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Wireless Audio Improvements Continue to Expand Product Options

In the early days of wireless audio, initial excitement about the inherent and implied possibilities of such systems was often tempered by their limitations.

This Integration Guide to Wireless Audio was sponsored by Soundcast and CasaTunes as a supplement to Residential Systems, September 2013.

The Sonos Wireless HiFi System works on a dedicated wireless music network that isn’t used for other internet traffic. In the early days of wireless audio, initial excitement about the inherent and implied possibilities of such systems was often tempered by their limitations. Tellingly, even as underwhelming and often spotty audio quality befell pioneering components in the nascent category, consumer interest in residential wireless audio distribution coupled with the development of robust networking infrastructures and tools, have allowed integrators to confidently add these systems to their service rosters.

Yet, as much as wireless audio as an integration channel has improved, it is not without its problems. Beyond outsized consumer expectations of system quality—the result of a lack of education about the capabilities of current wireless audio offerings—integrators are also faced with networking issues, incompatible components, and home construction limitations, such as masonry walls that stymie network signals.

“I think some of the biggest issues with integrating wireless speakers into the home is consumer education on exactly what they are looking for, and more importantly, what they are expecting,” noted Mike Hopkins, director of product development for Aperion Audio, makers of the Allaire Aris Wireless Speaker system. “I believe a certain percentage of the population believes that wireless systems will be one, better sounding; two, easier to use; three, completely wireless (no power cords); four, have the ability to play anything; and five, less expensive. Wireless systems, though much improved over the last few years, are still going to have more troubleshooting issues than a traditional wired system.”

For consumers, the informed systems integrator then becomes a broker of what is achievable when all wireless audio factors, including environment, components, and existing network capabilities, are taken on board. Organizations like WiSA (Wireless Speaker & Audio) and the AVnu Alliance, understanding the tangled nature and pitfalls that beset integrators tasked with designing wireless audio systems, are seeking to establish industry standards that promote equipment interoperability and optimal networking guidelines to not only eliminate trial and error for the integrator, but to also enhance the end-user experience.

“Just like with wired audio systems, integrators need to fit the technology to their customer’s application and be able to interconnect to the application,” said Greg Schlechter, initiative manger for Intel Corporation and an AVnu Alliance board member. “Some wireless technology is great for surround sound but not suitable for multi-room, while others can work with all devices but have limited range and bandwidth. Integrators need to understand the strengths and limitations of each to best fit the wireless audio system that they are trying to create. In addition to sorting through multiple technologies and systems, integrators need to account for synchronization of the rendered audio, which is something that is taken for granted in a wired home system.”

NuVo Technologies has developed the NuVo Gateway as part of its Wireless Audio System that works in conjunction with the home’s router to overcome the evergrowing list of wireless contenders in a home and secure a smoother course for the audio and accompanying data. WiSA, whose membership is a collection of global speaker brands, CE device manufacturers, large ODM, OEMs, AV consultants and integrators, sees a wireless multichannel system for the retrofit market as an ideal project, with its president, Jim Venable noting that a WiSA-enabled system “is the only system in the market offering interference-free wireless capabilities that are flexible and upgradeable. An integrator could recommend wireless front speakers today and upgrade later with rears and feel confident that they will all interoperate regardless of brand, if they are WiSA compliant,” he said.

What’s Available?

Wireless audio has spent the past 15 years coming of age, and in that time the one company that has best evangelized, capitalized on, and expanded the growth of the category is Sonos. Upon arrival on the scene more than 10 years ago, Sonos introduced a component and network architecture that proved so success it is mimicked in both consumer- and pro-grade wireless audio brands.

“The Sonos Wireless HiFi System works on a dedicated wireless music network that isn’t used for your other internet traffic, and this helps us maintain quality of service to ensure that your music won’t stop playing when someone fires up a streaming HD video on their iPad,” said Ryan Taylor, senior product marketing manager for the manufacturer. “All of our products work together to strengthen this dedicated wireless mesh network, and that means the more Sonos players you add to your home, the stronger your wireless network becomes.”

Sonos’ CONNECT:AMP turns any pair of speakers (up to four speakers with the right ohm load) into Sonos speakers, because it allows integrators to wire up in-ceiling or in-wall speakers for a whole-home installation without the need to run in-wall wiring for every room.

“They can do it room by room in much less time and with much less effort,” Taylor explained. “[Integrators] use this product for outdoor speakers as well. They also love it because our regular software updates make the product better over time; we constantly add new music services and capabilities to products that they installed five years ago.”

Recognizing that multiple devices can eat away at precious bandwidth needed for a wireless audio system to be at optimal performance, NuVo Technologies has developed the NuVo Gateway as part of its Wireless Audio System that works in conjunction with the home’s router to “overcome the ever-growing list of wireless contenders in a home and secure a smoother course for the audio and accompanying data,” as explained by David Rodarte, the company’s vice president and general manager.

The Gateway allows operation on either 2.4- or 5Ghz bands to avoid interference from other devices on the network and multiple player options enable hybrid wireless and wired configurations to more precisely address a home’s particular situation.

“While the installation and set-up are intentionally easy,” Rodarte noted, “the scalable modular structure of our wireless players, plus our companion hardwired player for use in combination wired and wireless installations, as well as the release of our API for comprehensive integration with third-party automation systems, all mean that this system can be customized, altered, and expanded to perfectly fit into any whole-home project.”

Acknowledging the impact of Sonos and later, NuVo Technologies, on the wireless distribution market as, until recently, the only companies to place wireless audio sources in rooms, Ingo Schmoldt, vice president of sales at Fusion Research believes that custom wireless audio integrators have suffered from limited options.

The Wren Sound Systems V5PF is controlled with the free Wren Play-Fi app that can be downloaded onto any Android smartphone or tablet. “Competition is always good for a category, and I think we are giving integrators a very unique product well suited for their needs,” said Schmoldt of Fusion’s new Ovation Wireless Player, which is based on and expands the company’s existing Ovation Music Streaming line. “Being wireless, it’s ideal for retrofits or any situation where running network or speaker cable is difficult. Ovation is also the only wireless audio source solution to be sold exclusively to the CI channel and features solid two-way drivers for all the major automation companies.”

Control4, whose Wireless Music Bridge is making a bit of noise in the category with its hybrid (wired and wireless) capabilities that allow end users to stream audio over any kind of home network, knows that, as JB Fowler, product manager, stated “[consumers] want a solution that is easy to navigate, intuitive, and works with their existing gear so that the entire experience can be customized to their lifestyle—not to mention that overall audio performance and quality are driving factors as well.”

Music Bridge features built-in Airplay, Bluetooth, and DLNA connectivity, allowing virtually any smart phone, tablet, or other personal device to wirelessly stream music to the end-user’s Control4 system, Fowler explained. Installer friendly and expandable, the Bridge also supports full integration with Control4 touchscreens and onscreen displays, while also offering multiple zone activation by simply streaming audio to the Bridge.

Similarly, NAD, utilizing proprietary BluOS wireless audio technology that integrates wireless hardware and software, allows for expansion into multiple zones, and features music navigation and control as part of the system’s wireless user interface.

“This technology has the capability of multi-room playback with multiple synchronized group zones, and features gapless playback and 24/192 high resolution streaming,” said Greg Stidsen, director of technology and product planning Lenbrook International. “BluOS is available now in the NAD Masters Series M50 Network Player, but there will be many new products unveiled at CEDIA 2013 that also feature this technology and bring the price way down.”

To alleviate the headache of an over-taxed home network where multiple devices put a strain on bandwidth, Klipsch offers a direct wireless connection with its KMC (Klipsch Music Center) Bluetooth wireless speakers, as well as home Wi-Fi network connectivity. While some of the KMC models are portable, Mark Casavant, senior vice president of global product development, highlighted the flagship KMC Stadium, which he said is perfect for custom integration projects with its 110dB of power, multiple connection options (Bluetooth, AptX, AirPlay via Wi-Fi network and Wi-Fi Direct, app control for setup and customizable music settings, and a dedicated remote along with a stand for tablets with charging cable wire management.

“It has the performance of a component audio system with all-digital circuitry and amplification, true Klipsch Tractrix horn and driver technology,” said Casavant, “not to mention a real subwoofer system that together deliver a jaw-dropping sonic performance that replicates a live music experience full of deep bass, crisp dynamics, high output and superb detail.”

CasaTunes has developed hybrid wire and wireless music servers that integrate with Apple devices and that are expandable to multiple rooms, offering integrators the building blocks to a bespoke system. “CasaTunes has created solutions that allow our end users to enjoy music via the CasaTunes hard drive, a network attached computing device using our new UpNp software upgrade, as well as being able to use iOS devices along with our CasaTunes Air software to enjoy hundreds of streaming music services available from the Apple App Store,” said Mark Hovey, national sales manager for the company. “As is the case in custom installations, there is no one product that is ideal. That’s where our CasaTunes products come in. From the CT-3 that can be added to an existing multizone AVR to create a streaming music system for a 3-zone AVR to our CT-24 that would allow for 24 different music streams to be sent to 24 rooms, CasaTunes has the answer for the integrator.”

Dubbed the next generation’s boom box, Aperion Audio’s Allaire Aris wireless speaker system streams music from phones, tablets, and Bluetooth-enabled devices and can be used as a wireless speaker by adding the company’s DLNA-based Wi-Fi card to the home’s Wi-Fi network.

“Starting at $297, it far exceeds the competition with sound and build quality,” said Aperion’s Hopkins. “By adding our Wi-Fi card, you instantly have a speaker that you can push music to over your home network using a mobile device. Add the simple Bluetooth adapter for $37 and you can stream anything over Bluetooth 4.0 with AptX for CD quality sound. Finally, as a powered speaker alone, pair it with an Airport express for multiroom using Airplay via iPad, iPhone, and iTunes.”

Wren Sound Systems places emphasis on the design, materials and build quality of the wireless speakers themselves, with the company opting out of plastic finishes in favor of MDF finished in rosewood or bamboo veneers. This is not to say that attention isn’t paid to speaker sound quality, as Wren CEO Mike Giffin pointed to the popular V5PF speaker as proof of the company’s dedication to distortion-free wireless audio delivery.

“Our V5PF speaker with DTS’s new Play-Fi wireless technology is a real winner for multi-room systems, especially for customers seeking great value,” Giffin said. “The system is controlled with the free Wren Play-Fi app that can be downloaded onto any Android smartphone or tablet and offers access to a world of music, including music stored on the device or on any DLNA server on the same Wi-Fi network, plus Pandora and thousands of internet radio stations through vTuner. What’s more, Play-Fi allows streaming to as many as eight compatible speakers, with individual and master speaker volume control. And the system’s capabilities are growing quickly: Play-Fi will soon provide drivers to work on Windows 7 and 8 operating systems and an app for Apple iOS devices.”

Ideal for an outdoor zone and/or roving zone in an installation project, the weather-resistant and portable Outcast music system by Soundcast allows end users to take their music on the go thanks to a broadcast range of up to 300 feet, as well as several optional transmitters and receivers.

At Audio Source, all faith is with Bluetooth, which company president and CEO, Tom O’Mara noted has improved significantly with the 4.0 iteration and is now an integral part of a host of products from wireless speakers to whole-house audio components.

“Our S3D650 sound bar is coming out in 2014 and will be Bluetooth-enabled because custom integrators and customers expect a quality sound bar to offer this feature,” O’Mara said. “With this model, an integrator can fill in a space with high quality streaming audio without having to open another wall.”