I shall look back on this week as the time of the great file migration: the conversion of 4000+ albums from FLAC into Apple Lossless. I’m moving to an iTunes-fronted playback system. Bye-bye Squeezeboxen. It’s a big decision, one that wasn’t taken lightly. See - I’ve been a Squeezebox user since 2004. Back then it was developed by Sean Adams and his Slim Devices team. Those guys were real innovators: they beat Apple to the punch in getting MP3s to play gaplessly. (Your iPod didn’t always play gaplessly – ask your Dad). Slim Devices championed open source audio formats (FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, Shorten) and they brought internet radio to life. They laid the groundwork for Logitech to scoop up the finest media streamer on the market in 2006.
Moreover, the Logitech Media Server (formerly Squeezebox Server) has open source development to thank for its providing a stable and hugely functional back-end to the Squeezebox experience. Library scanning, browsing and display are second to none. Add iPeng and/or Squeezepad (on iOS devices) as well as Bliss (for music library management) and you have user-experience simplicity that belies the power underneath.
In 2012, the Squeezebox Touch is still the finest media streamer on the market. triode’s Enhanced Digital Output app has formalised USB output as well as 24/192 digital playback, which has in turn seen the Squeezebox Touch enjoy the amelioration of USB-S/PDIF convertors and their re-clocking properties. Hello USB Audio Class 2.0 devices, specifically Hiface Two. [You can’t do that with your Sonos now can you?]
Like many digital audiophiles trying to juice the best sound from their computer transports in 2010, M2Tech’s Hiface was my first exposure to USB-S/PDIF convertors. I didn’t much care for it with my then MacBook and Channel D’s PureMusic. I didn’t hear what many others heard: deeper resolution and improved micro-dynamics. Perhaps there was a small improvement but nothing notable worth remarking upon.
An absence of plug ‘n’ play and – therefore — reliance on manufacturer-coded drivers as well as endless promises of Linux support (that ultimately failed to arrive) negated whatever edge it had over a standard USB feed into whatever DACs I was feeding back then.
When other USB-S/PDIF convertors were appended to my MacMini, I enjoyed a sound that just wasn’t as nervous or tense (or jittery) as going USB-direct into the same DAC. The Audiophilleo and/or JKSPDIF were both more ‘alive’ sounding than the Squeezebox Touch’s direct coaxial connection. During these listening sessions the Squeezebox Touch gathered dust.
This is an all too common problem for more discerning Squeezebox Touch owners. They fall in love with functionality but despair that it doesn’t sound as good as ye olde CD player/transport that it replaced. Data re-clocking is required to bring it up to par. I’ve previously used the Firestone Audio Bravo, Audio-gd’s Digital Interface and – best of the bunch by some margin – Empirical Audio’s Synchro-Mesh. These three devices re-clock S/PDIF data flow and can also be used to lift the performance of other devices like Apple’s Airport Express, Apple TV and Sonos.
Whilst Sonos offers only S/PDIF outputs, installing triode’s Enhanced Digital Output (EDO) app on the Squeezebox Touch transforms its USB port into a digital output. As the Touch runs a version of Linux it is fully USB Audio Class 2.0 compliant. Once the EDO is installed, the MK2 Hiface behaves as a plug ‘n’ play device because unlike the MK1 it is a USB Audio Class 2.0 device (built around the XMOS chipset). Fortunately, The MK2 Hiface iteration holds fast to its predecessor’s RRP (AU$199).
I pushed the Hiface into the EDO-equipped Touch’s USB port and hit reset. Upon restart the EDO app reported the Hiface as capable of outputting all sample rates up to 192Khz. No powered hub was required.
Equipped with two oscillators for each sample-rate family – 44.1/88.2/176.4 and 48/96/192 – one might expect the Hiface to offer similar levels of bass definition and tonal saturation as the Audiophilleo. It moves things in a positive direction – wider soundstaging, less anemia - but no cigar. It’s definitely an improvement over the Touch’s S/PDIF output.
Annexing the Hiface Two from the Squeezebox Touch’s power supply so that only audio data was permitted thoroughfare demanded a different USB cable.
Michael from Adelaide’s Elijah Audio had sent me his BPM “Battery Powered Module” (US$105). It segregates the Hiface’s data and power feeds: the main connector hooks into your audio device (Squeezebox Touch) and the tail connects to your 5V power supply (KingRex UPower).
For the curious, some background on Elijah Audio from the horse’s mouth:
“Elijah Audio came about when a fellow Jplay forum member asked if I could build him a custom cable with separate battery lead. The early versions used generic hookup wire. That was until I heard Audience’s Ohno cryo wire.”
“The same forum member also requested an adapter to run a USB flashdrive on battery power. This is the BPM that you have (although it’s best used with HiFace 1 & 2).”
“I have been using Peter Belt products to enhance my own system for about 6 years – so it seems only natural to incorporate Peter’s products and procedures during construction to enhance Elijah cables in the same way.”
“I make no claims about the performance of my cables, I am simply offering reasonably priced, well built, alternatives for those who may be thinking about upgrading their USB cables. With approximately 50 cables sold, only one has been returned for sonic disappointment.”
The take-away result is the same on the Squeezebox Touch as it is on both MacBook and MacMini: the UPower and BPM take the sting out of the Hiface’s top-end. A hint of upper-frequency etch is soothed away; the sound is put poolside with a cocktail. Unfortunately, round back the Elijah Audio cable pushes hard against the Squeezebox’s power umbilical. Another reason to move to Apple hardware.
For this reviewer, the Logitech device is off to the subs bench.
Logitech hammered the final nail into my own Squeezboxen deployment coffin with their recent announcement of the new UE range of products and the consequent halt to production of the (quite wonderful) Squeezebox Touch. Sonos might have the greater market penetration but the Squeezebox Touch has a touchscreen, a USB port and an active software development community.
Only a fool would expect the Squeezebox to vanish from the market overnight. There’ll likely be a vibrant second hand market for used Touch’s once store stocks run dry. Logitech have intimated that they will continue to support the server software and – more importantly – mysqueezebox.com for the foreseeable future. Even so, anxiety has already begun to creep into some of the Squeezebox user base. [MOG integration in Australia is plagued by song truncation (when using LMS). With the Squeezebox now entering retirement, what incentive for MOG or Logitech to provide a fix?]
I need a digital front-end that isn’t stamped “end of life”. One that will see continued development. Logitech’s hardware player re-fit means the Squeezebox Touch ain’t it. Without a product refresh the Touch will swiftly appear long in the tooth.. Don’t believe me? Look at the iPod Mini and tell me now it doesn’t look like it came from the 80s.
Ongoing product development is bean-keen among the big OS X software players: Pure Music, Amarra, Fidelia, Bitperfect, Decibel and Audirvana. Advances in software playback engines have come a long way since this FLAC-to-ALAC migration was first mooted back in mid-2010. That was my first taste of Pure Music besting iTunes’ sonics for micro-dynamics and breadth of tonal colour palette.
This week I’ve been listening to an Audirvana-integrated iTunes, the go to player of choice for many digital audiophiles. It sounds terrific. I’ve yet to compare it to the competition but Frederic Beudot covers four of the aforementioned OS X players over at 6Moons. He pegs Audirvana as his favourite. Moon-head Srajan Ebaen accords.
As I type this, XLD is slowly munching its way through thousands of FLACs, digesting them and shitting out thousands of fresh ALAC turds. You can tell that I’m not super-pleased that Apple has funnelled me into transcoding my entire library so that it plays nicely with iTunes. I’ll be delighted (for others) and irritated (for selfish reasons) if the forthcoming iTunes 11 finally brings with it FLAC support…
…but let us take a moment’s silence to remember the Squeezebox Touch – in terms of bang-for-buck, it was peerless. RIP.
You can read more on how the M2Tech Hiface Two played with a MacMini and MacBook Air in the forthcoming issue of TONEAudio.
EDIT 1st October 2012: Logitech has formally announced its intention to provide ongoing support for the Squeezebox Touch.
- MacMini 2010
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Elijah Audio BPM
- Kingrex UPower
- Giant Giant Sand – Tucson (2012)
- Giant Sand – Glum (1995)
- Nicolas Jaar – BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix (2012)