UPDATE: The full review is now up at CNET.com.
The Logitech Squeezebox Duet, our pick for the best home audio product of CES 2008, has just shown up at the office. We spent a few minutes with the system before at CES, but this has been our first chance to sit down and live with the product in our own environment. A full review will follow, but in the meantime, here are some off-the-bat first impressions:
- Remote: With just nine buttons and a scroll wheel, the remote is a thing of beauty. The buttons are backlit, and the color screen is bright and easy to read in any indoor setting. One-handed operation is simply and intuitive. The rechargeable battery is removeable, and the recharging cradle is anchored with a thick piece of metal, so it won't be easily knocked over. About the worst thing we can say is that the scroll wheel isn't quite as good as the iPod's (it's an actual wheel, not a solid-state clickwheel that's found on current iPods); for instance, navigating long alphabetical lists can be a bit of a pain. But that's more of a quibble than a knock. The main point here is that you can navigate your entire music collection (or music service) from the palm of your hand--no need to run to your computer, or access via a TV-based interface.
- Base station: Simple and direct: the base station just has audio out (stereo analog, optical digital, coaxial digital), as well as network connectivity (Ethernet and Wi-Fi). You can adjust the settings for the output to be variable (controlled by the Squeezebox remote) or line-level (controlled by the amplifier it's connected to).
- Setup: Set up wasn't quite as smooth as our best case scenario--the Apple TV--but it wasn't bad when compared with a lot of network devices. Things seemed smoother once we downloaded and installed the latest firmware (a quick and easy option from the remote's settings menu). Basically, you log-in to your Wi-Fi access point, then setup a SqueezeNetwork account online (it's completely painless), and link it to your Squeezebox with a unique PIN code. From there, you can manage all your online music sources (see below), as well as the settings for the Squeezebox. Doing so through the browser-based interface will work with any PC (Windows, Mac, Linux), and--as good as the scroll wheel remote is--it's much easier enter passwords and Internet radio URLs on your computer keyboard.
- Online music services: If you like online music services, chances are you'll love the Squeezebox Duet. Thus far, supported services include Rhapsody, Slacker, MP3tunes, Pandora, Live365, RadioIO, and RadioTime. As mentioned above, the online SqueezeNetwork interface aggregates all your account information--just plug in your username and password for each, and it instantly becomes available on the Squeezebox Duet. (These are mostly premium services, but nearly all of them offer a trial period.) Rhapsody was a particular pleasure, as we were able to access all of our playlists and albums--and the interface was actually snappier than when doing so through a PC.
- Internet radio: Prefer free online music? The full panoply of online radio is available. Either access Shoutcast servers (divided by region or genre), or add your own bookmarked favorites through the SqueezeNetwork interface.
- Podcasts: As with the Internet radio bookmarks, you can add the feeds for your favorite podcasts on the SqueezeNetwork homepage.
- PC audio: Prefer to access your homegrown digital music selection? Download the SqueezeCenter software from the SqueezeNetwork Website. The updated version (you'll need the beta 7.0 version) of the robust SlimServer software is available for Windows, Macs, and (gasp) even Linux computers. The software allows you to access your PC's entire music collection from the Squeezebox remote. With the notable exception of DRM'd music, file compatibility is robust: MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, and Ogg Vorbis. Likewise, it'll pull playlists from most popular music software, including iTunes. Again, the great thing here is that it's all done with a straightforward browser interface--it doesn't take over your computer and make itself "the default media player." Instead, you just point it to the directories that have your music files and playlists, and it's pretty much good to go. The only thing that takes a little getting used to is that you need to toggle between the SqueezeCenter (your local music) or the SqueezeNetwork (online music)--you can't access everything simultaneously.
- Customization and extras: The open source legacy of the Slim Devices products and software is alive and well. A lot of cool extras are on board, many of which we haven't even had a chance to play with. Among them are environmental sounds (babbling brook, crickets, thunderstorm, waves hitting the beach); background wallpapers for the remote screen (various colors, patterns, or photos--you can even, apparently, pull in Flickr streams, but I didn't have time to play with that); and RSS newsfeeds. If you're an advanced user looking for more elaborate options, check out the full range of software plug-ins available.
- Multiroom options: The default Squeezebox Duet is a one-room system. But Logitech will soon be selling the components separately--the Controller (remote) for $300 and the Receiver (base station) for $150--so you can expand the system to multiple rooms in the home. Likewise, the older Logitech/Slim Devices Squeezebox models should also act as base stations for the system, with the added value of including a front-panel display, so you can see what's playing even if the remote's not in the room.
Suffice it to say, our initial impressions of the Logitech Squeezebox Duet are overwhelmingly positive. While total networking newbies may find the setup process a bit confusing, and--as always--those looking for compatibility with purchased DRM music are out of luck, the Squeezebox Duet ($400, available imminently) looks to be a major leap forward for anyone looking to enjoy digital music in the home.