The Squeezebox Duet is a package consisting of the Squeezebox Receiver, a headless networked audio playback unit, and the Squeezebox Controller, a handheld WiFi-based remote control with a 2.4″ color LCD screen. Sound pretty sexy, don’t they? Well, yeah, they are. After a few years of incremental improvement in the network audio playback space, the Duet is the first thing that’s wowed me in quite a while. But before we get to the nitty gritty, some background is in order.

I’ve been a fan of Slim Devices since the original Squeezebox, which I picked up when it first shipped in 2003. Over the years I upgraded to the Squeezebox v2 and then the Squeezebox v3, which had the kind of industrial design usually produced by much larger companies. Slim Devices was really rocking, so I was apprehensive about their future when they were acquired by Logitech in 2006. The Squeezebox Duet is the first product designed after the acquisition, and I am pleased to report that my concerns have been assuaged. The Duet package counts as serious progress on all fronts.

Maybe I’m just way too much of a geek, but the way the Controller, Receiver, and SqueezeCenter server software work together puts a smile on my face. You’ve got a WiFi (802.11b/g/n) remote control which talks to SqueezeCenter to issue commands and get updates. Then SqueezeCenter passes on commands and audio data to the Receiver, either over Ethernet or WiFi. The Receiver renders the audio either over its analog outputs (using 24-bit DACs) or over a SPDIF optical connection.

It sounds complex, but it works beautifully. Push pause on the remote, and the music stops instantly. Pick up the remote and its accelerometer wakes up the screen and shows the current song’s information, including title, group, album (including cover, if you have covers in your library), time playing, and time remaining. The fast forward and back buttons on the remote work just as instantly and intuitively. And since it’s WiFi, line of sight doesn’t matter. What’s more, anything you do using SqueezeCenter’s newly beautified web interface is communicated to the Controller: hit pause or skip a track using the web interface, and the Controller’s display is updated instantly.

For uber-geeks, the Controller is enough of a unix system that you can actually SSH into it. How cool is that? Since you’ve got a handheld WiFi-connected unix system, I expect to see some cool hacks as more people discover the Duet. Another bonus feature for the hardcore: if you’re willing to dive into the command line, the Receiver can connect to your network via WiFi and bridge its Ethernet port, essentially providing a WiFi access point for free.

In addition to the SqueezeCenter server, the Controller can instruct the Receiver to connect directly to several music services, including Rhapsody, Pandora, and a whole swath of Internet radio stations. With Pandora and Rhapsody, the experience is almost like playing music from your own library: album covers are displayed on the Controller, fast forward and pause work as expected, and so on.

SqueezeCenter itself is basically a web server, so you can connect to it over the Internet. In my testing I was able to easily connect to a friend’s SqueezeCenter over the Internet and flawlessly browse and play back from his library (obvious caveats apply about firewalls, VPNs, and the evil RIAA — running a public SqueezeCenter server is probably a bad idea).

While the Controller is a remarkable device, it does have its limitations. For instance, while it can output IR commands to older Squeezeboxes, it can’t control other devices. Because the Controller’s volume buttons adjust the Receiver’s output level, I had to turn my stereo up to unreasonable volume levels for the Receiver’s halfway-loud setting to sound normal if I wanted to have headroom to go louder. This led to some terrifying experiences when I switched sources but forgot to turn my amp back down (sorry, neighbors). It would be very handy if the Receiver could be set to always output full volume on its digital outs (like older Squeezeboxes) and if the Controller could use its IR ability to control the volume on the amp instead.

The Controller also suffers from a too-short battery life. After charging overnight, I typically got about 4 hours of usage before it needed a recharge. That’s not terrible, but it would have been nice if it could have made it through a full evening without needing to be cradled. Finally, while the Controller has an audio output jack that will presumably allow it to act as a Squeezebox in the future, there is no software support to do so (this is one of the cool hacks that I would really, really like to see). In more minor quibbles, the physical scroll wheel feels kind of cheap and more than a little retro at this point. It’s adequate, but brings down the perceived build quality.

I should note that there are features in the Squeezebox ecosystem that I did not test, but which may be appropriate in other setups: multiple Receivers and older Squeezeboxes can be synchronized to provide seamless multi-room playback, there’s a cool SoftSqueeze Java applet that allows computers to participate as either standalone playback devices or as part of a synchronized multi-room setup, both alarm clock and sleep modes are available, and, well, probably a whole bunch more.

On the whole, the Squeezebox Duet is by far the most elegant and sophisticated music playback system I’ve used. While testing the setup, I found myself listening to more music, and perhaps more importantly exploring more new music. Enjoying music is the whole point, and the Duet makes it easier to do so.
4 and a half stars

List price: $399

Website: www.slimdevices.com

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