The player under review here is no longer available. Instead, there is now the Squeezebox Touch, but I'd bet that, at least soundwise, nothing has changed.
This test was actually the second test that I did with the Sqeezebox. At the time I had Martin Logans and a Wadia 861 cd player used as a dac. The first time I only casually compared its sound but this time I wanted to double check my first findings by also using my own computer in a wired network setup and compare it directly with my preferred direct SPDIF connection fed from an EMU1212M soundcard.
Apart from the ease of use, the bright, well-readable display and fine software, the sound really is what it is all about. To put this to the test I use a very well-spec'd pc in combination with a very high end DA converter in the shape of a Mark Levinson no 360S. So the comparing is between 2 digital formats: 1. Wired network from PC to Squeezebox, from which I go digital coaxial out with a short cable straight into the Levsinson no360s dac. 2. Wired directly in SPDIF from the EMU soundcard in the PC, using a very long coaxial cable, into the same Levinson no.360S dac. For reference, I also tried the Sqeezebox's digital output into an ultra highend Wadia 27ix GNSC DAC.
Small and smart: essentially one huge display with built in hardware. It has wireless and wired networkability and analog and digital optical/coaxial out.
Very easily readable and versatile display. It can display a variety of screens, amongst which is also a very genuine looking VU meter.
To be clear: I'm comparing the Squeezebox's digital outputs to the EMU soundcard's digital outputs. The analog outputs are not under review here but suffice to say that they're not bad - on par with the outputs from 400 euro cd player - but they're certainly not highend. Nor do I expect them to be. But the digital out could be very good. After all, even the digital output from the cheapes Creative soundblaster soundcard was pretty impressive. Back to the Squeezebox. Actually it sound fine, there are no digital nasties at all, it is not harsh or aggressive and in fact very polite. But there's something profoundly wrong with the sound. Let me explain. First off, I noticed that the sound output from the Sqeezebox was lower in output than that from the EMU soundcard's SPDIF connection. I know for sure that the EMU software doesn't have any gain applied so therefore the Squeezebox must have some cutting of level somewhere. So I looked through its software and did indeed find some controls but they didn't cure this problem. Adjusting the preamp for these level differences made no improvement with regards to sound quality. The signal from the Sqeezebox's digital output was not only weaker in volume but also sounded weaker in general. It lacked power, substance, colour and overall dynamic realism. All this makes the Sqeezebox sound a bit synthetic. And that's a shame since it is no well thought out and a pleasure to use.
UPDATE APRIL 2010
After receiving a mail from a friend whose opinion I value, I decided to refine this interview a bit by adding nuances and more thorough explanations here and there. In summary, I'm not comparing the Squeezebox to audiophile equipment. I am listening to it through audiophile equipment. And even though it is a very affordable little apparatus and you really shouldn't expect audiophile quality from it, still I expect more from its digital output. Sure, it sounds fine and it only has sins of omission, none of comission and if you haven't got highend equipment at home you may not understand what I'm talking about. So, all is relative. But I stand by my conclusion that if you want proper sound from the digital output of your PC you better use a soundcard with spdif out. Or the highly affordable HiFace USB interface.
I can only recommend this device if you're not too critical about the sound and just want a handy means of getting audio out of your PC or off a NAS. It does these tasks perfectly and the sound is ok. Certainly no worse than the analog output from a generic soundcard. But just don't expect the digital output to sound anything like a straight digital cable connection from even a basic Creative soundcard.
About the PC used
I used a regular PC (Intel core2 6600 2,4ghz) running Windows XP professional but with a very good Emu 1212M soundcard. The playback application is routed directly to the soundcard driver without going through kmix and such. Its spdif digital output goes via uninterrupted Belden RG59 coax cable straight into the dac. This computer has been used like this in combination with many other dacs so circumstances were predictable.