Squeezebox

My most interesting – and, excluding my phone bill, the most expensive – acquisition during my Mountain View sojourn was something called a “Squeezebox”. To avoid confusion with the traditional Irish musical instrument, I’ll say now that this particular Squeezebox is designed and manufactured by Slim Devices, a Mountain View electronics company.

A co-worker had one of these devices placed invitingly upon his desk, connected to a pair of laptop speakers. All very innocuous, really, and I didn’t take much notice until he started extolling its virtues: MP3 and FLAC playback, decent sound, wireless connectivity and Linux compatible. Delving further, it emerged that the box is more than just “Linux compatible”: it connects to an open-sourced server (“SlimServer“) running on a Linux box which scans your music collection without fuss and also provides connectivity to internet radio.

Playing with the controls for a few moments was a revelation and it was immediately obvious that the Slim device was exactly what my vague undefined dis-satisfaction with CDs had been looking for all this time. Here it was before me, forged in reality and priced at an almost scandalously cheap $300.

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Well, by an astonishing coincidence – and as I mentioned at the start of this post – we were in Mountain View. Before I left for home my friend kindly arranged for a quick trip down to the Slim Devices offices where we received a demo of the Squeezebox’s big brother, the Transporter, and picked up a couple of Squeezeboxes for ourselves (complete with Irish plug).

Last night, back home at last, I finally took the time to set it up:

  • Plug in Squeezebox.
  • Follow instructions on screen; it has detected my wifi network and it takes me a few moments to enter the WPA key.
  • It now wants the IP of a SlimServer. Over to the laptop…
  • I plug in my external hard drive, add the repository to my Ubuntu laptop and run "apt-get install slimserver".
  • Open Firefox to http://localhost:9000/. Point it at my music folder and leave running. Music is added to the list as this process runs.
  • Back to the Squeezebox; it’s detected SlimServer already.
  • Listen to Bill Charlap. Be happy.

Total time elapsed is about 10 minutes.

What can I say? The highest praise I can give is that it’s exactly how any self-respecting geek would build a music distribution system. It’s essentially a very custom thin (or “slim” – a word I used myself on a university project some years ago) client computing device which you connect to a very hackable (and I use the word in its original meaning) server which employs some of the best tools from the open source world, such as the MPlayer media player, MySQL database and Perl programming language, to work its magic.

This not only allows Slim to focus on a tight, lean, featureful server but simultaneously fosters a community of devoted contributors and testers (indeed, my friend provided some advice on their Debian/Ubuntu packaging) which alone will ensure the device’s survival for years to come. Features flow organically from sensible engineering practices; for example, I haven’t even mentioned the web interface in this post – by now, you won’t be the least bit surprised to learn that it does indeed have one, effectively turning your laptop as the most overspecced remote control on the face of the planet. And if you have two Squeezeboxes then it can control both.

It’s all so sure a sign of a company that has its head screwed with a good solid helping of common sense and basic knowledge of moral and technical right and wrong that it’s beautiful. One of the unique joys of hifi equipment is that it lasts for decades, communicating freely with each tried and trusted component of your system; now, with Slim’s open spirit and fine engineering, we can finally welcome networked music devices into the club. The CD is dead.

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