I got an email the other day which got me thinking. This email happened to be about 2 products from Slim Devices, the Transporter, and the Squeezebox. I've currently got a hookup for my iPod, which I use less and less as the novelty wears off, and I always think that I'd listen to more music if I had my whole MP3 collection available without hassle. I did some looking around and the Transporter seems very cool looking, and it supposedly has great D/A converters, but does it really make a difference with compressed audio anyway? It's a pricey setup at about $1999. The Squeezebox seems much more reasonable at $299.
The Sonos system seems to be a very serious contender, and although a little expensive around $800 or so, it certainly isn't unreasonable.
Turtle Beach has apparently discontinued their Audiotron, which I used to think was a pretty cool piece of hardware.
Are there any others I'm missing? I still don't know about how all of these guys work, but what I think I would like best is a component that basically functions like an iPod, but in a full chassis with a more detailed display and more HD space. I don't mind piggybacking on my PC for networked storage, but if I could find a standalone solution it would probably be the best.
I'm just use a "normal" server and client PC to play music through my system. I have them stored in FLAC format and usually access my HTPC via "Remote Desktop" on a laptop. The FLAC format is lossless, and I go optical from my PC to my Outlaw 990. I find this setup to be invaluable; I can listen to anything I want with a few mouse clicks. Anyway, that's how I'm doing it, and I know a few guys with similar setups.
I also know a couple guys with Sonos setups, one of which used to have a Squeezebox. He upgraded to the Sonos because of its nicer user interface (i.e., a stronger remote control, really).
Both need external storage, so you'd probably have to use an existing PC. I'm not sure if they can just use NAS (Network Attached Storage) or not, of if that matters to you. I think you know how the rest of it works for the most part.
The Squeezebox has a three- or four-line display that tells you all the information it can. I've never actually used one first hand, so I don't know how easy or difficult it is to use. From what I can tell, you would have to scroll through things to get to what you want, and you could only see three or four things at a time. I'm so used to seeing many, many items at a time that I think that limitation would really bother me. Other than that, I understand that the Squeezebox is a well-liked, and inexpensive, solution to the problem at hand.
On to the Sonos. I have used this device first-hand, and it's pretty slick. The interface is obviously and directly inspired from the iPod, with its wheel and few buttons. The user can see more choices at once, and selections are "drilled down" until you get what you want. Still, if you are somewhat hyper about selecting songs and creating playlists, it's not as fast as my PC (and my friend told me that my laptop remote desktopped to my HTPC was "lagging"! Ha!).
I don't know anything about the Transporter or the Roku Soundbridge (a similar device). The Soundbridge was reviewed in a recent Stereophile, and didn't get the best marks. It's in the $200 or $300 range.
Finally, I would most likely pass on using any of the devices' DACs, and send the signal directly to my pre/pro, assuming that it's a superior converter. I wouldn't bother paying extra for good DACs in any of these devices. If there were an increased price tag for that type of thing, I would probably invest it in a device like a Benchmark DAC-1 or Channel Islands VDA2.
Anyway, those are my experiences with a few different methods at getting digital music to a stereo system.
I have a Squeezebox and really like it.
My set up is that I have my CD collection ripped to FLAC on the family computer (1 GHz Pentium III, I think?) in the basement. This drives the Squeezebox fine. The only time I'll experience a lag is if my son is playing Warcraft or some other CPU-intensive game. But even then the lag is generally short lived and the system continues playing fine.
I haven't seen a Sonos first hand but I do understand the interface is slick.
That said, the interface for the Squeezebox is very user friendly.
Using the remote, it's easy to scroll through albums, artists, genres, playlists and hit play. Additionally, I have a laptop in the family room and can use the web interface to control the squeezebox. (There are even skins for wireless PDAs and I think for the PSP as well that let you use these devices' web browsers to control the Squeezebox.) But, I use the remote control to control the box about 99% of the time.
Additionally, with the plugins available, I use the Squeezebox to get weather reports, stream RSS feeds, etc. using the remote.
The bottom line is I think for the money, it's a great little box.
P.S. I suggest ripping to FLAC or some lossless format and then using something like flac2mp3 to create song sets for loading on the iPod.
Thanks for the details guys, that's the kind of stuff I can't depend on Google for. I should be moving this year, and if I decide to go for a house, I might look into the Sonos for its integration and multi-room benefits. If I decide to go condo, then either a squeezebox, or a direct line out from my PC might satisfy me. Hmmmm, so many purchases contingent on the one big one.
I use as PC.. and just use either Windows Media Center.. which I am liking less and less.. Beginign to switch to Media Portal.. It is a free program which is a spin off from the xbox media center.. it works with the Microsoft media center remote which you can buy for $20 give or take.. You can run it on any windows virtually.. no problem with codecs etc as with hardware based media centers that alot sell. I use it for Movies and mp3's.. so works great.. Any new video format comes out I just load the codec and off i go. Can alsdo do internet radio stations etc.. OriginallyI was running it from a P3 933mhz.. some videios had problems would stagger a bit but 99% ran fine.
There's also the Roku/Pinnacle Soundbridge and the Apple TV that both sell for around $300. With the addition of a new 500 GB hard drive, I've been looking into lossless audio formats and network music players. Unfortunately, the search so far has been highly disappointing.
The disadvantage though to all of these network music players is that they generally require a PC with server software running. Only the Sonos unit as far as I know is capable of directly reading a NAS drive without a PC running a media server application.
Even without this hurdle, all of these music players have some major disadvantage that gives me pause when considering the various options.
Squeezebox: (+) great reputation for audio quality, audio format support, ease-of-use, cross-platform support, supports net radio streaming; (-) requires the Slimserver application running at all times on external PC, limited support for NAS drives (Slimserver client can be configured to run on certain NAS drives), no video output or OSD (problem for those of us who keep our components inside of an audio rack)
Apple TV: (+) ease-of-use, supports video programming, can connect to any drive shared on iTunes, on-board hard drive can be sync'd with iTunes on PC/Mac, supports draft 802.11n wireless spec; (-) requires a server application running on external PC, no support for NAS drives, does not support net radio streaming including iTunes radio links, does not support some lossless formats such as FLAC
Sonos: (+) supports NAS drives, has video output, remote has OSD built in; (-) some gripes about audio quality, expensive (remote alone costs $300)
Roku Soundbridge: (+) inexpensive ($150), flexible configuration (can use third party applications such as iTunes or Windows Media Player as a software server), supports net radio streaming; (-) requires a server application running on external PC, no support for NAS drives, does not support some lossless formats, no analog audio outputs
Ideally, I'd like to see some network music player that includes an on-screen display, does not require a client application at the server end, can attach to a NAS drive, incorporates higher quality playback electronics (like the Squeezebox does), and is reasonably priced. So far, I've seen nothing on the market that incorporates these features.
Wooch, thanks for the comprehensive comparison, that's great! I hadn't even thought of an OSD, I guess I just figured the component display would be enough. This thread is getting filed away for when purchase time comes around.