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Do You Install iPods?

Our industry is known to cater to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. When high-quality products like this become truly affordable, we have hopes of broadening our market to include a much larger clientele. Whenever I walk through a Best Buy, I am constantly amazed at how little the average homeowner knows about the systems that we install. They have never seen a CEDIA home theater that is common in our industry. How will we have to redefine our products and services to reach this mainstream market in the future? Can we deliver quality systems for this market, or will affordability force us to sell disappointing low quality systems to this market?

Today, I picked up a flat widescreen HDTV for only $499. I hooked it up to a progressive-scan DVD player that cost just $69. These are examples of video technology reaching a great price point suitable for the mass market. Other video projectors and displays are following the same pattern. This is win/win progress with better quality and a better price. On the other hand, complete surround sound systems in a box are now priced at $299. This is OK for a college kid in a dorm, but is not a good direction for the future of home theater installers.

Computers continue to offer better performance and are more easily adapted to programming and operation of our control systems. As an industry, we have still not developed control standards for our A/V equipment that will allow us to leap forward into reliable, inexpensive control systems. While we see the quality of our control systems is improving and prices falling, we have not yet created A/V control systems that will become commonplace in our homes.

What can we say about the evolution of multi-room audio? To me, this means taking the best sound you can have in your main listening room and repeating that experience in all of the rooms. Distributed audio didnt start out that way.
Back in the 1980s we would wire up grocery stores using zip cord at three cents a foot, and put 40 ceiling speakers on a little 20-watt amp. Using 70V speakers, installation was easy. Each speaker cost about $12 and the amp was less than $100. You can walk into your favorite grocery store or doctors office today and see them cut into the suspended ceiling tiles. It was called background music, or Muzak, and it sounded terrible. Then around 1984, Sonance and others began putting standard 8-ohm speakers in a plastic frame that could mount in a wall or ceiling. That was the birth of multi-room audio for the home.

Homeowners now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for whole-house audio systems, but mediocre in-wall speakers can still be a disappointing weak link in systems. We must keep improving our quality.

What sources do we listen to in all of these rooms? We have been accessing CDs, local FM music stations, satellite music and now hard drive music servers. These new multistream music servers finally allow us to access several songs from the same library at the same time. This is great, but loading hundreds of CDs of music into a server is a task that takes time and effort.

When we advanced from 8 track and cassette tapes to CDs, we moved forward into the digital realm. Now we have clean recordings with no tape hiss, no wow and flutter and noise, etc. The specs for CDs are 16 bits at 44.1 kHz. That is not a very high standard, which is why our industry keeps dancing around improvements like DVD Audio and Super Audio CDs.

The problem with many of these servers and Internet music is that MP3 is lower quality than a CD. Yes, it is easy to fill your server with MP3 music, just like it was easy to fill grocery stores with 70V speakers. But we are the AV experts. We should not let the market forces of MP3 technology pull our quality down to their level. We need to influence the technology world to pull the level up above CD quality. Modern recording studios use ProTools to typically record masters at 24 bits at 96 kHz. Why go up to HDTV for picture and down to MP3 for music?

If the record industry is at risk of losing billions of dollars to MP3 sharing, why dont they release their whole catalog on a new pro format that presents and preserves the real quality of what comes out of the modern recording studio. They certainly pay enough to the studios to give them state-of-the-art quality.

After all of the control systems that our industry have installed by Crestron, AMX, Audio Access and many others, I hate to think that the iPod will be the center of distributed audio systems in the future. Apple, Sonance and others think that it will be. Hey, iPods are cool, but if that is where we have to go, lets go there with 24-bit 96KHZ audio quality.