Sunday, January 08, 2006

Modifying the Squeezebox: Step 1: Power Supply: Cheap tweak

You have several tiers of modifications available for the Squeezebox, and at least two available and well-known and well-reviewed companies who can do the work for you, for a price. The mods for the Squeezebox fall into three tiers:

  1. Upgrades to the power supply
  2. Upgrades to the digital section of the SB3
  3. Upgrades to the analog section of the SB3
The two companies who mod the SB3 are Boldercable and Red Wine Audio. Both do exceptional work, have legions of satisfied customers, and each takes quite a different approach to the power supply upgrades. I had Boldercable perform the digital mod, and provide an upgraded, deluxe outboard power supply for the SB3, at a total cost of $425 including shipping but excluding the cost of the SB3. But first, a few cheaper options for the power supply.

The stock power supply of the SB3 is a cheap little "walwart" plug not much better than what you use to charge your cell phone. Most users report a noticeable improvement by simply switching to an ugraded industrial adaptor. Hosfelt makes a bargain one ($7), part number 7202 C3 which is a 5 volt, 1.5 amp version, which has received good reviews. Elpac also makes one, the 5v 1.5a Elpac WM075-1950-760, available for not much more. Both resemble the power adaptor of laptop computer. The reported improvements include greater weight, clarity, and smoothness of sound.

In my prior experience upgrading the walwart of the Art DI/O DAC to a cheaper but improved adaptor, I did notice these improvements. However, with the DI/O, I later upgraded to a much more expensive custom-built Boldercable power supply. The difference was much more noticeable and the construction quality was impressive, but the cost was more considerable.

I decided to opt for the Boldercable deluxe power supply for the SB3. It's a tank of power supply, as the linked pictures demonstrate. Housed in a black anodized aluminum case, it is a slight upgrade over the standard Boldercable power supply, and is priced around $350-375. It does NOT come with an AC powercord, which will add another $80 or more (I used one of my Cardas Golden reference cords I had lying around, which can be had used for $250 (retails for $500 new); Bolder makes a good power cord, the Nitro, for about $80). For the cost-no-object crowd, Bolder makes an even more expensive ($1k) version with all silver wiring and very expensive caps.

OK, reality check here. Along with a a good power cord, you are talking $450-$650 for a power supply simply to feed power to a $250 device which already has its adaptor. Or out even more clear: 20x-30x the cost of the el cheapo Hosfelt or Elpac upgrade. Am I nuts? Of course I am and so are you; all audiophiles are nuts, some more than others. Since the Boldercable PS takes about 100 hours to "burn-in" before any critical listening tests can be done, my review of the audible changes with this power supply will have to wait a week, but I can say that even with a few hours of burn in, the changes from the stock walwart are absolutely audible. The construction quality is superb.

I have not listened to the Red Wine Audio power supply, but it is quite different in philosophy, using a battery-powered supply also housed in a black anodized aluminum enclosure, which looks quite similar to the Bolder deluxe version. Inside, however, things are much different, with the AC charging a 12V, 10Ah SLA battery, and a 5V linear regulator. There are many opinions on the benefits of using a battery power supply, as well as the drawbacks. Generally, battery power supplies are usually quieter.

If you don't have the chance to hear both versions for yourself, you can sample the various opinions of pro-battery and pro-AC.

Squeezebox Blues

With all the positive buzz around the Squeezebox and other computer based audio solutions, it only takes a few hiccups to remind you that the SB is still a computer hardware/software device, which means you may invariably suffer computer glitches both in the setup and use. With over 20 years of computer experience, I am used to all manner of computer hiccups, but it still irritates me when I have to spend time resolving the issue. This is a good reminder to keep ahold of my CD-based system, just in case. I had planned to sell my CD transport, but am resigned to keeping it as a backup.

Most problems with the Squeezebox have very little to do with the Squeezebox, and more to do with the computer hardware or with third party software settings. The biggest bugs usually are:
  • firewalls (you need to configure your firewall to allow access to the SB)
  • incompatible or unruly wireless routers or their settings (See the slimdevices website for known compatibility problems with your current wifi router)
  • standard network configuration issues (DHCP problems)

I had been running the SB3 for weeks with no problems, then yesterday, I could not access the computer. While I didn't think anything had changed, I realized the Mac Mini had automatically updated some software, plus I had upgraded my wireless router settings. My wireless router serves both a Windows PC as well as the Mac Mini. Anyway, I spent 2 hours troubleshooting, and finally chased the problem down to a configuration setting on the wireless router.

This is the downside versus CD transports, which are pretty much plug n' play with my audio system. It did get me thinking about the negatives of relying on a computer-based audio server compared to more traditional CD based systems:

CONS of a Squeezebox:

  • In its most general form, it is a computer network device. Any issues common to setting up a computer network could be encountered with the SB, especially if you are using your computer for other tasks.
  • Used in wireless configuration, SB3's can be prone to the same issues impacting other wifi devices, like signal strength or wifi router incompatibility.
  • It does not support computer audio files that have commercial DRM. This means most files downloaded from iTunes music store, or other similar online music stores.
  • It does not yet support high resolution SACD or DVD-A formats.
  • Need and Expense of Backup: Music files must be backed up in order to avoid any risk of file corruption or hard drive failure (this is not a SB problem; rather, a problem common to any computer based system).

None of these outweigh the positive benefits, and in my current experience, they are encountered usually initially (if at all), or following some software upgrade or change to your computer. Plus, I have noticed that the Squeezebox online community is ready, willing, and in most cases, able to help you out with free advice, tips, or trouble shooting.