Streaming media across your home network is growing in popularity, with an ever-increasing number of boxes on the market. With video, it’s still a dark art getting systems running smoothly and, with an obvious use yet to emerge, there’s still a long way to go before mass-market acceptance.
But audio streaming is a different matter. Products such as the previous Squeezebox
and the Sonos Digital Music System
are actually pretty easy to use and they offer the tangible benefit of not having to get up to change CDs.
With its new Squeezebox Duet, Logitech has advanced the cause of dedicated audio streaming a notch further, and it’s done it by giving its Squeezebox a split personality.
The Duet no longer sports the glowing vacuum fluorescent display of its predecessor – in fact, the module that now connects to your hi-fi has gone from work of art to plain black box. About the size of a slim paperback novel, the receiver module simply receives the digital audio stream (either over wired or wireless connections) from whichever device you have the SqueezeCenter software installed on and then pipes it out in compatible format to whatever hi-fi component you care to mention.
On its rear panel are stereo phono connections, or you can use either of the digital outputs (optical and coaxial), which enable you to bypass the Duet’s internal DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) electronics and decode data in a dedicated DAC or home theatre receiver.
The new control unit is the most exciting part of the Duet system. Instead of a dumb infrared remote, the controller is equipped with a 2.4in colour screen that displays lists of tracks, albums, artists and so on. It’s rechargeable (just drop it in the supplied cradle) and a doddle to use – the onboard screen makes it much easier to see what you’re doing than squinting at a display a couple of metres or so away. And, cleverly, as soon as you pick it up the screen automatically switches on.
The well-thought out control system only adds to the Duet’s ease of use. For scrolling through tracks, there’s an iPod-esque scroll ring with a Select button in the middle. This is flanked by Forward, Back and Home buttons, and below sit simple controls for the volume and track skipping. Playlists can be created on the fly and tracks simply queued up to keep the flow of music going.
What’s really clever about this unit, however, is that it’s equipped with a Wi-Fi adapter.
Instead of controlling the receiver box, the controller talks to SqueezeCenter directly (the server software), an approach that has a number of advantages. The first is that there’s no limit to the remote’s range; you can quite comfortably wander into another room and still be able to change tracks, pause and adjust the volume. The second benefit is that it can be used to control multiple receivers and even older Squeezebox devices. Indeed, the controller can be purchased separately if existing owners of Squeezeboxes or Transporters want to augment their players without shelling out for a complete system.
We set up the Duet on the same network as a Squeezebox 3 and were able to change tracks on both simply by switching between them on the remote’s interface. Multiple receivers can also be controlled simultaneously – great if you’re hosting a party – but there is one annoyance. You have to set this feature up in the server software; there’s no facility to select and synchronise devices on the controller.
All the strengths of previous Squeezebox devices still hold true. File format support is superb from MP3 and WMA through AAC to the open-source FLAC and Ogg formats. Sound quality is equally excellent. Music is reproduced cleanly and clearly, even if it lacks the sparkle of similarly priced traditional hi-fi separates. The receiver module, as with the Squeezebox 3 before it, is capable of acting as a wireless bridge, so other, non-wireless networkable AV components can benefit from the convenience of a wireless connection.
The final feather in the Duet’s cap is its extendibility through plug-ins, and its seamless integration with services such as Rhapsody and MP3tunes Music Locker. Rhapsody is a subscription service that lets you play what seems like any tune on the face of the planet for around $15 a month. MP3tunes Music Locker allow you to upload your tunes, then access them on the Squeezebox without turning on your PC or NAS box. Internet radio is available, with thousands of stations to choose from.
There are only two criticisms we could possibly level at the Squeezebox Duet. The first is that it isn’t UPnP compatible, which restricts you to SqueezeCenter as a media server. And the second is that it’s pricey at $499.
But when you consider that the Sonos Digital Music System’s controller alone costs the same, we don’t think it’s too much to ask. If only the engineers who built it could be persuaded to do the same for video streaming.