Squeezebox Boom: A Sleek, Strong-Sounding Internet Radio, with Several Speedbumps

Last week, we unexpectedly received one of Logitech’s new $300 Squeezebox Boom units—initially depicted and described in this article. After playing around with the unit, we have some additional thoughts to share.

Without going into great depth on the manner in which Logitech has achieved everything in this product, it suffices to say that Squeezebox Boom is a “standalone Internet Radio for the rest of us,” a slick black box that combines a $200-quality speaker and amplifier system with $100 worth of Wi-Fi and simplified computer parts. There’s nothing revolutionary about the system’s approach, which is similar to what’s offered by companies such as Grace Digital in the less expensive Wireless Internet Radio, but Logitech’s approach is more holistic.

Grace Digital’s approach is to offer a single 3” speaker, a massive list of tunable stations, and a very mainstream price. Logitech’s price is $100 higher, and you get four total speakers—twin 0.75” tweeters and twin 3” speakers—plus a remote control, and an interface that virtually anyone can use. You turn a large dial to page through options, which are presented in large letters on a blue on black screen, enter your wireless network’s password, and then select audio streams from cleanly organized lists of options. Logitech provides links to MP3tunes and Rhapsody stored libraries for specific song selections, RadioIO, RadioTime, Live365, SHOUTcast, and Sirius Internet Radio for streaming radio, and Pandora, Rhapsody, Slacker, MP3Tunes, Live Music Archive, and Last.fm for custom-made music channels.

Though you can pick tons of stations directly from Boom’s menus, Logitech offers two other ways to program the device from afar—a computer-based application called SqueezeCenter or a website called SqueezeNetwork. You can import MP3 content from your iTunes library into SqueezeCenter, letting you listen to tracks wherever Boom is installed, or just select favorite stations to help make tuning the device a lot easier. Preset buttons on Boom’s face let you call up channels of your choice without needing to sift through menus. We generally found using the unit to be very easy, starting with the straightforward setup and continuing through channel or custom music service selection; the SqueezeNetwork site linked all of our earlier Internet Radio accounts into Squeezebox Boom without any sort of hassle.

A few other major positives in the Boom design are its sound, which is a step or two under Logitech’s great Pure-Fi Elite iPod audio system in power, but really very good by the standards of devices like this; you get bass and treble controls, a stereo field expander that can be turned off or through three levels of expansion, and controls over line-out (headphone/subwoofer) and line-in levels. The twin tweeter and woofer approach is a proven hit for making great-sounding audio, and Logitech knows how to pick and tune its parts for near optimal performance, so although we stick to the earlier “$200 speaker” comment, the sound here is better than what you’d get from some other companies’ devices at higher prices.

We were also impressed by the presence of user-programmable alarms, automatic local radio station finders, and a bunch of display options, which let you change font sizes, grab RSS feeds to display while you’re listening, and more. In addition to the radio options, there are some other interesting features, such as podcast aggregator searches, and an ambient sound database with natural (fire, water, animals), musical, and other sound effects that loop as alternatives to radio stations. This box does way more than you might initially expect.

There are a few speedbumps in Squeezebox Boom’s approach. Though Logitech has done a good job of streamlining its menus, the choice to make the dial pressable, yet not always a selection option, sometimes makes station tuning confusing. For instance, if you find a station you like, then press this button, you’ll be given technical information like the URL and bitrate—details few people will care about, but could have been shifted off to an “info” menu. If you want to hear the station, you need to press a separate play button. This is the sort of thing that Apple would never do in an interface design, and though Logitech has managed to find ways to let you navigate the varied options of different types of music services—some offer track skipping and pausing controls, others do not—it’s easy to imagine even simpler options.

Another speedbump is the way that the screen is being used. For some reason, the display is cluttered at times with a useless side visualizer that does nothing but cut down the already limited number of characters on the screen, and menus are always shown with only one option on screen at a time. While you can adjust font sizes, all of them consume a huge amount of screen real estate rather than providing multiple options at the same time. A device with this many menu choices and this much power should have a more usable display than a bottom-of-the-line Sony pocket flash player, though the brightness and readability of the screen are similarly not issues.

Finally, there’s the question of price. You’ll need to decide whether you’re willing to plunk down $300 on an Internet radio when there are other, less expensive options out there. We loaned our Boom to an experienced Internet Radio user who told us that the choice between Boom and a competitor like Grace’s device was tough, since Logitech clearly offered better sound and more features, yet the Grace box did a very good job and sufficed for its purposes at a lower total cost. A major issue he raised, however, tilted the equation in Logitech’s favor from our standpoint: Grace currently depends on a single, small Internet Radio aggregation service called Reciva, which might well go away, while Logitech’s multi-aggregator SqueezeNetwork site and SqueezeCenter app provide a measure of future-proofing that will keep the box well-stocked with content no matter what.

Our view is that Squeezebox Boom offers a lot of value for the dollar, in a very nice package that will look and sound good in any room of a home or office. While we can easily imagine a single application for the iPhone OS that would basically moot the need for the specialized tuning and Wi-Fi hardware inside of this device, the fact of the matter is that there isn’t such a thing yet available, and to get similar results you’d need to cobble together many different programs and a good pair of speakers. Even if it’s not perfect in navigation or display functionality, Logitech’s package does this all right now, and well, right out of the box. If you’re an Internet Radio fan, it’s worth checking out.

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