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How to “Podicize” a Custom Installation

Making an iPod a primary audio source for an individual room or an entire system.

Although most people associate Apples iPod with portable applications, take a step back and look at this ubiquitous product for what it is, and you may change your opinion.

When you get right down to it, the iPod is a portable hard drive (with the exception of the new Shuffle models) that is primarily used to store digital audio files. These audio files may be either heavily protected with a digital rights management scheme (those songs downloaded from Apples Music Store) or not (those you rip in from CDs that you already own or other MP3 sources). Key to all of this is very tight integration with a specialized content aggregation and asset management program that resides on a Windows-based or Macintosh-powered personal computer; that would be your iTunes. Once files are digitally transferred from a computer, they are managed by a clever interface that combines a physical touch/scroll device and an LCD display.
The files are stored digitally, but may only be played out as analog content.

With an iPod, what you basically have is something not all that much different from any server-based system that you would install to hold and playback a clients music library. Of course, there is one tiny difference, but that is what accounts for the incredible popularity of iPod and its phenomenal success. As great as they are at what they do, you cant exactly strap an AudioRequest or Escient, a MediaCenter XP-based HTPC system or an Imerge, a MEDA or a NetStreams server to an armband and listen to it while you are on the treadmill. And, it is just a tad bit difficult to toss one of these larger server boxes in a purse or briefcase to take on a flight to Europe.

The ability of an iPod to serve as a portable repository of personally selected music has made it, in a sense, larger than life size. As the popularity of iPod grows almost exponentially, it is not unusual for the target custom installation customer to have not one, but many iPods. With the emphasis on the personally selected aspect to an iPods content, people are more and more asking to have the iPod serve as an audio source for an individual room, or for an entire system. The question of how to do that is one that is being asked with increasing frequency. In service to this months How To theme, lets look at some ways to do that.

This may seem obvious to those who are more familiar with iPods. To you we apologize and suggest that you skip down a few paragraphs. For the Pod-Novice, however, a bit of basic explanation about iPod connections is in order. First, at the top of all iPod models is a standard stereo mini plug that is normally used to connect headphones for personal listening. For the most minimalist of connections, use a standard interconnect cable with the 3.5mm mini on one end and a pair of RCA plugs on the other for connection to the left/right analog input of a receiver, processor or multi-room controller/switcher. Having done that you can feed the iPod through a single- or multi-room system, but beware that adjustments will be needed to match the level of the iPod output to work properly with the gain structure and volume setting of the rest of the audio chain in the room or system.

Although this connection is simple and easy, the iPods battery life is only five or six hours, so you will need to make sure that there is an AC charger available to plug it into. (In early-generation iPods the power connection must be made via the Firewire jack at the top of the unit). So far, so good, but all of this can get a bit messy, and thats not what youre about.

The first step toward organization is to get an extra iPod dock (except the newest Shuffle and the oldest non-clickwheel models.) The dock centralizes the connections and stands the iPod up so that it is easier to operate and see the display. More importantly, the dock has a connection for the cable that connects to a power supply on the rear, along with another 3.5mm stereo jack. This time, however, the jack provides a fixed-level, rather than variable, audio output so that integration with audio systems is easier and more reliable. Its easier for the client, as well, because all they need to do is place the iPod in the dock with no other dangling cables. For the latest iPod Photo models you will also find an S-video jack on the back of the dock that you will want to connect for access to images stored on the iPod.

While youre at it why not be certain to use a gloss white cable such as those from Monster Cable, Belkin and others? This will not only work better thanks to better shielding and more solid connectors than a standard black cable, but it will keep a design coherence with the elegant white and bright industrial design of the iPod. (Unless, of course, the client has one of the new U2 models that are black with red accents, rather than the normal white. Ask before you order!).

Now that weve solved the power and audio/video connection issues, the next item to deal with is how to control the bloody thing. After all, unless you just put it in the shuffle mode, once the client slaps it in the dock and sits down, how can they select tracks or start, pause or stop the music when the phone rings? So far you havent given them any alternative other than getting up out of that comfy chair and doing it manually.

The answer to the remote question comes in the form of readily available products from TEN Technology with their popular naviPlay and naviPro eX. Designed for use with any iPod (again, except the Shuffle models), these products let the user sit back and control play/pause, next track/fast forward, previous track/rewind and volume up/down, although the latter is presumably something you want done through the system that you install. The new eX model, which is for current models only, adds direct access to next/previous navigation for playlist, album and chapter, as well as control over repeat and shuffle functions. You simply plug the remote sensor in the top of the iPod and the control is then literally in your clients hands.

It should be noted that the popular naviPlay products will soon have at least one competitor in the form of Griffin Technologys AirClick. From a functional standpoint, AirClick will offer the same basic transport and volume controls as naviPlay, but to some extent it will go them one better in offering compatibility through a USB version with both Mac and PC computers that run iTunes (and other popular programs). The downside for the types of applications that we have been discussing here is that AirClick is an RF remote that is good in not requiring line-of-sight communications with the iPod, but bad in that it is not compatible with traditional multi-room systems and their IR-based keypads.

If all of this begins to add up, then youre getting the picture. Combining a dock, charger, remote and cables lets you basically package an iPod so that it doesnt take all that much work to make its contents accessible as standard audio feeds and controllable-view remote. Add your talent integrating IR emitters and remote-room IR sensors, and things really start to fall into place.

Indeed, that is exactly what both Sonance and SpeakerCraft have done in different fashions to make it easy to have all of this in one simple package. SpeakerCrafts current approach is to offer software for its MZC systems that lets you use its proprietary in-wall keypads with a naviPod-equipped unit. For the time being, you provide the dock, charger and remote device, but its a sure bet that this is only the beginning of similar products and software from SpeakerCraft and others.

Sonance has taken a more complete solution approach with its iPort docking system that anchors an iPod in the wall with built-in IR emitters to carry commands in from remote keypads and the ability to use local or remote in-wall volume controls. Audio outputs may be run up to 500 feet using balanced audio connections, or you can run the audio closer in to a local receiver or amplifier. There is no need to purchase a dock or additional charger here, as they are part of the iPort package. As with its competitor, Sonance software is available at no charge to command the iPod from compatible Sonance remote keypads, although you still must purchase a naviPod separately.

Yet another possibility for integrating an iPod into a system is without an iPod at all! By this we mean going straight to the computer where the master iTunes library is stored and making sure that the computer has 802.11b/g wireless capability. Next, plug in Airport Express at the receive end of the system and connect the Airports optical or analog left/right audio outputs as appropriate.

Now, with a new configuration, click on the computer to make sure that you activate the wireless links and that the Airport Express sees the feed from iTunes (do this by changing the speaker output selector at the bottom right corner of the iTunes window). For the remote control you can use the AirClick mentioned above, but an even more interesting solution, though one that does not work directly with iPods is Keyspans Express Remote. It plugs into the USB jack on the Airport Express and uses an IR remote to transmit commands back to the computer through the 802.11b/g link. Then, all you have to do is program the Express Remotes codes into the homes IR keypad systems. With the right combination of keypads, sensors and emitters to the Keyspans receiver, you can control iTunes (or MusicMatch, WinAmp or the Windows Media Player). This is clever, inexpensive and a product that opens all sorts of possibilities for advanced integration between computers and home audio systems.

With all of these bits and pieces, it is clear that there are a number of available options from which you can spin your own iPod connection solution that is programmable and compatible with virtually any IR and audio/video distribution product. You may also choose to take advantage of some of the available or forthcoming pre-packaged solutions. Indeed, as manufacturers in many corners of the market understand the ubiquity of iPod, even more solutions are likely to appear. Onkyo, for example, has recently announced that it will offer an iPod integration product that is compatible with the companys existing receivers. Cost, availability and a complete feature set are not available at this time.

You might want to know how to integrate some of the other popular portable music players from the likes of Dell, iRiver, Rio, Creatives Zen, RCAs Lyra, Archos and many others that might be the player of choice for a client who swims against the iPod tide. The answer there is not a simple, for those players use USB connectivity, and none has gendered a sufficient enough base of installed units to generate the level of third-party, after-market accessory support that Apple has been able to create thanks to the incredible sales pace of iPod. With a bit of luck, and some trial and error, you could conceivably perform the same tricks with another player that you can with an iPod. It wont be as easy, or likely as flexible.

Once youve figured out how you will integrate the iPod into a clients system, the fun can really begin. As part of your total-systems approach, is there room in the proposal to add accessories such as Griffin RadioShark mentioned here last month, that enables you to record and time/shift programs from AM/FM radio broadcasts to a computer, and then to iTunes and an iPod if you wish. There is the growing trend toward Podcasting that allows you to program a computer to search for specific programs distributed via the Internet and, again, store and distribute them from a computer. Some of the Podcasts are popular public radio programs such as Harry Shearers LeShow or WNYCs On the Media, while others are obscure, yet interesting personal audio blogs.

Regardless of how or with what you extend the functionality of an iPod, the field is wide open. From a financial standpoint the cost of most of the items here is not going to bring you great revenue on their own. Indeed, the iPod itself is likely to be the most costly part of the integration process, and the client probably owns one already. Rather, the benefit comes from the value added labor you supply and the comfort factor you can give to a client or prospect that no matter what type of audio/video/data integration task they throw at you, your firm, not the competition is the go-to group.

Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles.