There are dozens of digital media receivers that perform this useful function. They can be characterized by the digital audio formats they are capable of playing, such as WMA (Windows Media Audio), WMV (Windows Media Video), MP3 (you know what that is) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding with MPEG-4).
Some devices have internal hard drives for music storage, while others search for music on networked computer hard drives or network-attached storage drives. Some of these audio receivers have built-in amplifiers, while others make use of the amp built into your stereo or surround-sound receiver or whole-house audio distribution systems. Music control interface options on these system include web browsers, infrared (IR) control and separate wireless touchscreen remotes. Then, of course, there is the tiny issue of cost.
If you only want to distribute music to your family room sound system with its own amplifier, then digital music players such as those from Turtle Beach, Barix and Roku are good bets at less than $500. Many of them feature web-based music control, though it is unlikely you would control the song selection from your computer laptop browser while parked in the family room. However, the IR remote controls that come with these systems work very well. Roku’s product displays your musical selections right on your TV screen.
A more advanced option would be to install a family room computer using Microsoft’s Media Center platform. It will search for music stored on its hard drive as well as on other computers in your home, then play it back through the home stereo speakers. A Media Center PC can also serve as a TiVo-like digital video recorder, show digital pictures and play digitally recorded movies. One of the elegant features of the Media Center PC is its ability to show artist and song information and album cover art on the family room TV while you listen to the music. And all this can be controlled with an IR remote.
But say you want even more. Say you want to play your digital music through a whole-house audio system. Then you need a remote control that will go with you from room to room or even outside. Alternatively, you could program your whole-house audio system keypads to control the music playback. But if you want to play music and see what is playing by song title, artist, or album cover art, you need a remote that can receive graphical song information while the music is playing.
A new product line launched by Sonos earlier this year provides the solution. In fact, each of the Sonos digital receivers comes with a built-in amplifier. You place the receivers throughout the home, and the music from your computer can be streamed to the speakers in any given room. This solution represents the best of all worlds: the ability to wirelessly transfer digital music to any or all the rooms in your home and the ability to control this music from an attractive and intuitive graphic remote control.
The Sonos Digital Music system can stream WMA, WMV, MP3 and AAC music formats to up to 32 different Sonos ZonePlayer receivers over a wired or 2.4-gigahertz wireless connection. To ensure quality of service for audio connections from ZonePlayer to ZonePlayer, Sonos has developed a wireless 802.11g-like protocol called SonosNet. An important technical hurdle that the Sonos engineering team solved was the need to synchronize digital music to all the hubs so there would be none of the musical lag that can result when you are streaming the same song to different rooms.
Both the Media Center solution and the Sonos Digital Music System typically cost $1,000 to $2,000, so you’ll pay for the privilege of adding intuitive and rich graphical control to your digital music system. But in our experience, there is no substitute for an excellent control interface, especially for a music collection. Once you’ve converted your family room or entire house into an iPod-like audio experience, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
Gordon van Zuiden is the founder of cyberManor, www.cybermanor.com.
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