Sonos has gone largely uncontested in the world of Wi-Fi multiroom music since its debut over two years ago. Until now, Squeezeboxes have been impressive but limited media streamers, building into basic multiroom systems that weren’t nearly as complete or integrated as the Sonos solution.
All that changes with the Duet. Although it can be used like a normal Squeezebox it really comes into its own when it’s combined with more Squeezeboxes – and becomes a multiroom system that could give a Sonos a run for its money.
The Duet system consists of a screenless Squeezebox wireless music streamer known as the Receiver and a Wi-Fi enabled remote called the Controller.
Setup is straightforward – as the manual says, if you can attach a computer to your Wi-Fi network, you can set up a Squeezebox Duet. However, it’s still nowhere near as brainless as the Sonos as it requires a pre-existing Wi-Fi network and works best with music server software –Squeezecenter – running on the machine that you intend to stream music from, be it computer or network-attached storage.
It is, however, capable of streaming music from an mp3tunes.com locker, accessing your library directly over the net even when your computer is switched off. There is also a massive roster of compatible internet radio stations offered direct through the player.
But everything works best when Squeezecenter is serving up tracks from your local library. It’s far friendlier than its Slimserver predecessor, never stuttering while integrating with an iTunes library and making short work of sapping up album artwork. Any Squeezeboxes you have on your network can be controlled through the software, too – a very neat trick.
On a scroll
Once you have the software running and have entered any necessary network security keys, you should be good to go. The mechanical scrolling control wheel is a touch frictionless but the Controller’s iPod-like interface makes it a doddle to select your music source, create a playlist and set operation.
Once you get a track playing the Controller’s screen comes up with an mp3 player-like display with track progress and nicely rendered album art. As remote controls go, it’s an impressive one – a little plasticky, perhaps, but its weighty metal charging stand, three-axis accelerometer (which makes it sensitive to movement) and backlighting make amends for that.
In fact, there’s a lot of untapped potential in the Controller. Future firmware upgrades will doubtless make full use of that Wii-style accelerometer, while a 3.5mm headphone jack and SD card slot have to be used for something.
The real boon is that you can control your music wherever you're in Wi-Fi range - even at the other side of the house. Effectively the Controller provides a handheld portal to Squeezecenter, allowing you to choose any of the Squeezeboxes on your network (which you can name according to room if you fancy) and make them play exactly what you want.
Synchronization for simultaneous playback around the home is another Sonos-like bonus, though playing music on more than a couple of Squeezeboxes can slow network speeds right down. Also, reactions are a little more sluggish than they are with a standard Squeezebox IR remote.
But what's the music like? Hook the Receiver up to a decent amp and speakers and heavily compressed tracks will sound that way – but higher bit-rate or lossless samples are spectacular.
It's an upfront, detailed mix that possibly overcompensates for lossy formats' lack of dynamics by boosting them vastly. It's so much fun to listen to, albeit less than completely authentic. Those familiar with the standard Squeezebox will be pleased to know that the Duet is almost aurally indistinguishable from it.
The lack of screen is an annoyance, though. The big VFD display from the standard Squeezebox is one of its coolest features and the Receiver’s center-mounted status LED is nowhere near as satisfying.
Another issue we had was the system's occasional propensity for hanging – seemingly with no good reason. Even if issues were caused by the test internet connection or wireless network, freezing up like the Controller did, requiring a reboot, is unacceptable.
But even with these admittedly slight misgivings, as a system the Duet works brilliantly. Ultimately, its quirks and DIY nature mean it’ll never be as mass-market as a Sonos system – but it’s definitely worth a look all the same.
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