Squeezebox: Therapy for Digital Music

Gadget restores luster to downloaded music before it reaches your stereo.
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Here's my hot tech tip for a hot summer: Flee the blistering outdoors and chill inside with my latest audio crush, the Squeezebox, a way-slick Internet audio gadget from Slim Devices ($299).

We've all flirted with the Web content thing before: Jimmy Cliff live, or whatever you stole -- excuse me, legally obtained -- off the Internet, piped in from your

Dell

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,

Hewlett-Packard

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or

Apple

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computers.

Sure, the stuff had that Fisher-Price MP3-player feel: bad, cramped sound. But what could you do? Traditional home-entertainment systems from the usual suspects such as

Sony

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and

Toshiba

just could not deal with PC content.

Yes, you could bridge the PC to your stereo with cables, wireless routers and lots of software, but that required at least a brown belt in gadget jujitsu. I, for one, could not be bothered.

Enter the Squeezebox, the elegant solution for getting Web content to your best-quality home audio system.

Squeezebox installs right into your home computer network: It plugs into the router that comes with your broadband Internet connection, and then it installs software that lets the Squeezebox see the music on your PC. The unit then takes that music, turns it into a normal audio signal your home sound system can understand and sends it out through the regular inputs on your stereo.

Voila, all the music hitherto locked on your computer now can flow seamlessly onto your audio system -- a very neat, and timely, trick.

The Future of Music

Right off, there's lots to like about the Squeezebox. First of all, it looks flat-out fabulous, done in a deep black or metallic finish and about the size of a decent slice of Romano.

Installation is simple for a nominally complex network device. From Slim Devices' Web site, simply download the latest copy of the SlimServer software -- that's the name of the code that allows the Squeezebox to see your PC's content.

Next, plug the Squeezebox into an open port on your ethernet router (both cable and wireless connections will work). Connect the audio outputs of the Squeezebox into the audio inputs of your stereo.

Finally, mess around a bit with the included remote to set up the unit. And that's that. All my computer's Jimmys -- Cliff, Buffett and Webb -- were transported live to my stereo, in a mere half an hour.

Now I have total control of the system -- my music playlists, volume and other features -- from both my PC and from the remote. The unit also works with iTunes content, if properly set up. Better yet, the Squeezebox has access to several good Internet radio and music services (account required for some):

Last.fm,

Live365,

Rhapsody and even my personal favorite,

Pandora.

(Big note: The future of Web radio is uncertain. Royalties that Internet radio must pay to the music world are expected to rise dramatically, so expect Internet content to get expensive fast.)

Discordant Tones

Of course, there are issues. For all of Squeezebox's design elegance, its software is a mess. The layout is cramped and hard to understand. Expect stress as you suss out the content on your computer vs. the content fed from the Web.

And nonsense does lurk in the remote. Getting it to work as you would like is not intuitive.

Worst of all, audio quality can be atrocious. So much of what passes for music in the digital age sounds like it was recorded in a clothes hamper: dull, dense and moldy. So even as Squeezebox lovingly feeds digital content to your wonderful home-audio system, it only highlights the weaknesses in the original digital recording.

Obviously, this is not Squeezebox's fault. It's only a conduit for flawed compression and distribution; the problem is in the track itself. But you should know you can expect a taste of audio rage as you hear just how bad that cut of "The Harder They Fall" you just bought from iTunes really sounds.

But in the end, there is no denying the power of the Squeezebox. The system easily ports your PC's music to your audio system, and it lets you sample the growing stockpile of Web music. There is just no excuse not to own one.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.