By Todd Whitesel
As a longtime analog kid myself, I’ve resisted total surrender to the digital “man,” because most digital music that’s been offered for online purchase has been compressed into MP3s or other lossy formats.
If I’m going to listen to digital, I want full fidelity and not some tinny imitator. Even so, I have embraced the digital era partly because today’s hard drives can hold a ton of tunes in a little box. I have a 250 GB external drive that’s filled to capacity with music. It serves not only as a backup but a space-saving way to have hundreds of albums at my fingertips. Truth be told, though, I’ve rarely dug into that collection because I listen to music through a (cue British accent) proper stereo setup, not the crappy computer speakers that I hold onto for whatever reason.
That changed when Logitech sent its Squeezebox Duet for review. I had read positive things about the company’s network music systems, which open the door to let stored digital tunes come to life through a dedicated high-fi setup. Unlike some other streaming media products, the Duet is designed for music lovers and listeners.
The Squeezebox receiver houses a 24-bit Wolfson digital-to-analog (DAC) converter, the same found in many higher-end compact-disc players. If you want to supercharge the sound, a digital optical and/or digital coax connects make it possible to run the signal through a stand-alone DAC before outputted through an amplifier.
Yes, the Squeezebox plays MP3s, Ogg, WMA and AAC — all compressed file formats — but it also plays FLAC, Apple lossless, WMA lossless and WAV files, so there’s no excuse to feed it inferior fare. If you use iTunes and have a library full of Apple lossless files, you can access it easily and stream it directly to your stereo via the Squeezebox receiver. The Duet also works across all three major operating systems: Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
The remote is easy to use, intuitive and responsive. Each command is met with a satisfying click — you don’t have to hold buttons down, wondering if you applied enough pressure. It just works. It’s a breeze to navigate between the menus, even as music is streaming. A 2.4-inch color LCD display shows the artist and album name, song being played, track time and number, total tracks on an album and album art, if available. If you’ve used an iPod, you’ll be right at home with the Logitech remote’s scrolling wheel.
It can be a bit daunting to get network devices configured and running properly. Fortunately, the Duet walks users through the process. After plugging the player in, it searches for a wireless network. Once found, you just need to enter your network password (keep this handy!) and then register online for a free SqueezeNetwork account and download the Squeezebox Server software, which provides access to your music library. In my case, it quickly found “Todd Whitesel’s Mac mini” and the music stored on the hard drive.
The Squeezebox receiver is the epitome of simple. Plug it in and connect it to either a DAC via the digital outs or directly to an amplifier with the RCA analog outs. I hooked it to my Grant A-348 integrated tube amplifier (reviewed earlier in Goldmine) and was soon enjoying great sound.
Once connected to your local network, the Duet searches your computer automatically for music. I was soon streaming albums from my iTunes collection and having a blast digging deep into the digital archives. When was the last time I played Bruce Cockburn’s Further Adventures Of or The Scorpions’ Fly To The Rainbow? I forgot I even had that one.
One of the banes of being a music junkie is that too much is never enough. Even with LPs, CDs, cassettes and more scattered about my house, I’m always searching for new tunes. My neighboring city of Duluth, Minn., has an excellent public station that I tune in to for certain shows, but even those have become predictable. Then I found Internet radio. There are thousands of commercial-free radio stations broadcasting across the Web only. The Duet can connect you to an uncharted world of digital music. You can choose from the pre-loaded stations picked by the Logitech staff or by genre, including classic rock, classical, country, decades, jazz, oldies, rock/metal, soul/blues, Top 40/pop and world. If you want to tune in to talk or sports radio, there are options galore under those submenus.
The Logitech Web site also offers more than two dozen apps for the Duet, making it easy to hook up with other online music sources, including music-subscription services Napster, Rhapsody and Slacker.
One of my favorite apps connects to Live Music Archive, a massive database of live shows featuring artists who are trade-friendly. Here, you can find, listen to — and even download — more than 70,000 gigs from some 3,800 bands. The Archive has a huge collection of Grateful Dead performances and plenty of ear candy from bands such as moe., Tea Leaf Green, Jack Johnson, Radiators, Elliot Smith, John Mayer, Ween, Derek Trucks Band, Cowboy Junkies, Umphreys McGee and Ryan Adams.
Simply select the Live Music Archive app on the remote and access more live music than you could ever hope to listen to. Bands are listed alphabetically and then chronologically by show date. The cool thing about these online services is that they’re accessible even if the computer is turned off. As long as there is a network connection — your wireless router is on — you’re good to go.
The Duet offers the convenience of digital music but doesn’t sacrifice the sound in the process. It frees up the music on your computer as well as opens up a world of Internet music. It’s all for the taking, and it’s fun. Pick up the remote, and as Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say, “Engage.”