For a long time now, I’ve been wanting an easy solution to get music streaming all throughout my house. I’ve added a Network Attached Storage device (NAS) to allow me to keep all the music in one location that is always accessible, and I’ve tried out many different streaming solutions, from the Sony PS3 to various processors and receivers with DLNA access built in. Unfortunately, nothing to this point has been both powerful, and easy to use.
- Design: Wireless Music Streamer
- DAC: AKM 4420
- Networking 802.11g, 10/100 Ethernet
- File Formats Supported: MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, HE-AACv2, HD-AAC, Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, APE, MPC, WavPack
- Supports Sample Rates Up to 24-bit, 96 kHz
- Inputs Streaming from Squeezebox Server over WiFi and Ethernet, USB hard drive or SD Memory Card
- Outputs: 3.5mm Headphone Jack, L/R Analog Audio RCA jacks, Coaxial and Toslink Optical Digital
- MSRP $299
The PS3 worked the best, but it required the TV to be on to use, didn’t integrate with a universal remote easily, and didn’t support FLAC (my preferred audio format) without additional server support. When Logitech announced they would have a new Squeezebox with a full color touch screen so anyone could use it, and I didn’t need a remote or a TV, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it and see if it could finally do what other devices had failed at.
The Touch form factor looks very similar to those who have seen the previous models from Squeezebox, but has a few very big changes. The most obvious new feature is the 4.3″, touch sensitive LCD on the front. Compared to previous versions, this gives you more information on the music you are currently listening to, in addition to full color album art, and allows you to fully control the system without any other input device. It also includes a remote for easy control from across the room, and there are many remote control applications available for the iPhone or for Android phones as well. The player itself is built really well, feeling incredibly sturdy when you hold it, and much more solid than I expected it to be.
There are many ways to get music into the device: Ethernet and WiFi (802.11g), USB, and SD card slots. Unlike previous models, the Touch has a built in music server if you wish to use SD or USB storage for your music, you can do so and not need to connect to a PC at all. Otherwise, there is software to install on your PC to share your music, and then you hook up the Touch with either WiFi or Ethernet. Getting music out of the Touch can be done multiple ways as well: Stereo RCA outputs, Coaxial and Optical Digital outputs, and a 3.5mm headphone output.
Media support has always been a strong point with the Squeezebox line, and that continues today. The Touch includes native support for MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, HE-AACv2, HD-AAC, and Apple Lossless. Additionally, WMA Lossless, APE, MPC and WavPack are supported through transcoding on the server. It also supports Internet Radio streams and Pandora, so virtually any audio on a PC that you want to play will work on the Touch. The major improvement in file support comes from the addition of support for 24/96 audio files. Previously these had to be sampled down to 16/48 or below, but now your higher bitrate files (from HDTracks, or HRx, or the many other sources for high resolution audio that are appearing) will play back at their native rate with all the extra information present.
Setting up the Touch was a multiple step process: Connecting the Touch to my stereo (I used both RCA and Coaxial digital to compare), registering a MySqueezebox account, and installing the server software on a PC in the house. Here the addition of the touch sensitive screen made setup a breeze. Connecting to my network was simple, and registering an account through the device was very easy as there is a virtual QWERTY layout keyboard that appears on the screen. Installing the software on the server was simple as well, with me pointing it to the location of my music library, connecting it to my just created MySqueezebox account, and letting it scan my library. In total, I was able to have the Squeezebox up and playing music in 30 minutes, all while holding a 4 month old at the same time. It was a very nice, simple setup process that the screen really helped with.
Later on, I downloaded the iPeng software for my iPhone (http://penguinlovesmusic.de/) to let me control the Touch from anywhere in my house. With a much more visual interface, I believe it to be an instant purchase if you own an iPhone or iPod Touch. The Logitech remote worked fine for daily use, but for $10 the iPeng interface was much better overall.
The first thing I did with the Touch was to log in to my Pandora account and start streaming my Radiohead channel into my main system. While not a high resolution source by any means, the wonderful convenience of having Pandora available so easily, and be introduced to new artists, was a wonderful benefit. Next I wanted to test the streaming of Internet Radio, so I brought up my favorite station, KEXP in Seattle, and had it going in no time. The ability to easily type in what I was searching for made finding the stations from the Touch very quick and easy. Usually I find Internet Radio to be too much of a pain to use on streaming solutions, but on the Touch it was just incredibly easy.
Now that I had gotten started, I wanted to see how streaming content from my NAS would go. Before when streaming FLAC, or FLAC transcoded to PCM or WAV, I have run into bandwidth issues and have stuttering or pauses in tracks. My network hasn’t changed since this has happened, so if it was the fault of the network and not the player, that should still be the case. However, in all my listening to FLAC since I got the Touch, I still have yet to have a pause or stutter during track playback. The Touch seems to do a very good job of bufffering enough of the track, but not having a large gap between songs to rebuffer as many players often do. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I was listening to physical media, since there were none of the interruptions I had encountered before.
I went back to my usual test track, Reckoner from Radiohead, to see how the Touch sounded. To make the comparison as fair as possible, I used the digital output of the Touch and the digital output of my Oppo BDP-83 into my NAD receiver, so the DAC inside of the two products wouldn’t be used, and I could just compare if the Touch was functioning correctly as a transport. Switching back and forth between the Touch and Oppo inputs, I could tell no difference between the two. The Touch seemed to be working perfectly as a bit-for-bit transport on lossless audio files, so if I was using the digital output, the results would be the same as they would from the Oppo.
Next, I wanted to see how the output of the analog outputs was and so I decided to compare the same track again, only this time using the analog outputs of the Oppo and the Touch. In this case the Oppo was the winner, seeming to extract a little bit more detail out of the music than the Touch did. When Thom Yorke went for a high note, there was a bit more extension from the Oppo, but without being overly bright or harsh. The Touch did a very good job still, and I’d have no problem using the analog outputs from it, but the AKM4420 DAC wasn’t quite as resolving as the DAC insite of the Oppo.
Moving through my library on the Touch was a very easy job as well. My issue with previous devices that I had used is that they worked great with a small library, such as on my wife’s computer, but as soon as it moved to my full library, with hundreds of CD’s, and almost a thousand different artists, navigation was a chore. Some of this is due to the design of DLNA and that the specification doesn’t really have a good standard for working with a library that large. Since the Touch uses it’s own server software, they can get around this and design it however they want, though of course that means it’s designed just to work with another Squeezebox product. Here we can see some screenshots that illustrate the interface and use of the Touch. Scrolling through artists by hand, or with the remote is easily as you just drag the screen, use the up/down arrows, or type a letter on the remote. If you hold it down, a large letter appears in the middle of the screen as the scroll speed increases, so you can get to the artist or album you are searching for.
After I reach the artist I was after (Radiohead, in this case), I get a list of all their albums to scroll through that works in the same way as the previous screens. Once I start playing a track, I am presented with the playback screen, which has two configurations: The remote view, with less information that is easier to read from a distance which is automatically selected if you are using the remote, or the detailed view, which presents more information (track controls, Thumbs Up or Down ratings for Pandora) and is selected if you are using the screen for input. There are additional views available (analog power meters, visualizations) if you wish, though I preferred to stay with the information screen so I could see what was playing.
Later that week I wanted to listen to a podcast that I typically download to my laptop or iPhone, but I wanted to be able to have it on in the background while I worked on something else. I decided to see if I could get it on the Touch, so I simply went to Internet Radio, searched for a couple words in the Podcast, and the most recent episodes showed up. In under a minute, they were ready to stream. My initial hope with the Touch was that I could just easily stream the music from my computer to it, but now I’ve found that it can go out and find all the music and audio streams that I listen to: My CD library, internet radio stations, podcasts, and Pandora. I can’t wait for football season to start again so I can stream the broadcasts of Oregon State football without being tied down to my laptop.
On The Bench
All bench tests were done using test files from an SD card on the Touch. I tested with both FLAC and WAV files and had no differences between the two results. Bandwidth for the 24/96 tests only goes out to 22 kHz due to an issue with the analysis software and Windows 7 that causes data above that to be unreliable. Once this is fixed I will update the tests with full spectrum results for 24/96 data.
With a 1 kHz tone, both 16/44.1 and 24/96 results are superb, with very low THD+N numbers of 0.0025% on each and one very small peak at 2 khz that is -95db below the tone.
With the 60 Hz – 7 kHz test tones, IMD was once again very low for both, coming in at 0.0015% for 16/44.1 and 0.0012% for 24/96. These are fantastic numbers and it looks like the Squeezebox Touch performs as well on the bench as it sounds in use.
The easiest way to summarize this is to let you know that the Squeezebox Touch will not be going back to Logitech. Simple to setup, easy to use, and with great performance and quality, it’s what I’ve been waiting for in a networked music player. I now spend my mornings listening to Pandora, find it much easier to put on whatever music I want to listen to at a moments notice without having to dig out a CD or vinyl, and find that I listen to far more music than I did before just because it is so simple. One afternoon my wife showed our babysitter how to use it quickly, and when we returned she was talking about how great it was and asking about getting one for her home stereo.
I’ll probably add another one to stream music to the stereo in my son’s room, and another one for the bedroom eventually as well. That’s as much praise as I can offer up to anything, that I don’t want to go back to living without it. I will keep a CD player in my system, for when I have a new disc to play, or my collection of SACD’s, but now the majority of my listening will come from the Squeezebox Touch. It’s a fantastically engineered product that is easy to use and has changed how I use my AV system more than anything else I’ve reviewed.