Wireless Audio Distribution Catches on But Has a Ways to Go


By Llanor Alleyne January 13,2014


This Integration Guide to Multi-Room Audio was sponsored by Autonomic as a supplement to Residential Systems, January 2014.

   
Control4’s Wireless Music Bridge, which directly connects to a home’s Control4 system, allows for easy audio distribution expansion by simply adding bridge units in desired spaces and allows control via a host of mobile devices running on major platforms, including iOS, Android, Windows, and Blackberry.

From its infancy, residential distributed audio has sought to do one thing very well: seamlessly deliver high quality audio content to as many spaces within the home as possible. As with most branches of the residential systems channel, audio distribution has recently grown leaps and bounds helped in no small part by ramped up emphasis on the marriage of wireless equipment and cloud-based services, which has singlehandedly created another cottage industry in the form of mobile control apps.

This seemingly sudden progression from hardwired, proprietary audio distribution products–generating an abiding consumer interest that remains fully ignited today–to wireless and network-based distribution models, did not come as a surprise to CI manufacturers, which in creating their own audio distribution ecosystems, primed consumer expectations for what has now become a standard requirement in many homes regardless of size.

 
Autonomic also offers a cloud-sync feature on its Mirage Audio System, which enables their devices to sync local content (such as iTunes, Windows Media, etc.) to a cloud-based server to be accessed from any number of remote locations.
 
Utilizing the its Gateway transmitter connected to the home’s router, NuVo’s P200 wirelessly delivers both locally based music and streaming services (including Napster, Deezer, and SiriusXM) to various zones, and can be used in combination with other NuVo players including the P100, P3100 and P3500.
“There is a clear trend toward accessing the residential network to stream media to more than one room in a home,” said Greg Schlechter, AVnu Alliance Residential Segment chair. “As more and more rooms are added into a system, homeowners are looking for ways to switch and distribute audio wirelessly without compromising performance or adding latency issues. Distributing multi-zone networked audio adds challenges, such as time synchronization. It will become increasingly necessary for integrators to understand their options and specify compatible standards-based solutions to ensure all pieces of the system reliably work together.”

CI Product Development

“Sonos was founded before cloud-based music services existed, but from the very beginning of Sonos, we believed that internet-connected music streaming would play a big role in the future of music listening,” noted Ryan Taylor, senior product marketing manager for the company, which launched in 2005. “We designed and built our products from the very beginning with this capability in mind.”

Indeed, Sonos’ early model of distributing audio content directly from a client’s local library via its wealth of proprietary equipment, such as its popular PLAYBAR and PLAY:1-3-5 speaker, reflected what would become an industry-wide approach at the time, one which saw most companies in the channel leaving room for the anticipated surge in network-based content delivery to avoid product obsolescence.

Today, content providers like Spotify, Rhapsody, and Pandora are built-in options in pro-grade audio distribution systems, a necessary partnering of brands and content as consumers move away from physical forms of media.

“There is no doubt that cloud-based entertainment has changed the music, as well as video, industry,” noted JB Fowler, senior product manager, Listen and Watch Products at Control4. “Compact Discs are going the way of the LP, into [a] niche industry. Online purchasing and on-demand streaming services are taking over this industry. Service providers have embraced the mobile era and taken advantage of high-bandwidth data pipes to their consumers’ mobile phones and tablets.”

Control4’s Wireless Music Bridge, which directly connects to a home’s Control4 based control system, allows for easy audio distribution expansion by simply adding bridge units in desired spaces and allows control via a host of mobile devices running on major platforms, including iOS, Android, Windows, and Blackberry.

Aaron Chisena, director of sales and marketing for Autonomic Controls noted that the company’s Mirage Audio Server and Mirage Audio Systems also come equipped with embedded cloud-based streaming services typically associated with wireless entertainment found on mobile devices, which he argued, provide a solution that is far more stable than wireless connectivity options, such as Bluetooth. Autonomic also offers a cloud-sync feature, which enables devices to sync local content to a cloud-based server for access from any number of remote locations.

“Our customers want streaming services, they want access to local content, they want complete control from their smartphone, and they don’t want to see any wires,” Chisena said, echoing an industry-wide sentiment.

 
Crestron’s Sonnex system places an emphasis on sound engineering and dedicated signal deliver with its 16 channels, 140 watts, and full 24x8 matrix switcher. The addition of a single Cat-5e wire or fiber optic cable can deliver 48 channels of uncompressed audio to system expanders.
NuVo Technologies, whose audio systems, according to Walt Zerbe, product manager, have morphed from being analog multiplexers to network-based utilizing specially designed protocols to ship audio and control over Ethernet and Wi-Fi, has shown that transition with its P200 audio distribution system. Utilizing the company’s Gateway transmitter connected to the home’s router, the P200 wirelessly delivers both locally based music and streaming services (including Napster, Deezer, and SiriusXM) to various zones, and it can be used in combination with other NuVo players, including the P100, P3100 and P3500.

Savant Systems’ Media Server (SMS), which provided five independent audio streams distributed to up to 144 zones, integrates with the company’s control and automation environment and its TrueControl suite of apps, available on iOS and Android. The arrival of the company’s SmartAudio SS-3220 32x20 switch, adds another dimension to the system with its compact 2U rack-mountable design.

“It includes 16 analog and 16 digital selectable inputs, 20 outputs (16 analog plus four S/PDIF) for passing analog line-level audio to one of Savant’s complementary multi-zone amplifiers,” explained Tim McInerney, director of product management “Both analog and digital audio conversion capabilities are standard and both analog and digital audio is available simultaneously on each output for maximum flexibility. The broad range of selectable analog and digital inputs makes it simple to manage a large number of audio sources. The SSA-3220 incorporates control of volume, balance, and a useful seven-band equalizer (EQ) per zone of analog and digital audio.”

URC’s nod to the shifting audio distribution landscape was the launch of more than 30 third-party integration modules–including those from Sonos and UK-based Extra Vegetables–at last year’s CEDIA, all with the goal of continuing to provide plug-and-play integration with its Total Control whole house system, which features a scalable design model that is third-party friendly. The company also has its own streaming network player, the SNP-1 that Cat Toomey, URC’s director of marketing said, “features all music sources and services in one simple interface.” Toomey continued, “Plus it has one digital audio output and a set of analog outputs, so it can be sold as a standalone music source with other brand systems or integrated easily with URC’s Total Control. Also, watch in early 2014 as the next generation of URC’s Streaming Network Player comes available.”

Crestron’s Sonnex system places an emphasis on sound engineering and dedicated signal deliver with its 16 channels, 140 watts, and full 24x8 matrix switcher. The addition of a single Cat-5e wire or fiber optic cable can deliver 48 channels of uncompressed audio to system expanders.

 
 
Clare Controls launched its Select Program, which includes the amp.1640 and the amp.14150. An integrator can stack a pair of 1640s to deliver 16 zones of hi-fi in just two rack units at a competitive cost-per-channel.
“There are many inexpensive wireless solutions that get audio from point A to point B, [but] they leave a lot to be desired,” said Tom Barnett, Crestron’s director of residential marketing. “Most pull from your mobile phone’s stream, draining batteries and inhibiting the main functionality of those devices—phone calls and text messages. Most do not account for digital audio inputs or outputs… Why go backwards to analog audio? Why not keep a digital signal as far into the signal chain as possible?”

Six months ago, Russound introduced its Xstream multiroom wireless distributed audio solution, which is squarely aimed at custom integrators. A hybrid (both wired and wireless) system, it features two models. The Xstream X5, a networked tabletop music streamer and amplifier, can be used to create up to a 16-zone wireless audio system by adding that number of X5 devices to the home network, independent of control from an overarching Russound control system, though it can be controlled via one of three of the company’s locally wired keypads. Control can also be achieved via iOS and Android apps. The Xstream X1, which recently shipped, is designed as a wire-replacement solution and features a wireless transmitter and wireless receivers. “XStream offers robust options for both wireless and wired room-to-room control, and it even offers wireless options for expanding our popular C-Series systems,” said Charlie Porritt, Russound’s CEO. “XStream is true to Russound’s heritage of providing a personalized listening experience. The products engage end-users by complementing their lifestyles, and it takes full advantage of the best of currently available technologies.”

Noting that hardwired solutions are still the integrator’s best option because of better sound quality and reliable sound delivery, Clare Controls launched its Select Program, which includes the amp.1640 and the amp.14150.

“An integrator can stack a pair of 1640s to deliver 16 zones of hi-fi in just 2 RU…at a fiercely competitive cost-per-channel,” explained Brett Price, president of Clare Controls. “True to its B&O pedigree, sound quality from the amp.1640 is nothing short of spectacular. Our amp.14150 is based on the same Class D technology, providing 150 watts to each of its 14 channels. That’s seven zones in just two rack units, with performance that makes it a great option for music-loving customers who have specified better speakers in their audio distribution plans.”

 
 
The four-zone AD-4 and the eight-zone AD-8 distributed audio systems from RTI work in tandem with the company’s control systems and are both fitted with a matrix switching pre-amp and a built-in Cool Power class D amplifier, in addition to four or eight local audio source inputs that can be enhanced with remote audio sources.
The four-zone AD-4 and the eight-zone AD-8 distributed audio systems from RTI work in tandem with the company’s control systems, and are both fitted with a matrix switching pre-amp and a built-in Cool Power class D amplifier, in addition to four or eight local audio source inputs that can be enhanced with remote audio sources.

“Our response has been to develop very affordable solutions that distribute audio from any and all sources throughout a residence with outstanding fidelity,” said Pete Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for RTI. “To achieve this, we’ve put a great deal of effort into enabling the seamless integration of our products with third-party devices such as source components and amplifiers–even other distributed audio systems. This allows integrators to provide their clients with a completely centralized, cohesive system for all things audio.”

The creation of a proprietary ecosystem is the basis for TiO’s StealthStream, which offers an integrated streamer and receiver in every TiO audio zone player.

“We have rejected the traditional approach to distributed audio and designed a wireless solution for the custom installation channel that offers limitless access to cloud-based content,” said Matt Curtain, vice president of marketing for TiO, who went on to note that “the TiO StealthStream 1 is a complete audio zone solution with integrated streamer, Bluetooth receiver, and 100W amplifier. Perhaps most impressive, the Stealthstream1 installs neatly into a single-gang space.”

Knoll Systems CI6 is part of the company’s Eco-System family, which means it consumes almost no energy when it is turned on and in standby. Featuring six deluxe high current stereo amplifiers with individual seven-source selection, the CI6 also has an external voltage trigger that can turn source equipment on and off, individual zone infrared outputs, a fully balanced paging override, RS232 control, and fully buffered line level outputs. The unit can be controlled by Knoll LCD keypads, remote controls, tablets, smartphones, laptops, and other devices, including whole-house controllers.

The g! system by ELAN is a comprehensive, dedicated control system that works seamlessly with several of its sister brands under the Core Brands umbrella. Within its sprawling control architecture is the ability to pull audio content for numerous sources from the cloud, locally housed media, and satellite radio, all of which can be controlled and distributed via dedicated ELAN keypads and remotes.

“With ELAN, we are focused on integrating the best existing cloud sources, providing great flexibility and value to our CI dealers and their clients,” said Joe Lautner, Core Brands’ control category director. By making these easy to use, we help the dealer deliver a solution that lets mainstream products integrate with the entire distributed audio system, delighting the customer.”

Integrator Interests

In spite of all of the deserved attention currently paid to wireless audio distribution systems, hardwired solutions are still the gold standard for custom integrators, for exactly the reasons Clare Controls’ Brett Price mentioned above. With audiophile-grade sound quality and reliable, consistent audio delivery as requirements, custom integrators often have to make tough choices as to how they complete a project, not only to a client brief but to their own well-trained ears as well.

“It all comes down to a love for music in the home and the ease of control and synergy over the entire experience,” said NuVo’s Zerbe. “It is also important to note that it’s not just distribution and control we are talking about here. Our best integrators also make it sound really good by selecting the right speakers for the space and the customer’s desired results. Need some built in and the ability to add on wirelessly later? Sure, we can accommodate that, and we will, which makes expandability easy and painless.”

Beyond the actual production and delivery of audio, custom integrators have control options at the top of the list. Again, wireless systems—even with their beautiful apps and mobile device-enabled button presses—don’t quite hit the robust notes that a centralized, dedicated system can provide, as noted by RTI’s Baker, who said that the company’s dealers “are demonstrating to their clients that a distributed audio system with centralized sources provides a much greater value than wireless systems.”

Baker continued, “In the end, it is still the preferred method for delivering music throughout the home. They provide a cleaner look because components can be hidden away in an equipment closet, and they are more configurable because a source can easily be added and made available anywhere in the home—without the need to duplicate the source.”

What Next?

The good news is that with increased interest and acceptance of wireless audio distribution, especially pro-grade integration, comes the push to improve all of the technologies that underpin the current standards. As noted by several manufacturers, the cloud and its ability to house a staggering amount of data and media coupled with heartier broadband networks, mean that compressed audio will begin to fall to the wayside, and music lovers can get back to that rich, clean sound that robust wired solutions provide.

 
The creation of a proprietary ecosystem is the basis for TiO’s StealthStream, which offers an integrated streamer and receiver in every TiO audio zone player.
“I anticipate that this will drive innovation in our industry to make it easier to consume higher quality content,” said Chisena of Autonomic Controls. “This will benefit the CI channel as consumers upgrade and update antiquated whole-home integrated systems, realizing that there’s no need to settle for a plastic Bluetooth boom box on the coffee table.”

The content providers have a role to play too, in improving audio distribution across the board. With services like iTunes and Spotify gathering listener data to better personalize their streaming service and many mobile devices tracking where their owners are at any point in the day, many manufacturers believe they can go a couple of steps further by introducing seamless audio playback between radically different environments.

“Mobile technology is providing location-based services, why not use these services to understand when you are arriving home and start streaming the audio you are already listening to in your car?” asked Control4’s Fowler. “The CI channel will be given the tools to enable this technology in a consumer’s life. Implementation and set-up in the home will be important. While these new systems will become adaptive to the consumers changing environment, the custom integrator will need to work with the customer to understand how the initial set-up should behave. It will be critical for the CI to get it right at the beginning, so the consumer enjoys the experience rather than see it as a frustrating piece of technology.”

INTEGRATOR VOICES 

Franklin Karp

Audio Video Systems Inc., Mineola, NY

What features of Autonomic’s products have helped you to pitch distributed audio to doubtful clients?

Client concerns are minimal with distributed audio, however, ease of use is always part of the conversation, and Autonomic’s seamless integration with popular control platforms has alleviated those concerns for our customers. Autonomic’s MMS-5A is our source of choice for distributed audio clients because it is a dependable solution that delivers content from the popular streaming service providers.

What new or emerging technologies will help you add value to your distributed audio designs? How so?

The most exciting trend is that people are listening to music again— there is interest in all types of music, even analog music! Consumers are paying more attention to the quality of sound, and we use the Autonomic MMS-5A to satisfy our client’s desire for a premium distributed audio solution.

Panos Anassis

Audio Video Invasion, Long Island, NY

What features of Control4’s products have helped you to pitch distributed audio to doubtful clients?

Control4’s Open Platform offers the user an alternative to the “keypad-per-room” layout that has been a distinct feature of many multizone audio systems. Also, the versatility of the Control4 amplifier, which features an on-board audio matrix, is a key element in distributed audio promotion. This amplifier enables users to select any source, from any zone and adjust independent volume, all from the same interface screen. The ability to use sources such as TuneIn and Rhapsody without needing to pay for additional hardware is also a very attractive feature.

What new or emerging technologies will help you add value to your distributed audio designs? How so?

Continuing to provide/expand music source options within the Control4 processor (Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Satellite Radio, etc.), as well as the ability to stream via AirPlay will keep adding value to the Control4 distributed audio systems. We feel this is because it will simplify the installation process, while in turn deliver more features with less “extra gear,” thus, deliver added value to the end user.

Ryan Fifer

VIA/Cybersound, Scottsdale, AZ

What features of Savant’s products have helped you to pitch distributed audio to doubtful clients?

Savant’s SMS media server is a wonderful solution for delivering multiple streaming services for larger distributed audio systems. The intuitive nature of Savant’s app also has served to overcome client concerns. In order to provide the ultimate in convenience and ease of use, we often give clients one-button access to a favorite stream, such as Pandora from one of Savant’s elegant in-wall keypads.

What new or emerging technologies will help you add value to your distributed audio designs? How so?

The iPad mini has been very popular as a control interface for Savant technology with our customers–many of whom have been using their iPhone as a primary controller because it is so readily available and convenient. The iPad mini can be operated using two hands, it seems to be a perfect fit for many of our customers–compact enough to be convenient but offering enough screen real estate to give them easy access to the buttons they need.

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