The debate over whether wireless audio or computer-based audio are “good enough” to be part of a high-end system is still raging among some audiophiles. For others the debate is already over. As AHC discovered when he reviewed the Meridian Sooloos music server in issue 204, if you can afford a server that costs five-figures you can have great sound from a hard-drive-based system. But what about those of us who can only pony up three figures? Can you achieve CD-competitive (or better) sound from an “entry-level” product such as the new $299 Logitech Squeezebox Touch? I sure hope so.
I see strong signs that the price/performance differential between expensive and budget-priced front-ends is shrinking. In the rapidly approaching new music-library-based audio world, consumer electronics, computer manufacturers, and pro-audio firms will all have devices suitable for use in high-end audio systems. Logitech is a prime example of a company that’s involved in this new audio revolution. Its latest wireless audio device, the Squeezebox Touch, builds on two prior generations of Squeezebox wireless devices. Offering 96/24 capabilities, a responsive touchscreen display, and a more robust and open-ended interface, the Touch looks like the ideal “first step” for audiophiles who have yet to make the jump to a high-performance wireless music device.
The Logitech Touch’s main function is to play music files. The files can come from many sources, including your iTunes library or the primary music library on your computer or music libraries on USB and NAS drives, as well as Rhapsody, Internet radio, Pandora, Last FM, and other on-line music services. It is called Touch because of its 4.3" (actually 2 ¼" by 3 ¾" display area) touchscreen. All functions can be controlled and accessed from this touchscreen. The Touch also comes with a remote control to operate it from your listening chair, if your listening chair is close enough to the Touch to read its screen (for me the decipherability limit is five feet.) If not, you can use the Touch with the Squeezebox Duet remote, which has a full color screen. You can also control the Touch via your iPod or iPad via a free app available through Apple’s App Store.
The Squeezebox Touch supports most formats including WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, FLAC, WMA, WMA lossless, AAC, and MP3. It can also transcode formats through its Squeezebox Server software (more on this later). The Touch does not require a computer running Squeezebox Server to play internet radio or on-line music services. It is required as one of the ways to play tracks from your primary home music library -- the other way is to play from a USB memory stick or SD card inserted into the Squeezebox Touch. This USB drive connection gives you access to any local music library on a USB drive without forcing you to turn your computer on. Some users have even set up the Touch so it runs exclusively off a USB drive with no local or Internet connectivity whatsoever (except for initial setup, which will require Internet access.)
I used the Touch with a variety of different manufacturers’ USB sticks to conclude that this method is both reliable and easy. But I never managed to get the Touch to recognize my Newer Technology V3 drive due to its OS X file system. The Touch only supports USB drives with FAT 16, FAT 32. NTFS, and ext2/ext3 files systems. Also it’s vitally important to use a drive that has its own external power supply that does not depend on the USB connection for its power. The Touch’s power supply can’t fully support the power requirements of a USB drive through its USB connection. If you are planning to use the Touch primarily with a USB drive, consult a list of supported devices here on Slim Devices’ web site.
The Touch’s most exciting new feature is its ability to play 96/24 high-def music files. It’s the first under-$300 wireless server that supports these higher-resolution files. During the review period I played 96/24 files from my USB sub-libraries and main library via both Wi-Fi and hard-wired Ethernet sources successfully. Only once, during months of play, did the Touch stop in the middle of a song. Merely pushing the pause and play buttons instantly solved that problem.
Initial setup for the Touch was simpler for me than for a new user since I’ve been using a Squeezebox Duet and have already set up a Squeezebox Server and Squeezebox system. The Squeezebox Server software and my Duet remote immediately recognized the new Touch and I was listening to music from my main music library via Wi-Fi in under fifteen minutes. If you do have set-up problems Squeezebox user forums on Slim Devices’ Web site will be immeasurably helpful. Several Squeezebox experts, such as John Swenson, frequent the forums regularly.
Two Ways to Get Hooked Up
The Touch has both WiFi and Ethernet connectability, but if I were a betting man I’d wager that over 80% of Touches will be connected via WiFi. I tried it both ways, and like the general public most of my listening was done via WiFi connected to 170GBs of music in my iTunes music library. Some users on the Squeezebox forums claim that Ethernet offers better fidelity than WiFi, but I didn’t hear any repeatable, recognizable fidelity differences between these two connection methods. Obviously if you experience dropouts via WiFi then switching to a hard-wired Ethernet connection will reduce incidents of dropouts due to the connection. Will it sound better this way? That depends on your WiFi connection.
In both my systems I used the Touch primarily with its digital outputs. I understand that some readers intend to use the Touch’s internal DAC instead of its digital outputs, so I spent some time listening to its analog output through my Stax Nova headphones. Compared to the Weiss DAC 202 via its RCA coaxial connections, the Weiss exhibited a more extended top end with a greater sense of air. I also found the Weiss to be more dimensional. But the Touch’s own internal DAC isn’t bad. It’s musical and smooth, and has excellent dynamic contrasts. Its sins were primarily of omission, with a slightly darker and more forgiving nature than the Weiss.
I mentioned earlier that many people are using the Touch as a stand-alone unit with a music library connected via the USB inputs. While this is an excellent solution for those who don’t or won’t install a wired or wireless network to access digital music files, it does limit your options to only one music library. Part of the beauty of the Squeezebox system is its ability to handle and access multiple libraries. Each household member can have his or her own library, which the Touch can access via only a few selections from its screen.
My preferred method for using the Touch’s USB connection is with what I call “micro libraries,” which are USB memory sticks between 2 and 8GB with specific types or genres of music. The Touch’s Squeezebox Lite software has memory limitations that make it happier with smaller libraries as opposed to fully populated big ol’ 1TB USB drives. Large drives cause the SBL software operations to slow down upon installation, when the Squeezebox software is initially indexing the drive. These slow-downs can affect response time to commands, especially those involving skip and search functions. Once fully indexed, larger drives will respond with the same speed as smaller USB cards, but any time you switch USB drives the indexing process will affect the Touch’s response time until SBL finishes its indexing duties. With small USB cards instead of larger mechanical hard drives, the Touch’s SBL software can quickly index the music and be fully responsive moments after the drive is connected.
At the 2010 CES a friend of mine loaned me a USB memory stick with the complete Beatles In Stereo boxset on it. This was one of a limited run of 30,000 copies. When I got home I could hardly wait to hear the 24-bit FLAC file versions of my fave Beatles songs on the USB stick, but when I tried to play them on my Mac I couldn’t. Even the latest Apple OS 10.6.4 operating system wouldn’t natively decode FLAC files. Sure, I could load them individually into Audacity for playback, but if I wanted to play the entire stick’s contents from the 44.1/24-bit files I was out of luck. Using the Squeezebox Touch all I had to do was copy the 44.1/24-bit FLAC files onto another USB stick, load the stick into the Touch’s USB slot, and a minute later I was listening to the entire Beatles library in 24-bit splendor! That was good day sunshine indeed.
During the past two months that I’ve had the Touch up and running in my system I’ve found it to be substantially more stable and glitch-free than the Logitech Duet. Dropouts caused by connection errors have been virtually non-existent with the Touch, while in the past the Duet has occasionally given me problems. I should mention that Logitech’s latest version of the Squeezebox Server Software might also be part of the reason that the Touch has been so stable and responsive. Other users on the Squeezebox Forums also have reported improved performance with the Duets and version 7.5.1.
When I reviewed the Sonos system and compared it to the Duet using the previous version of Squeezebox Server software, the Sonos proved to be ergonomically more elegant. But the Touch with SC 7.5.1 and SBL brings the Squeezebox system much closer to the ease of operation of the Sonos. Now, regardless of whether my computer is on or not, I can access and enjoy my music files through the Touch. That alone is a massive improvement over previous Squeezebox systems.
Mid-Fi, Hi-Fi, or Ultra-Fi?
Once the Touch was set up in my room system, the fun really began. Since both the TosLink and coaxial digital outputs are active, it was easy to try different digital connection schemes and compare the results. At first I set up the Touch so it ran through my Meridian 518 digital-processing device before the signal went into my Meridian 568.2 controller. With this hook-up method, the sonic differences between the Squeezebox Touch and Duet were nil. Going back and forth using the same 44.1/16 digital file source I couldn’t reliably tell one from the other. But once I hooked both units directly into the Meridian 568.2 via their RCA coaxial outputs, the differences between the units were more pronounced. I noticed the Touch had a more three-dimensional soundstage with a better sense of depth. Also dimensional cues and subtle low-level details were more apparent through the Touch. When I tried streaming Internet radio sources, I couldn’t discern any sonic differences between the Touch and the Duet. MP3 files through the two units were also essentially identical. My conclusion was that to hear the Touch’s sonic improvements over the Duet you have to use at least a lossless 44.1/16 file for your listening tests.
Next I compared the Touch to a Meridian 598 DP DVD/CD transport with the original CD in the Meridian and its matching digital file on the Touch. Overall, I’d call this comparison a sonic dead heat. The 598 was a bit more harmonically lush, but this lushness came at the expense of dynamic contrast and inner detail. The Touch was more matter-of-fact with greater dynamic ease. Both displayed riveting levels of inner detail and musical texture, but the Meridian emphasized the source’s musicality while the Touch brought the music’s dynamism to the forefront.
The best sonic results from the Touch came when it was playing higher-resolution files. I listened to a slew of my own 96/24 recordings through the Touch and it never failed to produce outstanding results. I was especially impressed by the Touch’s ability to reproduce spatial information. I have a recording I made of a live concert from the bluegrass band Long Way Home. The recording was done in a small one-room wooden schoolhouse west of Boulder, CO. The band was recorded with one stereo pair of Schoeps Collette microphones connected to a Grace Lunatec V-3 microphone preamp in M/S mode. Through the Touch it was easy to place each instrument in the soundstage and hear the wall and floor reflections. Even very subtle dimensional cues were obvious, such as the way the acoustic bass’s notes bloomed and expanded as they interacted with the room.
Goin’ For The Touch
Economically speaking, a $300 device is not high end. But high-end audio isn’t only about economics. Performance matters. Judged strictly by that yardstick the Logitech Squeezebox Touch qualifies as a legitimate high-end component. Alone, the Touch produces musical and detailed sonics and can deliver 96/24 music files to your eager ears. Coupled with a top-echelon DAC the Touch can take you well past the first scrum in high-end sonics into the center of the playing field.
If you haven’t dipped your toes into the ocean of wireless and computer audio, the Logitech Squeezebox Touch would be an excellent craft for your maiden voyage. For less than the cost of a pair of top-quality one-meter interconnects, you can enjoy your digital music files, even 96/24 files, anywhere in your home. Let’s face it: Early adopters aren’t usually thought of as thrifty types, but considering its price and capabilities, purchasing a Squeezebox Touch may be the most parsimonious audiophile purchase you’ll ever make. Recommended? Oh, yes!
SPECS & PRICING
System requirements: For access to music on your computer, use Squeezebox software with the minimum system requirements: 256MB RAM and 100MB of available hard disk space. With any of the following operating systems—Macintosh: Mac OS X 10.3 or later; Windows: 733MHz Pentium running Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows 7, or Windows Vista; Linux/BSD/Solaris/Other; Perl 5.8.3 or later. Broadband Internet connection required for Internet radio and music services. Stereo system or powered speakers. Ethernet or 802.11 b/g wireless home network
Audio formats: MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, HE-AACv2, HD-AAC, Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, APE, MPC and WavPack supported through transcoding (some formats may require additional software installation, depending on platform)
Internet radio: Support for MP3, Ogg Vorbis, HE-AACv2 and WMA formatted Internet Radio streams
Wireless interface: True 802.11g wireless networking; support for 802.11b and 802.11g routers and access points; throughput up to 54Mbps, high speed PCI interface to radio module
Ethernet interface: Shielded CAT5 RJ-45 connector, connects to any 100Mbps or 10Mbps network (with Auto MDX)
General: USB host connector for accessing music and photos via USB drive or USB key; SD card slot for music and photos; supports sampling rates up to 24 bit / 96 kHz; stereo analog (RCA), digital optical, and digital coax output; 4.3** (11cm) 24-bit color LCD with capacitive touchscreen; ambient light sensor to adjust display brightness according to environment; infrared proximity sensor to detect presence and wake from sleep mode
6505 Kaiser Dr.
Fremont, CA 94555 USA
Room 1 System
CEC TL-2 CD transport, Oppo BDP-83SE Blu Ray Player, Apple TV, Sonos Z90, VPI HW-17, ClearAudio/Souther TriQuartz arm, Denon/VanDenHul cartridge, Michael Yee Pfe-1 phono preamp, Lexicon MC-12B HD pre/pro, Monster HTPS 7000, PS Audio Quintet AC Conditioner, Genesis 6.1 surround speaker system, two Genesis S2/12 subwoofers, one Genesis 4/8 subwoofer, two JL Labs Fathom F112 subwoofers, Synergistic Research Designer’s Reference interconnects and speaker cables, Cardas Clear interconnect
Room 2 System
Oppo BDP-83 Blu Ray Player, Logitech Slim Systems Squeezebox Duet music server, Meridian 598 CD/DVD player, VPI TNT-IV turntable, Graham 1.2 tonearm, ClearAudio Victory H cartridge, Vendetta SCP-1B phono preamp, Meridian 568.2 Pre/pro, Meridian 518 Digital processor, Ps Audio Premier AC power regenerator, Chang Lightspeed CLS 9900 AC conditioner, Dunlavy Signature VI main speakers, Dunlavy Signature IV center speaker, Dunlavy Signature IAV rear speakers, two Genesis G-928 subwoofers, two Earthquake Supernova 12 Mk VI subwoofers, Three Snell 550 passive subwoofers, three Bryston BP-120 powerpack amplifiers, Audio Magic and Synergistic Research interconnects, Audio Magic Sorcerer and Synergistic Research Alpha Quad X-series speaker cables, Cardas Clear bi-wire speaker cables