makes things tricky. Let’s take our specific example, because our network uses WPA security. The Transporter, for instance, couldn’t connect to the network because of this security system. Fortunately, years of reviewing devices like this made us think, maybe it needs a firmware upgrade first. So we logged in to our router, disabled the security, whereupon the Transporter could then connect, upgrade its firmware, and then connect to the properly secured network.
It was all straightforward, but the fact is most people won’t be familiar enough with networking to troubleshoot this sort of issue by themselves, and they’ll be reaching for the phone as soon as the Transporter says “there was a connection problem”.
The Squeezebox is equally problematic because it doesn’t have a display. You’re supposed to use the Controller as its display, but the Controller itself is a device on the network, and if you can’t get it on the network, you can’t diagnose what’s keeping the Squeezebox from connecting.
Fortunately, both the Squeezebox and the Transporter have Ethernet ports, neatly bypassing any wireless issues, and the Controller can be bridged onto a wired network via the Squeezebox.
And Logitech’s customer service on these complex products is excellent: the company understands these issues are likely to arise, and will take you through all the steps.
The bottom line is that while setting up the Squeezebox isn’t going to be easy, neither is it impossible, and as you’re about to read, the results are very much worth it.
Performance of the Squeezebox and Transporter is broadly split into two aspects: audio quality, and ergonomics. Let’s start with the good news.
Audio quality is astonishing. If you’re a digital music hater, prepare to hate no more. Using Apple Lossless, FLAC, WMA Lossless, AIFF, WAVE, PCM or other formats encoded at 192kHz or greater, you’re going to need extremely high-end gear to tell the difference between audio streaming from your PC, and something played directly off a CD.
You can use both devices as either simple transporters of a digital signal, passing it to your receiver setup, or you can get them to utilise their own digital-to-analog converters (DAC) for analog output.
The slim little Squeezebox does a good job via its ordinary RCAs, but it’s the Transporter than truly excels, outputting analog via its various ports, making it suitable even for a setup that tries to avoid digital amps to achieve that warm, analog sound.
And you’ll enjoy this sound for the several hours it takes for your network to mess up in some way, whereupon the pain begins.
Let’s be fair here: we stressed the Squeezebox system to the max. Not only did we have a Transporter and a Squeezebox in different rooms, managing them both with the one Controller, we also drew audio from three sources: a PC running Windows Vista, a Mac running OSX, and Logitech’s own SqueezeNetwork, which gives you internet radio and access to storage services like MP3Tunes without needing a PC switched on – your router just needs to be connected to the internet.
Really, we should be amazed that such a combination of different machines, devices and operating systems worked at all. This was the chain to get RadioIO internet radio playing on the Transporter: ADSL modem to wireless router. Wireless router to PC in bedroom. PC in bedroom back to wireless router. Router to Transporter, but allowing control via the Controller, which is actually a separate device on the network.
But then we decided to play some Indigo Girls in the family room, so it was Mac to wireless router, wireless router to Squeezebox but allowing control via the same Controller as was being used to operate the Transporter.
Confused? So was our network. It’s also possible to synchronise audio across the two players, and when streaming music from the Vista PC, this worked fine. From the Mac, we just couldn’t get both players in sync.
Meanwhile, understanding you need to switch to the right music source to see a player on the Controller, or select the right player to control volume, was hard enough. But if either PC lost its network connection – nothing to do with Logitech, but everything to do with the way PCs are cantankerous beasts – the Controller could lock up.
Things went downhill from there. Players would disappear. The Mac went into sleep mode between albums, locking up the Transporter. We closed the SqueezeCenter software on the PC but somehow the Transporter kept streaming music.
The worst part of all this is that none of these problems are the result of bugs or poor design. It’s just the nature of the true complexity of a wireless network.
Does this mean you shouldn’t buy the Squeezebox or Transporter? Does it mean the world just isn’t ready for this kind of audio product? Quite the opposite. The Squeezebox system is a fantastic combination of hardware and software that will make all your CDs instantly obsolete.
What’s great about Squeezebox isn’t just the flexibility and audio quality. It’s that it forces you to learn how your network works. It makes you realise the centre of your entertainment system isn’t your AV rack or your PC, it’s your network.
Everyone should have a properly set-up, properly managed home Wi-Fi network. And Squeezebox gives you a reason to learn how to set one up.
Yes, our setup for this review had lots of problems. But that’s because we didn’t observe the golden rule: KISS. Ideally, you would have a third PC dedicated to storing music. With a single music source, the system is much more stable and easy to use.
But you should try Squeezebox. The Duet in particular gives you a low-cost (compared to similar systems) entry point to multi-room audio, and the Controller – despite a few ergonomic issues such as the scroll wheel from a first-generation iPod – with its bright, big colour screen makes navigating home audio iPod-simple.
And the Transporter is a truly marvellous device that audiophiles will grudgingly have to admit finally helps streaming audio come of age, thanks to its quality DACs and plethora of options.
Bottom line? Don’t expect Squeezebox to be easy. But expect it to revolutionise the way you listen to music.