SliMP3 MP3 network streamer
Company: Slim Devices
Price: $229.00 with 30-day moneyback guarantee
Digital music has been one of the driving forces in Apple Computer’s world over the past few years, beginning with the development of iTunes and the original iPod a few years back, and reaching new highs with the opening of the iTunes Music store last month.
More and more people are using their Macs for the enjoyment of music, as well as traditional computing uses. Apple has had its digital hub strategy for a number of years, and it appears to be paying off splendidly.
So, you’ve got your broadband connection to the Internet, you’re snagging tunes from the iTunes Music Store so fast your mouse is smoking, and between downloads you’re ripping your CD collection to MP3 format and storing them on your cheap new gigantic hard drive. When you’re not playing MP3’s, you’re always trying to keep your hundreds of CD’s filed away, but those jewel boxes always seem to break. And you can never seem to find the right CD when you want it.
But suddenly you realize that you don’t want to listen to hours and hours of music while tethered to your computer. You, like many sentient beings, have some sort of stereo that sounds LOTS better than the speakers connected to your Mac. Even if you have Monsoons, or an Apple Sound Sticks-iSub combo, you probably can’t do better than an inexpensive pair of traditional stand-alone stereo speakers connected to a pre-amp or receiver. Many computer aficionados are also stereo buffs, and have great gear just waiting to be fed MP3’s.
But floor plans and decorating styles vary widely, and many people don’t have their stereo near their Mac. So, what can you do to get access to your MP3’s, and can you play them on your stereo?
Most recent Macs don’t have audio out jack, so you’d have to resort to a gadget that can take audio from the USB port, and get it to an RCA jack to be plugged into your stereo. Even so, you’d still have to control the playback from the Mac, and that can be a hassle when you want to be entertaining guests in the living room, and the Mac is on the other side of the house. Too much hassle. On top of all that, what to do about cables?
If you own a new iPod with the line-out jack, you can plug the ‘Pod into the aux input jack on the stereo. But you still have battery life issues, and the smaller iPods may not hold your entire MP3 collection. Worse yet, the first two iPod revisions don’t even have the line-out jack, and the quality of the audio signal from the headphone jack is less than desirable when hooked up to a good stereo. Also, the older iPods can’t build playlists on the fly, so you have limited options on how to play your tunes.
The best device I’ve found to solve the “how do I play MP3’s from my computer with little or no hassle” is the SliMP3 (great name!) device from Slim Devices.
The SliMP3 is an elegant black box that allows completely remote playback and control of MP3’s streamed from your computer. It can be connected to your Mac by either an Ethernet cable, or wirelessly via Airport (802.11b). As long as your Mac is on to feed the MP3 stream and run the SliMP3 software, the SliMP3 box will take the incoming music feed, convert the MP3, and feed it via standard audio cables and RCA jack to your stereo.
The Weeks branch of MyMac.com Labs tested the SliMP3 for several weeks, and came away loving it. It’s not perfect, but it’s close.
Wired our Wireless?
The first choice you need to make is to decide whether to go wired or wireless. SliMP3 can connect via a regular Ethernet cable to your Mac if your house layout allows. My chief decorator-spouse nixed the idea of 85′ of cable running from the study to the living room. If I had more skill in running cable, I’d consider stringing cable through the ceiling and walls. I had to go wireless.
This meant I had to learn more of the networking black arts: bridging. Consulting my oracle, Adam Engst’s and Glenn Fleischmann’s Wireless Internet Starter Kit. I learned that I needed a wireless bridge to get my 802.11b signal across the house to the SliMP3. Bridges are used to connect two separate networks. I planned to connect the wireless network that my Mac-cum-MP3 hard drive lived on, with the wired network that the SliMP3 lived on. My old leftover 1st generation Airport Base Station wouldn’t do the trick, as it can’t bridge between different networks. Slim Devices’ on-line documentation addresses this, and recommends several different wireless bridges. I chose the LinkSys WET11.
Annoyingly, the WET11 was far harder to configure than the SliMP3. However, the WET11 setup was a one-time affair, and after discovering the Macintosh installation instructions deep in the bowels of the LinkSys web site, and wading through the process, it runs quite reliably.
Users who cable their Mac directly to the SliMP3 won’t have to fool with the hassle or expense of a wireless bridge. One other advantage to using cable is that all recent Macs have at least 100BaseT Ethernet, so the MP3 stream will consume a smaller percentage of your network bandwidth. Airport is little faster than 10BaseT, hence the MP3 stream will eat more of your bandwidth. In practice, I found no noticeable degradation is Web surfing, downloading, and garden-variety file sharing.
What’s in the box?
Slim Devices provides a long Ethernet cable, a remote control, and (thoughtfully) batteries for the remote, along with a short instruction manual. My main complaint about the instructions is that the print is torturously small.
Curt note to Slim Devices: Use a type size that older people (and 46 is not that old) can read. Otherwise, include a magnifying glass.
Once you’ve connected your SliMP3 to your Mac and stereo (a 10 minute affair at most), you must download and install the SliMP3 server software from the Slim Devices web site, as the gadget does NOT ship with the server software.
Not including the software isn’t as bad as it first appears. The software mavens at Slim are constantly revising the software, so not getting a probably already-outdated CD means that the new user will always be installing the latest version. Slim has open-sourced the software, which is written in PERL, and this means that Perl geeks have written numerous plug-ins and improvements to the Slim server software. The Macintosh software download from the Slim Devices web site is small, so you’ll have the installer running in short order. The Slim server runs as an OS X preference pane, and gives the user options to install it for just one user, or for all users. You can configure the server to start at login, or be started manually. The preference pane can also load your default web browser to control the Slim server.
Configuring the SliMP3 network settings via the remote will be transparent for most users, as the SliMP3 will use DHCP. If needed, you can add a few steps to the configuration process if you need to manually assign an IP address. I used DHCP, and the SliMP3 was ready to go in a few minutes.
Controlling the SliMP3 via a browser is all fine and dandy, but the real attraction is controlling the SliMP3 with its remote control. The remote is what cuts the cord between you and your computer, and this gives the SliMP3 its utility. The remote controls power on/off, volume, pause, scrub forward/reverse, next track previous track, searching, and playlist selection/creation.
Searching your music library
The search feature is worth exploring. When you’ve access to a nearly unlimited number of MP3’s (hard drive capacity is the limiting factor), you need to be able to easily search and choose your desired music. While the SliMP3 web browser interface has search features, the whole point of the SliMP3 is to untether you from your computer. The SliMP3 remote allows to browse by artist, album, track, composer genre, or playlist. It can read existing iTunes playlists, even smart playlists, or you can create playlists on the fly using the remote. If you have zillions of tracks to search, the remote allows you to spell out the desired search string in the same manner as typing on a cellphone; Press the 1 key three times for “C,” and so on. With only a small amount of practice you can enter a search for “Thelonious Sphere Monk” without having to scroll through virtually the entire list of artists (artists are sorted by first name in iTunes). Thank heavens SliMP3 is smart enough to know if a match exists after a few characters have been entered, so it’s unlikely that you’ll have to enter the entire artist’s name.
The vacuum fluorescent display
Slim Devices is proud of the quality of the SliMP3 display. It’s a crystal-clear VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) and you can even choose between a small display size with more characters displayed, or a larger display with fewer characters displayed. Even so, neither my wife nor I could read the display from more than 10-12 feet away, even at the larger size. Our SliMP3 is backlit, as it sits against a window, so a better placement may help distance readability.
Day to day use of the SliMP3 shows the thought that was put into the unit. Navigating and searching is easy with the remote. Audio quality is fine, given that MP3’s always have some quality loss compared to CD’s. Some reviews have dinged Slim Devices for not including a digital output for better quality sound from high-end pre-amps. I have to wonder how many audiophiles with digitally-capable pre-amps would even consider MP3-compressing their music.
For those who like to wake up to music, the SliMP3 includes an Alarm Clock feature. As I had the SliMP3 in the living room, this feature was not tested.
I’m not the only one who likes the SliMP3. As previously noted, the server software is open source, and Slim Devices encourages third-party developers. Numerous plug-ins exist for extending the capability of the box; you can do broadcast messages on the LCD display, and even display stock quotes. There’s an active message board for Slim developers, with hints and hacks freely exchanged.
Be aware that you need to have your Macintosh on (NOT asleep) to have the SliMP3 software running. If you’ve been turning your Mac off when not in use, or sleeping it, you’ll have to change your habits if you want access to your music at all times. A sleeping Mac can’t feed the SliMP3. I changed my Energy Saver control panel settings to never allow sleep, spin down the hard drive whenever possible, and to turn off the display after 30 minutes.
Problems and glitches
Of course, every gadget has problems, and the SliMP3 has some. The manual is hard to read. A glitch in the Macintosh software for the ROM updating function prevented me from updating the flash ROM. Slim Devices is aware of this small bug, and it should be fixed soon. Creating playlists on the fly with the remote is less-than intuitive, needing plenty of remote button pushing. At some points, the user even has to press the “ADD” button to remove certain tracks from playlists! I found it far easier to create playlists from within iTunes, choosing the playlist with the remote, and skip lots of scrolling, selecting and button-pushing for creating playlists on the fly.
2.4 GHz portable phones will disrupt 802.11b signals, so if you use a wireless hookup to the SliMP3 you may need to move your phone or wireless bridge. Weeks Labs found that using our Panasonic 2.4 GHz phone right within 6 feet of the LinkSys WET11 caused SliMP3 to stop playing.
SliMP3 and the iTunes Music Store
As of this writing, the SliMP3 does NOT support the AAC file format that Apple uses for encoding the music on the iTunes Music Store.
I asked Slim Devices if they plan to support AAC in the future. Their response was that they expect to release, within a couple of weeks, a version of the SLIMP3 software that can do on-the-fly conversion from ripped AAC music files to MP3 for playback on the SLIMP3. Later on, when Apple provides the appropriate support, they hope to release another update that can support the protected AAC files that are available for purchase from the Apple Music Store. I suspect that the issue is more about legality and licensing that it is about technical issues. So, you should soon be able to play music purchased from the iTunes Music Store with the SliMP3.
In the mean time, you can burn your protected AAC files to CD with iTunes and then re-import them as MP3 files for playback on SLIMP3.
But that’s a short list of quibbles, and none of them materially affected my regular use of the SliMP3.
With the SliMP3, I found that I am listening to more music more often, and enjoying it more without having to juggle CD’s. Our several hundred CD’s are boxed up for safekeeping the store room, freeing up space in the living room. With the SliMP3‘s ability to use iTunes’s smart playlists, I can arrange music for playback in ways that I never imagined.
The SliMP3 is highly recommended.
MacMice Rating: 5 out of 5