About two years ago I made the time investment to rip all my CD's to digital (this was a real death-march, at 20 CDs a night for a month). In doing so, I actually ripped every one of them twice: once into a small, variable bit-rate MP3 file for my iPod, and a second time into a much larger FLAC digital file (this is an open-source lossless compression format). All the FLAC files sit on an old computer on my network that does nothing but act as a file server for these music files.
Now, having lots of nice, high quality digital files, the trick is to play them through my home audio system. My first solution was an iPod dock on my home audio system, but I found this awkward. Next, I added a Squeezebox from SlimDevices, a small inexpensive box that hangs on the network that basically takes the digital files off the network and puts then in an analog or digital signal my stereo system knows what to do with. SlimDevices has always been a favorite among audiophiles, because of their open-source approach and their willingness to continue to improve their product with user feedback. And, they are pretty reasonably priced.
Both of these solutions suffered from one problem. My living room is fairly large, and while each system had a remote, the menu screen I was navigating was way over there, either on the small iPod screen or on the larger squeezebox screen. Either way, I still did not like the ergonomics.
In their new version of the Squeezebox, Slimdevices has come out with what I consider the near perfect streaming audio device. The product consists two pieces. First, the audio device, which is pretty small, that hangs on the network (either by cable or wireless) and does the same job as the old boxes I had, converting digital music files to a format my music equipment can handle. The key area of improvement is in the remote control. The remote communicates with your wireless network, and allows one to scroll through his whole music collection right on the remote in an interface nearly identical to the iPod, including album cover art if one so chooses. (click for larger view)
I have had this new Squeezebox for over a month now, and I love it. For those of you with a lot of CDs, like I have, it is just amazing how much more I listen to my music collection with this setup. In the old world of shuffling through CD cases in a rack, I would tend to get the same five or six in a rotation. Now, I listen to much more. The remote also has a headphone jack so it can operate like a portable music player (as long as it is in range of your wireless network).
By the way, I know there are devices like this that are all-in-one, meaning that they have their own hard drive so you don't need to network it to a computer. I find those boxes to be a) way expensive and b) difficult to upgrade. The cost of a cheap computer (it does not need much of a processor to just serve digital files up to the network) with a good size hard drive is cheap, and is the perfect use for an old computer you have upgraded. The only real flaw of this device is its inability to do video, but SlimDevices has always focused on audio and will probably stay that way.