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Is the iPod Dock a Dying Product Category?

The iPod Dock isn’t dead; it has just morphed. When talking about music and streaming content, the network backbone is critical. I’ve also talked to a few others in the industry and here is a quick recap of the various solutions out there.

In our industry it is always about the latest and greatest. We spend an inordinate amount of time checking out the latest gear with manufacturers, at CEDIA EXPO, in magazines, and at distributors. We spend hours going to trainings or viewing web-training videos. The rage has been about streaming media for the past several years, from Autonomic Mirage Media Servers to AppleTVs and Rokus. Many of us have replaced the standard iPod dock with newer devices in our offerings.

I’m here to say that the iPod Dock isn’t dead; it has just morphed. There are still several dedicated docks from the likes of URC and RTI, as well as many streaming players, like the Crestron NSP-1, to incorporate the content on your personal devices.

There are three criteria that I find critical to choosing the right music solution for my clients:

1.Reliability. It has to be rock solid. I can’t abide by something that is going to generate service calls. The iPod dock was always super reliable. Put in an iPod and the content appeared on the client’s interface, be it a handheld remote, a touch panel or the TV screen. Many media streamers are also very reliable.

2.Versatility. The solution has to incorporate what the client may use as a source today and tomorrow. Several years ago we installed a whole home music system for a client who swore he would only be using Pandora and his own music library. Fast forward three years and we are working out a way to get him Spotify since the system we installed doesn’t support it. (We’ll probably go with an Airport Express and Airplay or an old-school 3.5mm to RCA plug). I don’t want to be in this situation again.

3.Ease of implementation. The right solution must be relatively easy for us to configure and even easier for the client to use. It can’t take multiple button presses to get to the content the client wants. The content should also be updated and synced each time the device is powered on. I also want something that integrates well and, for that reason, I prefer a solution that comes from the same company as the control system. (That is, I’d be inclined to choose an RTI dock if the client has an existing RTI system, a PSX for a URC system, and an NSP-1 if the client is using Crestron control.)

I have spent time talking to several of my integrator friends to find out what they like and don’t like about the various music solutions that are out there today. I talked to Mark Feinberg of Home Theater Advisors, a small AV firm in NYC. Mark has a unique background in that he went to Dartmouth College and then received his MBA from Duke and he spent 15 years in various marketing and corporate strategy roles in corporate America. His knowledge and experience helps keep me grounded and laser focused on the consumer. His marketing and consumer insights are keen and I value his input.

I also spoke with Dan Ramos of Intelligent Automation in New Jersey. Dan has a strong background in enterprise-grade networking and communications. His knowledge of how the network is impacted and what it takes to build a rock solid, robust backbone is incredible, and has been of great help to me. When talking about music and streaming content, the network backbone is critical. I’ve also talked to a few others in the industry and here is a quick recap of the various solutions out there.

 RTI Dock

Dedicated Docks
The RTI Dock and URC PSX are both very straightforward products that are standalone docks. They integrate cleanly with the respective company’s remotes and give two-way feedback for cover art, transport, playlist,s and music selection. They even auto-sync with iTunes to keep the library up to date; when new songs are purchased, they are available to the whole home system without any action on behalf of the user. The only drawback is that they do not provide access to streaming services.

One thing Mark from Home Theater Advisors brought up is that Sonos used to have a dock that was fully controllable from the Sonos app, but the company has since discontinued it and replaced it with the recommendation to use a NAS drive or stream directly from an iOS or Android device. While good in theory, it does leave Mark lacking some functionality he loved about the dock—namely that the client could dedicate a click-wheel iPod to hold their entire music library and not be limited to what will fit on a Touch. And unlike with a NAS drive, the client didn’t have to choose if the music would be available in the house or on the road (ie, on the NAS drive in the home or on the owner’s laptop to take when travelling).

Consumer Grade Media Streaming

There are so many products in this category that I can’t cover them all here. Some are higher end products that I specify often, and others are used mainly by integrators serving the entry-level and middle markets. Let’s take a look at some of the key products for streaming.

1.One of my favorite products (the other will come up later) is the Roku. With Roku, a client can stream from almost any music service out there, as well as directly from their Android or IOS device. As an added bonus, it even has video! Seriously, for $99 this is one of the best options out there to give a client streaming video and audio. I recommend one on almost every job to supplant the smart TV functions as it is much easier to integrate the Roku into the control system than deal with exiting the SmartTV functions reliably. The only time I don’t recommend Roku is…

2.For Apple diehards, who get an AppleTV. If your client is in an all-Apple household, AppleTV is the way to go, expect that they have to realize its limitations: no Amazon Prime, Pandora or Spotify. But with iTunes Radio and iTunes Match, AppleTV is a great solution for someone who mainly listens to their own music and sometimes a streaming service. For any music services not directly offered on the AppleTV, there is always Airplay.

3.If the discussion is about whole-home audio, Sonos has a lock on the entry level and middle markets. It has every streaming music service imaginable, can play directly from an Android or iOS device and can pull from iTunes or Google Play. It is simple to set up and configure. Its big drawback is the lack of an open API. While many control companies have built modules, I am not sold on the reliability of said modules if Sonos changes anything.

4.The only credible threat I have so far seen for Sonos is the Denon Heos. It is just as easy to set up, integrates fully (or soon will) with most control systems and has both stand-alone speakers and streaming boxes much like Sonos. I am keeping my eye on Heos as it could be a great alternative in our industry at this price point

Dedicated Whole-Home Audio Servers

These were and continue to be the bread and butter of our industry for many integrators. They stream music from several services and either access a client’s music on their network or store it in their own hard drive.

1.For a long time The Source Home Theater almost exclusively sold Autonomic Mirage servers. They are very robust, have most streaming services and contain a hard drive to store the client’s content.

2.Another strong player in the whole-home audio streaming world is NuVo, now owned by Legrand. NuVo servers are very similar in functionality, pros and cons to the Autonomic servers. They also have companion amps and keypads to integrate into the whole home system.

3.As mentioned above, Sonos plays in this space as well, and for a system with 6 to 8 zones is priced similarly, with all of the pros and cons mentioned above.

Control System Entrants

One of the most intriguing and exciting things to happen in recent years has been the development by control companies of their own media servers that integrate seamlessly with their control systems for a great experience both from an integration perspective and user interface and experience perspective.

1.My absolute favorite (as promised above in the Roku discussion) is the Crestron NSP-1. It not only meets the criteria of working flawlessly within a Crestron system, but it does a great job of blurring the lines between a dock and a streaming device. It has streaming services like SiriusXM and Rhapsody built in (with more to come), as well as a USB port for an iPod, which can then be viewed and controlled throughout the home on any control interface.

2.URC, which has a solid dock in the PSX, has realized the imperative to have a music-streaming device as well. When paired with a PSX to serve as a dock, an SNP-2 streams music from SiriusXM, Pandora and Rhapsody and it sounds URC is working to add other services as well (Spotify hopefully?).

3.Control4 and Savant also have their own streaming servers, but I am just not familiar enough with them to get into detail here. I would love to hear opinions from Control4 and Savant dealers in the comments below about their take on the pros and cons of those devices.

Docks Aren’t Dead… Yet

There you have it. Docks still have a place in our world, as media servers don’t quite handle all of a client’s music perfectly yet. There is no really clean way to have the music both available to the home and to the road warrior at the same time. The most reliable option seems to be to have a click-wheel dedicated to the audio system, which gets updated regularly. This option also allows guests to come over and easily play their playlist, without having to download any software, connect to the WiFi network and figure out how to stream from their phone.

+Todd Anthony Puma
is president of The Source Home Theater Installation, Powered by Fregosa Design, in New York City.