- 8 total choices from $125-$1000
Convenience and high quality audio performance are two attributes that rarely co-exist in an audio component. Audiophiles have an innate distrust of any piece of gear that touts its ease-of-use as a selling feature. For instance, in the eyes of discriminating audiophiles, CD changers are often regarded as inferior to a single disc player. Since the transport is a critical step in correctly reading the data off a disc, it stands to reason that a high quality single disc mechanism will audibly outperform the complicated carousel design. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and in some cases a high-end piece of audio gear can actually simplify the process of listening to music. The Squeezebox SB3 is a device that allows an audio enthusiast to conveniently interface a conventional audio system with a computer. A music library is stored on a computer hard drive, and the Squeezebox uses a wireless signal to transmit the information to the stereo system. A stock Squeezebox can be categorized as a “lifestyle” component, yet it can be turned into a high-resolution digital source with a properly designed modification package.
The Bolder Cable Company offers an extensive lineup of modification packages available for the Squeezebox. Wayne Waananen offers several levels of upgrades for the SB3 that can meet the needs of a diverse collection of audio enthusiasts. The frugal audio enthusiast can start with a modified ELPAC power supply for their SB3, while the hardcore audio enthusiast can opt for the top of the line “Statement” package. There are upgrade options that fall in between these extremes, and these packages can meet the needs of the Squeezebox owners who are looking to obtain the best performance upgrades for a reasonable price.
An upgrade of the external power supply is the logical starting point for improving the Squeezebox. The stock wallwart unit is a switching power supply that significantly limits the performance of the SB3.(1) A Bolder modified ELPAC WM220-1 power supply is an excellent beginning for the frugal audio enthusiast, as it offers a favorable performance versus price ratio. Even though the ELPAC provides a noticeable sonic improvement, there are still significant performance gains that can be realized from a custom-built power supply. Wayne is on the fourth version of the Ultimate power supply, which is the accumulation of the knowledge and experience he has compiled from building these units. While this power supply represents a significant investment for the average audio enthusiast, it does lay the foundation for turning the SB3 into an authentic high-end digital source. (2) Whether you want to test the waters of Squeezebox upgrades or go whole hog, the Bolder Cable Company can help you find the power supply that will meet your needs.
The Digital Only modification is the first level of internal upgrades in the Bolder Cable Company lineup. A Squeezebox with this modification package is intended for use with an external DAC, or in a home theater system where a digital to analog converter is housed in another component. Every Bolder modification package starts with an upgrade to the internal power supply stage of the Squeezebox. All of the power supply capacitors are replaced with a combination of Panasonic FC or Blackgate NC capacitors. Since the internal power supply distributes the current to all the circuit stages in the SB3, these upgrades improve both the digital and analog stages of the Squeezebox. The second half of the digital modification addresses the architecture of the digital output circuit. In the stock SB3, the output of the digital buffer passes through a circuit containing various parts, which includes several inductors and complicated board traces. Wayne has bypassed this portion of the Squeezebox, and installed a proprietary 75-ohm wire, and a 75-ohm WBT NextGen RCA output connector. Now the SB3 has a true 75-ohm output level, which the optimal configuration to interface with a separate digital to analog converter.
The Enthusiast Analog modification addresses the shortcomings inherent in the circuitry that follows the D to A converter chip. In a nutshell, Wayne removes everything after the digital to analog converter chip, and installs a circuit of his design. The headphone circuit, and the analog output stage op amp chips are taken out. All surface mount electrolytic capacitors are also removed. An internal switching power supply to the DAC chip is junked. The power to the DAC chip is now fed directly from the main DC input.(3) The analog output of the DAC chips is passed through high quality coupling capacitors, and then fed out through a pair of Cardas RCA jacks.(4) Wayne creates a high-end digital component out of the humble Squeezebox. The Enthusiast Analog package will appeal to the audio enthusiast who wants high-end performance from a single box unit.
The Full Enthusiast package is a combination of the digital and analog modifications. This is the package that Wayne has installed in my Squeezebox. In this configuration, I will be able to make a meaningful comparison of the modified onboard analog stage to the Audio Magic Kukama DAC. This package sells for a hundred dollars more than the analog only modification, but it allows the SB3 to be used in a wide array of system applications.
Removing the op-amp from the output stage of a digital source has become a widely accepted modification technique. One possible issue with this technique is a reduction in the output level of the modified component, since one function of the op-amp is to amplify the incoming signal. Several companies use this modification configuration, and have different solutions to deal with the lowered output signal. The Enthusiast Analog modifications reduce the output voltage of the Squeezebox to 1.2 volts, which may create an issue with certain types of audio systems. A system with an active pre-amplifier can easily handle the lower output level of the modified SB3. However, system configurations that rely on a higher signal from the source may have to look at the possibility of adding an additional gain stage. (5) Wayne recommends using a Burson Buffer (pictured left) with the SB3 if the system requires an increased gain level from the source component. As an added bonus, the Burson Buffer effectively deals with any impedance mismatches that occur in a system. (6) A stock Burson Buffer should cost approximately four hundred dollars. and is available from Burson Audio in Australia. To begin with, I would recommend installing the SB3 in its standard configuration, but keep in mind that the addition of a Burson Buffer may very well have positive results.
The Squeezebox with the Enthusiast Full modification package will be utilized as a stand-alone digital source. The SB3 feeds a Bent Audio pre-amplifier which contains a Burson Buffer stage. An Audio Magic Kukama DAC is also thrown into the mix, in order to evaluate the performance of the analog stage of the Squeezebox. A pair of Monarchy Audio SM 70 PRO amplifiers drives a set of Audio Nirvana Super 12 speakers. All cables are selected from the Audio Magic Illusion 4D series of wire. Power cords are from the Audio Magic Extreme series of wire. An Audio Magic Mini-Reference power conditioner provides clean AC current to all the components.
The Bolder modified ELPAC WM220-1 power supply is the starting point for the upgrade path for the Squeezebox. While this unit offers significant sonic improvement over the stock switching power supply, it does not unveil the full potential of the Squeezebox. Since I have one of these units on hand, I was able to make a direct comparison to the Bolder Ultimate v1 power supply. The differences between the two units are not subtle, and the Ultimate power supply uncovers layers of subtle detail that the ELPAC is unable to retrieve. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s piano in “Why Walk When You Can Fly” [Stones in the Road, Columbia CK 64327] has a tonal purity that cannot be matched with the simpler power supply. The fine shadings of Carpenter’s voice are not glossed over, and this results in a far more realistic presentation of a musical performance. The Ultimate power supply lays the foundation for all the other modification packages that Wayne has developed. For those enthusiasts looking to maximize the performance of their Squeezebox, this power supply is the place to start.
The digital modification package is well suited for the audio enthusiast who already owns a high quality digital to analog converter. When used in conjunction with the Ultimate power supply, the Bolder modified Squeezebox is the equal of many high-end digital transports.(7) I paired the Bolder Squeezebox up with the Audio Magic Kukama DAC in order to evaluate its abilities as a dedicated transport. A JVC XL-Z1050TN CD player is my conventional digital transport. Although the JVC is a 90s era unit, it is still highly regarded as a transport, and maintains a dedicated core of fans in the audio world. The JVC and a stock Squeezebox with a modified ELPAC power supply are on equal terms as regards sonic abilities. The Ultimate power supply and digital modifications advance the performance of the Squeezebox to a point that is noticeably ahead of the JVC. “Language or the Kiss” by The Indigo Girls [Swamp Ophelia, Epic EK 57691] highlights the improvements that Wayne has coaxed out of the Squeezebox. These two folk singers are adept at weaving an aural tapestry using a diverse collection of instruments. This track contains piano, acoustic guitars, marimba, tambourines, drums, bass guitar, and the singers’ distinctive voices. The Squeezebox does a masterful job of maintaining the separate character of each instrument, and neatly places them within the soundstage. The JVC lags behind in the area of neutrality, and lacks as well the ability to properly position instruments in the recording. It is important to note that the modified Squeezebox also outperforms the JVC in terms of the quality and quantity of bass information. Bass instruments in this song extend deeper, and have better detail, when the modified Squeezebox is installed. When both the Ultimate power supply and the digital modification packages are installed in a Squeezebox, the result is a high-end digital transport that is well within the financial reach of most audio enthusiasts.
The sonic character of the stock Squeezebox is harsh, grainy, and without proper focus of the various elements in the soundstage. With the analog modification package in place, the humble SB3 is transformed into a high quality digital component. The music flows from this player with a relaxed pace that is easy on the ears. More than anything else, the presentation of this unit reminds me of a good analog turntable. I returned to the Mary Chapin Carpenter song in order to make a direct comparison to the Audio Magic DAC. The piano now has a larger feel, a touch of warmth, and is a bit more laid-back than when played through my D to A converter. Carpenter’s vocals are smoother, and have less bite on the loudest portions of the song. The bass guitar notes are round and full, yet the instrument is still quick and lively. There is no question that the Bolder modified Squeezebox interprets music differently than the Audio Magic Kukama. The modified SB3 clearly values the interplay of instruments and performers in a recording, and does not focus on retrieving the smallest of details imbedded in a song.
Well-recorded jazz discs sounded heavenly when played through the modified Squeezebox. I especially enjoyed listening to “Sweet Sorrow” from the Joshua Redman Quartet. [MoodSwing, Warner Bros 9 45643-2] The saxophone floats in the center of the soundstage, and the burnished warmth of the instrument fills my listening room. An acoustic bass solo is rich and full, yet the individual notes are clearly presented. Actually, the bass is powerful enough to have a physical impact, and this just adds another dimension to the listening experience. The higher registers are silky smooth, and the cymbals are set deeply back into the recording. When listening to the Bolder modified Squeezebox, it is easy to lose interest in all the nitpicky details that audiophiles are often preoccupied with. Instead the music is of paramount importance, and the beauty of the performance is what shines through the system.
World-class digital components are capable of unearthing the finest of details embedded in a recording, accurately recreating the space of the re-
cording venue, and still maintaining a natural tonal balance. The Full Enthusiast modification package does not allow the Squeezebox to enter this exclusive realm; however, it does provide the lion’s share of the sound quality offered by the best digital components.(8) The modified SB3 favors smoothness and liquidity over ultimate detail retrieval. This player does not have the highest level of transparency, but it does maintain the proper tonal balance of a song. The bass response is nicely fleshed out, and has good extension. Yet there are CD players that will surpass the SB3 in terms of ultimate detail retrieval. When the performance of the Bolder modified Squeezebox is dissected in this manner, it easy to lose sight of its true value. Despite any limitations it may have, the modified SB3 excels at unearthing the emotional content of the music. The combination of convenience and the ability to engage the listener is a pair of attributes quite rare in the audio world.
The prospective owner of a Bolder modified Squeezebox is faced with a wide array of choices. The inevitable question is, “which package offers the best performance for a reasonable investment?” I have had the opportunity to spend several months with the modified SB3, and have used it with a several different audio systems. From my experiences, I would recommend installing the Enthusiast Analog package, with the Burson Buffer and the Ultimate power supply. This combination of components consistently provided excellent performance in any system I placed it in. The buffer and power supply made noticeable contributions to the overall sound, and are worthwhile additions. This package requires an outlay of $18759 , but you get a system that is capable of standing toe to toe with many other high performance CD players. Throw into the equation that the Burson Buffer effectively takes the place of a stand alone preamplifier; then the selling price takes on quite an attractive appearance.
For the frugal audio enthusiast, the Digital Only package and upgraded ELPAC power supply is the logical starting place. The digital package is modestly priced, and improves the performance of the digital and analog stages of the SB3. The modified ELPAC WM220-1 provides approximately 75% of the performance that can be achieved from the Ultimate power supply. When more funds are available, it makes sense to pair the SB3 up with a high quality DAC.10 The modification package requires an investment of $375, which should be quite easy on most people’s audio kitty.11 Either way you look at it, Wayne has a modification package for the Squeezebox that will meet the needs and financial resources of any audio enthusiast.
Wayne Waananen has spent years refining the modification packages for the Squeezebox. The current offerings of the Bolder Cable Company are designed in a manner that makes them accessible to audio enthusiasts of all walks of life. The basic modification packages offer a lot of bang for the buck, while Wayne’s best offerings easily compete with the current crop of high-end CD players. Computer based music playback has slowly made significant inroads into the domain of 2-channel audio. The Squeezebox allows even the most “computer illiterate” individual the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a hard drive based music server. The combination of improved sound quality, and the convenience of instant access to a music library make a Bolder modified Squeezebox an enticing option. The modified SB3 is a welcome addition to my system. These days, I find the thought of hunting down a CD and tossing it into my conventional transport quite unappealing. Now I can scroll through a menu, pick my tracks, and enjoy the music.
1) The stock power supply radiates a significant amount of RF noise. Matter of fact, if plugged into the wall next to another power supply, it will degrade the performance of the other unit. If you were to compare an upgraded power supply against the stock unit, be sure to unplug the wall-wart when it is not being used.
from aﬀordableaudio, By John Hoffman