There is no question that advances in technology have made home A/V systems cheaper and easier to install, expand, and enjoy. The world of distributed audio and video is one area of home entertainment that has incorporated wireless technology, streaming media, digital storage, and online music services into small, affordable devices and packages. From linking your digital music library with the home’s sound system to wirelessly streaming Internet radio to multiple rooms in the home, the distributed A/V industry has it all covered.
The interesting thing about distributed A/V is that selecting a product to fit your needs is not as hard as it may seem. Although there are a wide range of products available, each comes with its own distinct features, expansion options, and limitations. Knowing exactly what you want can narrow down the choices pretty quickly.
Compare, for example, the Squeezebox from Slim Devices with the relatively new Apple TV. The Squeezebox is a network music player, using built-in 802.11g wireless networking to connect to the home network, access Internet radio services (the device comes with a 30-day free trial to Rhapsody), and send music to your’s home sound system or powered speakers. It’s strictly an audio device that can find and play your digital music collection or Internet radio without wires and cables.
Apple TV, on the other hand, addresses a different set of needs. Still considered a distributed A/V device, Apple TV makes bigger waves on the video side. The device is an acknowledgment that a great many people use, purchase, and download from iTunes. Apple TV wants to help users store, access, and send movies, videos, podcasts, and photos from their iTunes library to the Apple TV device to the TV. Like the Squeezebox, Apple TV uses 802.11 wireless networking to sync up with iTunes libraries stored on home computers. Anytime a change is made to iTunes, Apple TV automatically detects it and syncs. Your media library is therefore always updated and accessible simply by turning on the TV and browsing through the Apple TV interface. In addition, Apple TV comes in two storage sizes—- 40GB and 160GB—but it can also connect to and stream media from up to five different computers to help manage hard drive space.
These are two options under the distributed A/V umbrella, but two distinct solutions. Deciding between the two might come down to a simple question: “Do I want to store movies and video on my computer and access them through my TV?” Or: “Am I looking for an audio solution that can also give me access to Internet radio?” Determine your needs, then narrow your list.
Distributed A/V Limitations and Costs
Most distributed A/V products have limitations, so it’s important to compare features against your A/V needs. The Roku SoundBridge, for example, is another network music player –- similar to the Squeezebox—the uses Wi-Fi to connect to and access the home’s digital music library. It can play a host of music formats, including WMA, MP3, AAC, AIFF, ALAC, and WAV, but it does not support protect AAC files purchased from the iTunes Music Store. Unless you’re just getting started with iTunes and buying only unencrypted AAC files or paying the additional $.30 per song to upgrade your old encrypted files, you might think twice about the SoundBridge, especially if the bulk of your library has been purchased through iTunes.
Other products don’t address both the audio and video side of things. The Slingbox from Sling Media is the ultimate in distributed video—it allows users to access and watch live TV, recorded TV, and other video media (DVDs) remotely, whether on a laptop in the home, a laptop on the road, or a cell phone in the car. The Slingbox connects to the home’s cable box and DVR and to the home’s network, making media accessible through a variety of Web-connected devices. Using the company’s Slingplayer software, a person can watch and control live TV or recorded programs from anywhere, anytime. But the Slingplayer isn’t made to access and control your digital media library or stream Internet radio. You want distributed audio? You’re barking up the wrong tree.
Cost can also be a limiting factor. The Sonos distributed audio system lets you wirelessly access your digital library and Internet radio, and it comes with a wireless remote control that features a color LCD screen with a scroll wheel and the ability to queue up tracks, adjust volume, and select zones throughout the home. The system is expandable—you can add “Zoneplayers” to create multiple listening zones both inside and outside the home. It’s a wire-free whole-home distributed audio system ... but it comes at a price. The basic starter bundle –- the Sonos Bundle 130—costs $999. The two Zoneplayer options are $349 and $499, and an additional controller will set you back $399.
Products at a Glance
Here’s a brief run-down of the products mentioned in this article, as well as a couple others that might solve your distributed A/V needs:
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Between watching re-runs of the The Jetsons and convincing his Insteon and Z-Wave controls to get along, Ben Hardy is immersed in the world of home automation, home control, and home networking.