Wireless way to beam tunes through home

Network: Companies are working on systems that will easily enable music to be delivered digitally from one part of a house to another.

May 06, 2004|By Crayton Harrison | Crayton Harrison,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Music, having cast aside its mortal, plastic shell, can be bought and played without ever requiring a physical medium to transport it. But then what happens to it?

Digital songs purchased online or ripped from compact discs still reside largely on personal computers. To get to the living room or the kitchen, they have to take physical form again, burned onto a blank CD and plugged into a CD player.

What we need next, technology enthusiasts say, is a way to digitally beam music to the entertainment center in the den and simultaneously to the teen-ager's bedroom upstairs and the tinny speakers in the garage.

Technology companies are furiously trying to make this work. The first few attempts trickled out four years ago, and an increasing assortment of manufacturers, from Cisco Systems Inc.'s Linksys wireless networking unit to software giant Microsoft Corp., has claimed a stake in the space.

Home audio networking, as some call it, is mostly the realm of early adopters, technology-savvy tinkerers with large digital music collections and the time and patience to make their gadgets work.

In the next few years, technology manufacturers will figure out ways to make the devices easier to use, said Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst at Dallas research firm Parks Associates. "We have found that there is a definite underlying demand for a kind of multiroom distribution of music," Scherf said. "They have a market to tap into if they can design the features right."

Several factors have kept home audio distribution gadgets out of mainstream use. Most work wirelessly, but not all have employed the Wi-Fi networking standard that has risen to popularity in the past two years. But machines that use Wi-Fi require at least a small amount of networking know-how to set up, causing users with less computer confidence to avoid the devices.

Home audio gadget makers have also strained to keep up with an increasing array of digital audio standards. Although MP3 reigns as the most popular standard, formats such as AAC and Ogg Vorbis have their fans. That means more work for device makers that try to incorporate those formats.

Files that contain copyright-protection measures, including the iTunes Music Store's AAC files, present their own software headaches.

Additionally, device makers have struggled to find the right format to display information about the songs they're streaming over a network. Some have linked set-top boxes to televisions, enabling users to select their music through the TV screen. Others show song titles and artists in smaller displays on their devices, but that can make it tough to scroll through menus to select music.

"It becomes very difficult for the user to find stuff," said Bill Taylor, senior director of marketing for Motorola Inc.'s consumer products. "We're spending a lot of energy to find innovative new ways of accessing that content."

Future products will need intuitive, easy-to-navigate ways of finding music, perhaps in the same way that cell phone users can find a number in their digital phone books by typing in a few letters, Taylor said.

Despite those challenges, home audio networking will soon become a popular item for many families, said Patrick Cosson, vice president of sales and marketing for Slim Devices Inc., maker of the Squeezebox device. "We fundamentally believe that once this music is digital, once you've ripped it, you want this access to your content," Cosson said. "You're going to want to free your music."

Manufacturers have developed home audio networking devices in three main categories. A look at how they stack up.

Stereo components

Description: These tiny boxes hook right into a stereo system. Through an Ethernet connection or, often, a Wi-Fi network, they recognize music files on your computer and decode them for play on the stereo. Many can also play streaming Internet radio.

Examples: Slim Devices' Squeezebox, Turtle Beach's AudioTron

Pros: Relatively easy to install; small enough to fit in any room in the home that has a stereo system; provide the cheapest, most user-friendly way to start distributing music in the home.

Cons: Displays can be difficult to read and navigate; prices of $250 to $300 exceed those of typical stereo components; probably will be quickly outdated as technology standards evolve.

Entertainment computers

Description: Full, high-powered personal computers that use Microsoft's Windows Media Center operating system. They're designed to be used in the living room and can handle television recording and other entertainment tasks in addition to music.

Examples: Gateway's FMC-901 Family Room Media Center, Hewlett-Packard's Media Center m400y.

Pros: Offer the full power and flexibility of a personal computer; connect to a TV, so it's easy to read and navigate through menus; can connect to a home network to read other computers' files.

Cons: Much larger and bulkier than stereo component devices; more complicated to set up and use because of their many functions; prices mirror those of full-featured PCs, about $900 or more.

Music servers

Description: A newer category of powerful computers designed specifically to store and distribute music and other digital entertainment content. Often shaped like television set-top boxes.

Examples: Motorola's Media Station MS1000; Denon's NS-S100 (both products available later this year).

Pros: Flagship products from companies trying to pioneer home audio networking, using some of the most advanced technology available.

Cons: Because it is so new and advanced, a music server is extremely expensive; the NS-S100 is expected to sell for $3,000 to $5,000.

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