The iPod: a tiny toy thats become the biggest story of the year. How important is it? Besides altering our vernacular and making white The New Black, the iPod has, for better or worse, created fertile ground for Apple-friendly audio distribution systems.
Chief among these home products is the iPort, now in its second generation. iPort is the eponymous flagship product from the newly formed division of Dana Innovations, the parent of Sonance, who first introduced the iPort in 2004. At this months CEDIA EXPO in Indianapolis, iPort will debut a bevy of line additions including five in-wall models at five different price points, and five iPort free standing models.
The free standing system will share features of the new iPort In-Wall (IW) series, such as IR control and bi-directional RS-232 communication capability, and will additionally let users connect their iPods with iTunes on a remote PC. The home base of the system, the iPort docking bay, is backward and frontward compatible, allaying concerns about product obsolescence.
Additionally, iPort officials say that the new models can pass balanced A/V content over longer distances with greater integrity, and, with the exception of the entry-level model, will incorporate an upgradeable motherboard for system expansion. All upgrade kits and iPort In-Wall models except the IW-5 are now shipping.
To optimize the new-generation iPorts, A/V dealers are thinking of creative ways to customize their residential audio installations. Leading the charge are Mark Gleicher and Rich Greentwo unrepentant iPod junkieswho have created modules that enable two-way communication between the iPort and AMX and Crestron control systems.
Mark Gleicher, founder of the custom firm Modern Home Systems in San Diego, California, has created a module that enables real-time communication between the new RS-232-enabled iPort and Crestron. With his proprietary program, a homeowner can use a two-way Crestron touchpanel or wall-pad to not only control and distribute music from their iPod via the iPort, but also access metadata such as playlists, album and artist information, discography, and more.
Gleicher was familiar with iPods capabilities long before working with the iPort. I love it, like so many of us, and I dont think I have ever met anyone who has used one and said, I just dont like it. You dont hear it. iPod is a home run, and iPort with RS-232 is a total, walk-off, grand-slam home run.
According to Gleicher, what makes iPod such a stunning success is its user interface, which satisfies both techies and civilians. Anyone can use it without feeling badthe upshot of some hot-off-the-presses technology.
When the initial iPort was released, Gleicher liked it but recognized its limitations. It helped clients get more use out of their iPods, but it didnt allow for remote control. Besides providing great- sounding audio and great-looking video, [it is important for us] to make the process of using this really enjoyable for the end user, and that is where the need controlling this remotely with feedback and metadata became important, Gleicher noted.
Modern Home Systems two full-time Crestron programmers built the module in-house. At the beginning of the project, the RS-232-equipped iPort was in the Beta stage so they had to learn about the product through trial and error. The team found another challenge in the actual design of the module because Apple and Crestron employ two very different design philosophies. To make the iPort navigation consistent with the rest of their Crestron system and save clients the pain of a new visual learning curve, they incorporated signature Apple designs into the interface like the iPods jog wheel.
Despite the frenetic pace of technology development, Gleicher is not concerned about the obsolescence factor. This is the double-edged sword called technology, he stated. There will be iPod line additions and deletions, but if you set up a really good system your client will get a lot of enjoyment out of it for a long time.
Rich Green, founder of Rich Green, Ink (RGI), a leading programming and integration company, is also aware of the vagaries of product development. His connection with the iPort formed many years ago, long before he built a module similar to Gleichers, but linking to an AMX control system.
Greens Silicon Valley clients are exceptionally tech-savvy. Whats more, their children are already Mac fanatics and iTunes addicts. We experienced resistance trying to sell traditional CEDIA-channel music servers to our demographic, Green reflected. Our clients said, Its a black box and PC, and you want to sell it to me for $5,000? They wanted Apple products in their homes.
RGI programmers first experimented with Apples audio prowess a few years ago when they built a network-ready, G5 Mac music server and kludgey AMX touchscreen interface. It functioned decently, but they couldnt achieve full metadata exchange. Then, by tapping into AMXs Virtual Network Computing mode, they brought iTunes into the unified experience of residential control.
RGIs clever engineers, like Joshua Jurac, were given the mission to pull an enhanced version of iTunes onto an AMX touchpanel. To access the metadata, Jurac mined through code and found a sidedoor entrance into iTunes that Apple didnt even know existed. He wrote a hack into it that worked reliably and allowed RGI to use iTunes as the centerpiece of a home audio distribution system. That first configuration worked well, and our clients loved it, Green said. They could control everything from lighting to climate to iTunes. Then Airport Express came out which lets you send music to any stereo, wired or wirelessly. I set one up at my house, and its embarrassingly good. I ran a digital audio output into my Meridian digital pre-amp, and I can barely tell the difference between the original CD and the ripped version playing through the Airport Express. It is real high-fidelity playback.
Scott Struthers, co-founder of Sonance and president of iPort, knows that fidelity and margin concerns are preventing the industry from fully embracing the iPod, but thinks the reticence is unfounded. There are between 25 and 35 million iPods out there, but CEDIA hasnt embraced it yet, Struthers stated. The industry has the impression that iPods are not acoustically wonderful, but we have done extensive testing with the audiophiles who could not discern the difference between iPod output compared to CD output.
Struthers also thinks the custom industry vacillates over the iPod because of the entrenchment with stand-alone servers. iPort is about the iPod and sharing music, and the other solutions are about their control systems; that is a huge difference between us and our competition, Struthers added.
Greenwhos becoming an iPod and iTunes co-developer for CEDIA-type productsthinks that the iPort with RS-232 and his innovation have cracked open a new door for the custom channel. Im thinking with the hat of my customer, Green said. Hell buy any Apple product I want him to buy because he knows hell get a fair price; its a commodity product, its cool, and it works, as opposed to a $5,000 black box. The challenge is to create a higher sense of value to the integration aspect that we bring.
Our clients will gladly pay us to integrate commodity products, Green continued. Its an upside-down, awful business model that we are going to have to get used to, and I am diving in head first.
Margot Douaihy is managing editor of Residential Systems magazine
in New York City.