I've had a taste of PC audio and wireless home networking and won't be going back to old-fashioned CD playback.
A few months ago my primary CD player began malfunctioning, causing me to begin dreading the prospect of - once again - having to go through the process of trying to find a suitable cost-effective "audiophile-quality" replacement (or a unit that could be modified to meet that description). As it turned out, I needn't have worried.
Instead of ending up with another clunky electromechanical optical-disc-based CD player I took the opportunity to move forward into the future of audio and into the world of home networking and PC audio. I purchased a Squeezebox 3 wireless network music player, from Slim Devices (now a Logitech company).
I'd been watching the progress of PC audio and home networking in recent years (and it's more evident at this year's CES than ever), but as intriguing as it seemed I'd held back because of concerns over dealing with the complexity of a "home network" and questions about using an electrically noisy source like a PC as an audio source. Also, it seemed that most of the cost-effective products aimed at that market tended to be either proprietary, limited in functionality or not up to "audiophile" standards (such as the Apple AirPort Express).
More recently, audiophile solutions - such as the Sonos Digital Music System - were becoming more widely available but tended to be more expensive (in some cases wildly so) than I was willing to spend. But it was actually seeing a demo of one of these solutions - the five-figure-priced Klimax DS digital music player from high-end audio manufacturer Linn Products - at AES that prompted me to really take a closer look at other current offerings, which is how I found the Squeezebox.
The $299 unit (I bought mine on sale for less) works across a wired or 802.11g wireless connection and plays a wide variety of compressed and uncompressed digital music files located on a PC or Mac (and some NAS devices) running its Open-Source SlimServer software. It also can be used to listen to Internet Radio - something else I've been looking forward to hearing more of - and numerous third-party software plug-ins are available offering all sorts of additional functions.
The Squeezebox is controlled via a remote control and a nice vacuum fluorescent display on the main unit, and setting it up with my existing wireless router was a breeze. The unit has both digital (S/PDIF) and analog outputs - an important point for me as I'm using the digital out to drive an external high-end DAC (although the unit's own built-in DAC circuit is apparently nothing to sneeze at).
The best online video demonstration of the Squeezebox is IMO by David Pogue of the New York Times. You can view his entertaining 2-minute video on the Times' website by clicking on the image below (note: there's a 16-second commercial preceding the actual video):
Of course the Squeezebox isn't the be all and end all of audiophile home networking components. I'm currently using it to stream FLAC files of my CDs from my PC to my audio equipment, and based on the listening I've done so far it sounds great - probably better than my erstwhile CD changer. And the convenience factor is infinitely better than that of any CD player.
But of course there's always potential for improvement, and there are numerous DIY modifications and third-party upgrades available for the Squeezebox. And there are also other approaches to PC audio that offer the potential for high-quality audio playback - for example, I'm looking forward to trying a USB DAC-based solution at some point.
But one thing I can say for sure at this point: I've heard enough to know that I've left CD playback behind for good.
Comments, questions or suggestions? Email me at email@example.com.