March 14, 2007
| by Ben Hardy
Digital media is a wonderful thing, but it’s created some attachment issues. We store our music library on the laptop, so we feel like we have to lug the thing everywhere to enjoy it. The DVR is recording all our favorite shows, but we need to be glued to the sofa to watch them. It’s a location problem.
Enter wireless technology. With the advent and advances in wireless audio products, you can now access and play your music library from anywhere in the home; wireless video grants even greater freedom, enabling users to watch live and recorded TV from virtually any wireless, Internet-enabled device – anywhere, anytime.
In this overview, we look at the products and technologies behind wireless A/V.
Many people store their music collection digitally. Be it on a laptop, desktop, or removable storage device, digital audio libraries are common in many households. Similarly, Internet radio enjoys a growing body of users, as this option makes it easy for listeners to find stations that fit their musical tastes.
The inevitable question, “How do I play my digital music through my home stereo without running cables from my computer?,” is being answered by wireless technology. Solutions abound: AirPort Express from Apple, Siroco Wireless Audio Bridge from Sondigo, Squeezebox from Slim Devices—it’s a growing list of products that operate on similar principles.
How Wireless Audio Products Work
Wirelessly connecting a digital library or Internet radio to a home’s sound system is achieved using software and one or more pieces of hardware. At a minimum, a receiver of some sort will be connected to the sound system or powered speakers to receive and play the transmitted audio. To send audio from the source (desktop, laptop, etc.) some systems will utilize the existing wireless network in the home (i.e., router), while others require a transmitting device to be connected to the computer. Connection of the device to the home’s A/V receiver or powered speakers will vary by product –- if optical digital is an option, this is the way to go.
What to Expect from Wireless Audio Products
As mentioned, the number of hardware pieces included in a wireless audio system can vary. Some devices will include a remote control; some will allow access to Internet radio even when the computer is turned off. The Squeezebox from Slim Devices, for example, features 802.11g wireless networking capabilities (it automatically detects a wireless network for easy set-up), a remote control, and access to a stored directory of thousands of Internet radio stations, and online music services like Pandora and Rhapsody. “It’s kind of like having a library card,” says Brian Helmle of Slim Devices. “But in this case you have access to your own library, plus the millions of songs through Pandora and Rhapsody.”
Cables to connect a wireless audio device to the home stereo or speakers may or may not be included. Apple’s AirPort Express, for example, requires separate purchase of a stereo connection kit, which includes Monster’s mini-to-RCA audio and mini-to-optical digital cables. Shoppers should pay close attention to included accessories or required add-on purchases.
Music format is another detail that shouldn’t be overlooked. Users will probably want a device that plays a wide variety of music file formats, including lossless and/or uncompressed music. Like it or not, music purchased online (through iTunes, for example) is usually encrypted, and sometimes cannot be streamed over these wireless devices. If much of your music is saved in an encrypted format, be sure to confirm that a wireless audio product works with that format.
Wireless Audio Products At a Glance
- Airport Express, from Apple—$99. Small, portable plug-in device combines wireless network, audio, printing, and bridging capabilities. Supports Wi-Fi compliant 802.11b or 802.11g Mac and Windows PCs. Remote control and cables purchased separately. Does not feature a digital display.
- Sirocco Wireless Audio Bridge, from Sondigo—$140. Compatible with all PC audio formats and Internet radio.
- Squeezebox, from Slim Devices—$299. Digital display, remote control, access to Internet radio. 30-day free trial of the Rhapsody music service.
- Netgear EVA700 Digital Entertainer—$250. Connects to home entertainment system (including TV), allowing for audio and video files to stream from PC and Internet to home theater. Navigate stored audio and video and Internet streams using remote control and TV screen.
- Sonos – “Starter” kit bundle starts at $999. Includes two “Zoneplayers” and LCD screen controller. Access digital library, Internet radio, Rhapsody, eMusic, etc.
The wireless dilemma for the videophile is a bit different. Most people have an entertainment room with a TV and a set-top box. Maybe there are a couple TVs situated across the home, too. When you want to watch a broadcast, you have to sit in front of a specific TV—or so it has been for so many years. Wireless video products—also known as “placeshifting” devices—are enabling the viewer to enjoy live or recorded broadcasts remotely. And by remotely we mean virtually anywhere. It’s mobile TV.
How Wireless Video Products Work
The basic concept behind wireless video is this: A hardware device (similar to a set-top box in appearance) is connected to a cable box, satellite receiver, DVR, etc. The wireless device is then connected to the home’s broadband connection via cable, wireless router, or built-in networking capabilities. Software is downloaded onto a PC, laptop, or mobile device (like an Internet-enabled handheld or smartphone). From these devices, live TV can be viewed, channels changed, and TiVo or DVR-recorded shows can be replayed at one’s leisure.
What to Expect from Wireless Video Products
The best-known device in this family of “mobile TV” or “placeshifting” products is the Slingbox from Sling Media. The Slingbox product line includes a number of options, from the basic Slingbox Tuner to the all-encompassing Slingbox Pro. While the former allows for remote access to the home’s basic cable programming, the latter allows for access to four home theater devices, including a set-top box, DVR/TiVo, DVD player, etc.
“The Slingbox Pro does everything the Tuner does and more,” says Brian Jaquet of Sling Media. “You have full control over the home TV, with access to things like On-Demand, Pay-Per-View, and any DVR functions you might have.” All Sling Media devices support widescreen format, feature high-quality video compression, and permit viewing through a PC or Mac, or through a Windows Smartphone or Pocket PC. With a Slingbox, connection to the Internet can be achieved via wireless router, direct line, or using Sling Media’s “SlingLink” devices that plug into the home’s electrical outlets and extend the Internet connection.
Sling Media’s main competitor is Sony’s LF-B20 LocationFree Base Station. Sony’s device operates much the same way, and allows users the same sort of features and freedoms. One main difference, however, is that Sony’s device includes built-in wireless networking, allowing the LF-B20 to act as an access point for the home network.
Sony’s first generation “placeshifting” product didn’t win over many fans, due to its high price. However, both Sling Media’s and Sony’s current products fall in the $150-$300 range.
Other Wireless Options
As the implementation of whole home networking and automation continues to grow, consumers will be looking for wireless audio and video devices that can be incorporated and interfaced with other devices in the home, like those offered by member companies of the Z-Wave and ZigBee alliances.
The growing list of Z-Wave devices includes the Personal Digital Hub (PDH) from Digital Media Research, which can store and stream audio and video throughout the home, or to Internet-enabled devices outside of the home. As a Z-Wave compliant product, the PDH will be able to “mesh” with the network of other Z-wave products in the home, enabling interfacing and control. Consumers should note that the wireless streaming of media with such devices will still require a high-bandwidth network (802.11). Communication between Z-Wave or ZigBee devices is done using low-bandwidth, low-power technology not suited for streaming media.
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.