Posted by: mattbrownmusings | 7 March 2008

squeeze me

The story of my squeeze begins in the cold of winter around early January 2007. I had begun thinking that maybe it was time to buy an iPod, but wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge. Being a bit of an audiophile (or at least a novice/wanna-be audiophile), I was curious as to the lossless compression support of an iPod. So I googled “iPod audiophile” and eventually discovered a product called a Squeezebox, by a company called Slim Devices. It appeared to be a rather sexy looking, audiophile quality, music player, but with functionality not quite identical to an iPod. Rather than having onboard storage space, the squeezebox wirelessly (or wire-ly if you don’t have a wireless router) streams music from a computer. OK, I thought, interesting find but not exactly what I’m looking for.

Over the next several months, I would occasionally revisit the Slim Devices website, and I eventually built up a bit of an appetite for this Squeezebox. I crawled around the web a bit more, and found a very interesting blog post which discussed the item. And I discussed the item with a tech-savvy friend at work who agreed it was worth consideration. Then, for my birthday in September ’07, I had some cash given to me which I needed to spend. It wasn’t enough to go for something huge, like say a nice musical instrument or a TV wider than I am tall. But it was too much to blow on CDs or books or bubble gum. Turns out it was the perfect amount to buy a squeezebox. So, without hesitation, I placed my order and anxiously awaited its arrival.

For the record, I bought a “Squeezebox version 3”, not the “Squeezebox duet” which has recently debuted. See picture below. The SB3, as it is called on the slimdevices forums, is a small unit with only a display; the accompanying remote provides the buttons for interface. I was able to immediately connect it to my computer using my wireless network (note that a software installation on the computer is required, which can be accomplished with a free download prior to receiving the unit) and to my receiver using a optical cable. And with shear joy, I browsed through a music folder and found some .flac files of a compilation CD I had burned called “Matt’s Mix 2005,” and was immediately immersed in Wilco’s “Can’t Stand It” from their album Summer Teeth. With my Athena subwoofer cranked, I melted at the amazing sound quality which was produced through my low-end Sony speakers.


Let me offer a quick sidebar about the file format I alluded to, .flac. This extension stands for “Free Lossless Audio Codec,” and is a commonly used lossless format which has taken the place of the format .shn (“shorten”) which had originally permeated the internet for the purpose of trading live concert recordings in the earlier part of the decade. Both formats are lossless, meaning a raw wave file is compressed without losing any information, and both offer a decent amount of storage savings (maybe 35-45%). Although some people say MP3 files can provide “CD quality” sound, this can’t possibly be true because the MP3 file removes some of the information from the original CD recording. Listening to FLAC files is truly CD quality. Since I’m only a novice audiophile, I won’t go into much more. Also, I do admit that many higher-bitrate MP3s are tough to distinguish from the original CD. But the whole point of using your computer to store the music is to have lots of space to keep large files, right? That way there’s no question.

So anyway, that leads me to my next point – ripping my CD collection. The slim devices wiki offers great instructions for getting CDs into an organized FLAC library with relative ease (i.e., as much ease as any repetitive process can have). I began by ripping my favorite CDs onto my decently-sized [secondary] internal hard drive [of 200GB]. However, I was presented with a problem. When ripping to FLAC, a good rule of thumb is that you can fit about three CDs per gigabyte of storage space. So, with only about half my 200GB drive free, I would only have room for roughly 300 CDs. For many people this would be enough space, but being a compulsive CD collector this wasn’t sufficient. Fortunately I could move forward with ripping CDs to the space I did have, and I began formulating a plan to expand my space.

I eventually determined that I needed an external hard drive. A big one. With Christmas approaching I began eying the Best Buy ads and dropping hints. Sure enough, my wife was good enough to buy me a 500GB external firewire drive. And with my cash gifts I decided to buy a second 500GB drive to allow me to back up the collection. Now I could rip 1500 CDs, and if that wasn’t enough I could forfeit my backup and go up to 3000 CDs.

It’s now been ~2.5 months since Christmas, and I have only filled about 20% of that 500GB drive, or about 100GB (that is to say, about 100 billion bytes – Windows tells me it’s 91GB, but that’s under the definition that 1GB is 1024MB, 1MB is 1024KB, and so on). With 100 billion bytes full, I have a total of 311 CDs on the drive. Pretty close to that rough number of 3CDs per 1GB. If anything that estimation is a bit conservative.

But the bottom line is (and yes, I have spoken these words out loud before), I love my Squeezebox more and more with each passing day. My most favorite thing to do is to put the entire collection on shuffle and see what comes up. It sure is fun to re-discover music I used to listen to a ton but have since forgotten. I love having the effect of a 500-disc changer on shuffle without the bulky size and sluggishness between tracks.  And the dependable wireless connection, painstakingly accurate FLAC files, and audiophile-quality hardware in the squeezebox make the experience a great one.


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