Background

We have bemoaned the almost complete absence of commercial Squeeze players on the market because this is the major barrier to the deployment of Squeezebox Server™ (a rather excellent product) as a platform for media streaming.

Players either have to be hand crafted (we have lots of useful information about how to do this) or purchased second-hand (eBay prices for players are still quite high so it would appear that there is a real demand).

So we applaud the efforts of Imagine Acoustics, based in the UK, who have developed the ‘PODULE’ which builds a Squeeze player by re-purposing an Apple iPod Touch. This makes the creation of a DIY Squeeze player really straightforward because no computer skills are required. The PODULE includes its own music sensing power amplifier stage and all the elements are housed in a practical enclosure. The PODULE connects via the native Wi-Fi provided by the Apple iPod Touch. In effect, it fills the gap that has always existed in the Squeeze player product range for a player which allows the user to connect their own speakers. In this sense it is somewhat equivalent to the Sonos ZP100/ZP120/Sonos Connect:Amp product.

Podule01.jpg

Specification

The name “PODULE” derives from “iPod in a Capsule” and is presented in the form of a functional black box. It is envisaged that, once the device has been set up, most users will place the PODULE out-of-sight in an audio equipment cabinet or cupboard, or in a ceiling or wall cavity close to the speakers. It can then be controlled remotely from the Squeezebox server web interface, or from any Squeeze controller device, or of course from the iPod Touch's screen itself. When you use the touch screen, it's perhaps the closest thing to a Logitech Touch that's out there. (Except a Logitech Touch, if you can afford one.)

The PODULE incorporates a spider clamping plate to secure a 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation iPod Touch ‘captive’ inside its housing, while still permitting its screen to be viewed for set-up purposes. The integrated Hi-Fi amplifier is 20 Watt RMS per channel and also provides an internal USB power supply to charge the iPod Touch. A compact right angle 3.5mm stereo jack cable connects the iPod Touch headphone output to the input of the integrated amplifier The built-in amplifier is signal-sensing, so automatically switches itself off when not in use. In so doing, it draws less than 0.5 Watts (when not charging the iPod). 

Podule02.jpg

The PODULE uses the DAC within the iPod Touch and it is necessary to download Squeezebox Server™ software - Imagine Acoustics recommend iPeng Classic. This is purchased from the iTunes App store at a cost of £4.49. It is also necessary to complete an in-app purchase to enable it to work as a Player, not just a controller. This costs an additional £1.00.

The PODULE has low power consumption and 'sleeps' when not in use. The PODULE can be powered over a single length of CAT5 cable, which could be handy if locating it in hidden in places where there was no conventional mains power and thus affords some versatility of location. Power can be fed over a Cat 5 or Cat 6 using all of the conductors to convey power. Imagine Acoustics include both the relevant male and female DC adaptors for both ends. Additionally, the PODULE amp ameliorates the potential loss from power-feeding by incorporating a built-in DC to DC converter providing a stabilised power supply even over a 30 metre run of Cat5 cable.

Our Trial Experience

Imagine Acoustics provided us with a PODULE and iPod Touch to trial which we hooked-up to a pair of Mission M71s that had been sculling about the loft for many a moon, looking for a mission.

The set-up using iPeng was straightforward and it was as easy to manage the PODULE via the Squeezebox Server™ weblink as any other player. The performance was significantly better than we expected – we had been somewhat sceptical about using the headphone jack output as an analogue input into the amplifier stage and, while it does not reach the performance of a dedicated DAC, the DAC in the Apple iPod Touch is pretty good. (Interminable debate rages around this topic - if you have the energy you can explore further here.) The elements are more than adequate to fill the gap the PODULE is designed to fill - a compact, inexpensive, low power, easily deployed and managed Squeeze player: just add speakers.

Competitors

PODULE is a Squeezebox-compatible player with integrated DAC and amplifier. As far as we can tell there is not a lot else to fill that particular gap in the market apart from the DIY configurations we describe on the easysqueezebox.com website, and pre-built versions of those DIY devices from enterprising companies such as Digital Living.

These competitor comparisons are based on published data. We plan to carry out a comparison testing of all these devices sometime so we can report on our perception of the audio quality of each DAC/Amp combination using the same speakers. (So much to do, so little time.) 

Sonos

The market leader in streaming players is Sonos, and the Sonos device most like the PODULE is the Sonos Connect:Amp

Both devices need to be configured before music can be played. Sonos is well-known (and rightly) for its easy set-up, although some newbies can get confused at first. PODULE users have to plug in the iPod Touch, which is a little more effort, but configuration should not be a problem for anyone already using Squeeze Server™, which is the target customer. Sonos is not out-of-the box compatible with Squeezebox Server™ (although it would seem to not be a big challenge for Sonos to make it so).

Comparison with the Sonos Connect:Amp shows the Sonos slightly ahead on technical specifications, but it comes at a price! Sonos scores over PODULE by having:

  • More power (2*55W RMS)
  • Sub-Woofer O/P
  • Wired and Wireless Ethernet connections
  • RCA analogue I/Ps
  • Volume & play/pause controls on the unit
  • More attractive casing
  • One box, ready to use.

PODULE beats the Sonos by being:

  • Compatible with Squeezebox Server™ with all the advantages we have expounded elsewhere.   
  • Much less expensive (£225 vs £399). The PODULE is projected to sell for £168 (inc. Tax) and a second-hand iPod Touch can be sourced for around £50, so all in all, the final cost will be around £225. This compares favourably to a Sonos Connect:Amp (which costs £399). If you already have a spare iPod Touch that can be re-purposed, then the comparison is even more favourable for the PODULE.

Some similarities:

  • Both devices can process 48kHz/16bit digital music, which is theoretically slightly "better" than CD quality and is amply good enough for the kind of listening environment envisaged by these systems.
  • Both systems need the user to add speakers. Both seem to be compatible with a wide range of speakers, although neither would probably be satisfying with giant power-hungry bass-heavy boxes.

IQAudIO Pi-Amp

The IQAudIO Pi-Amp+ specifications suggest that this device would be used in the same kind of environment as the PODULE. The IQAudIO device is pre-built and tested from components available to DIYers, but should work out of the box without any further assembly. A minor advantage.

  • IQAudIO and PODULE both have power amps rated at 2x20 Watt RMS, Class D.
  • Both devices perform volume control in the Squeeze player software embedded in the device.
  • IQAudIO has a built in DAC that accesses the I2S bus directly, while PODULE uses the Touch's built in DAC, that we are pretty sure does much the same thing inside the Touch.
  • IQAudIO Pi-Amp+ is selling online for £190, while the PODULE without Touch is £168, both including UK taxes. So the PODULE has a cost advantage if you already have a iPod Touch. If you have to go out and buy a Touch, the cost advantage probably swings in favour of IQAudio.
  • PODULE does have an iPeng-driven touchscreen, while the IQAudio amp must be managed from a controller or the Squeezebox server web interface.
  • PODULE comes with Wifi, the IQAudio will need an add-on dongle for WiFi. On the other hand IQAudio has wired Ethernet as standard, the PODULE (using the iPod Touch) doesn't.

Observations, Pros and Cons

  1. The captive iPod seems a bit of a waste of a useful element, unless you just happen to have one lying around doing nothing. The iPod could be used elsewhere (in a car for example) carrying a music library. This would require the use of a docking station but such a feature would also open up the technology to Android devices running Squeezebox Server™ apps such as Squeezer.
  2. While the PODULE GUI is only used for set-up it makes initial configuration very simple, and after that you will probably control the device remotely, especially if you've chosen to position it in an out-of-the way cabinet.
  3. We like the use of auto-sensing to switch the amp off when not in use. Also, the ability to feed stabilised power up to 30m over a length of ethernet cable can be quite useful in some situations, and certainly is easier than running a long mains extension cord.  
  4. There is no user accessible digital output from the PODULE, so using an external DAC with this device is not easy, despite the fact that this is technically available from the iPod Touch. We understand that this is due to restrictions Apple have placed on licensing use of the 30-pin output connector (got to feel for the world's most profitable corporation). However if you are in the market for a self-contained device like this, we feel that the analogue output provided by the iPod Touch will be perfectly adequate.
  5. It sounded good, and it's certainly suitable for its intended purpose!

Summary

Thanks, Imagine Acoustics, for taking the Squeezebox player market seriously, and for letting us play with the PODULE!. Since Logitech decided it had better things to do than sell gear to the Squeezebox community, there has been a glaring gap in the market, not yet filled. We think the PODULE will be welcomed by Squeezebox users who are OK with the minimal amount of assembly and configuration required here, but who might be reluctant to try anything more complicated. If they already have an iPod Touch (or an iPhone?) that can be re-purposed, this would be just the thing, and good value.

Sure, it's apparently more expensive than a complete DIY equivalent, but not if you set a realistic price on your time and sanity. And it's a real product, with support, and that has value too.

The Streamer/DAC/Amp combo is ideal for situations where high power and the highest-fidelity is not part of the user spec. We can see the PODULE being used to provide Squeezebox-driven musical accompaniment in a study or den, a kitchen, an outside porch or conservatory, or a bedroom. We do not see it being used at the core of a state-of-the-art audio system, but that's not its purpose. In its musical niche, the PODULE Player is a player. 

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