The world of distributed audio systems is a Holy Grail for consumers, and technology advances have are closer to hitting a sweet spot for integration professionals as well. All of the top systems available have fully embraced IP control and distribution, so consumers can listen to their personal media collections throughout their home while controlling their selections from a range of mobile and wireless device offerings. The scope of IP radio content providers continues to grow while distributed audio system manufacturers seem revved to keep up with the pace.
“It is important for distributed audio manufacturers to embrace the streaming audio category and offer logical solutions to incorporate these sources into an AV system design,” asserted Pete Baker, vice president of sales and marketing, RTI.
The RTiDock, which connects an iPod to a local or distributed audio system for control via an RTI in-wall or handheld controller can sync with iTunes over the network and features component video output for navigation through a video display device.
RTI is focused on expanding and enhancing its distributed AV options, which include the four-channel CP-450 and 16-channel CP-1650 audio amplifiers, and the RTiDock iPod dock. Other new products in the category will be introduced at CEDIA EXPO this month.
Savant’s AV controllers address the trend away from physical media to portable and cloud-based media access through compatibility with IP-controllable devices, from iTunes-based media servers to streaming content, according to the company’s director of marketing Craig Spinner. “Savant also offers iTunes Match compatibility for Savant SmartSystem controllers, making content available when and where the user wants it,” he said. “All of Savant’s distributed audio products are IP controllable, and our network-centric Mac OS X platform is conducive to both IP and cloud compatibility.”
Other control system manufacturers enthusiastically embrace IP accessibility as well. “Control4’s audio architecture has been built from the ground up over IP to allow music to be shared throughout the home,” said the company’s AV product manager JB Fowler. “And the fact that we can do this over traditional Ethernet networks, as well as Wi-Fi means it can be installed as a retrofit solution in existing homes.”
Crestron effectively made the distributed audio switch to IP control with its Sonnex multi-room audio distribution solution, which provides 24 channels of audio to 74 zones over a single Cat-5 cable. Michael DiBella, Crestron solutions marketing manager for AV products, explained that Cat-5 connectivity allows for the proper management of any issue with the system (e.g. temperature, over current, over voltage, under voltage).
“In the event there is an issue, fault alerts can be sent to a system touchpanel or mobile device,” he noted. “This technology also allows for monitoring and tracking of the data remotely through Crestron RoomView software to ensure a rapid service response. Finally, high-speed Ethernet affords incredible integration potential as part of a complete system.”
While touting the consumer demand for “access to everything, everywhere, all the time,” Proficient president Keith Marshall described what he sees as the next trend to evolve out of the transition to IP control: “While IP provides an efficient platform for moving and managing entertainment content, the exciting development lays in the advancements made in the quality of service now offered by wireless technologies. That coupled with the explosion of smartphones and tablets, which now serve as both portable media players, managers, and controllers, has created a great opportunity to offer wireless music distribution.”
The Proficient ZERO wireless music ecosystem includes Bluetooth and range extender solutions.
Standing Out from the Crowd
With so many of the multi-zone audio options prepared to “do it all,” it’s important that they have strategies in place to distinguish themselves in the market. For Legrand, this involves a feature-rich IP-based solution that is scalable and appropriate for both new and retrofit installs. One example is the lyriQ airQast main source input.
“AirQast lets users access, control, and play all their favorite digital music right from a smartphone or tablet through any of the On-Q multi-room audio speakers in the home using a Wi-Fi network,” said Fritz Werder, vice president and brand general manager for Legrand Home Systems division. “We also offer airQast bookshelf speakers that deliver a similar standalone wireless music experience. Through a free app, [users] can adjust the system volume, build playlists, and enjoy their favorite streaming services, like Pandora and XM/Sirius, with the flick of a finger.”
NuVo is exclusively an audio distribution company that sprung from a musical instrument company, and thus focuses on high-fidelity sound. “Manufacturing systems and source devices that deliver high-quality audio and promoting the use of source material with the same high standards, we are about high performance and superior sound while maintaining dedication to incredible value, both for our dealers and their customers,” said David Rodarte, CEO. “A design team of audio-lovers-turned-experts would have it no other way.”
The big differentiator for Control4 rests in its developer and OEM partner programs, providing a platform for these audio industry players to integrate new services as part of the Control “ecosystem,” according to Fowler.
The Control4 Speaker Point delivers digital music to any room from any audio source. With both ethernet and Wi-Fi capabilities, the Speaker Point is a fit for those wanting to add music zones and for retrofit situations where pulling speaker wire through walls is impractical.
As Control4 aims to stay on top of the latest streaming services customers demand, “we have partner products that offer these services,” Fowler said. “The consumer has access to the latest streaming services and technologies because of the strong partnerships with developers and OEMs.”
Further reinforcing this partnership characteristic of Control4’s systems, the manufacturer is using the initiative to keep its technology ahead of the curve “by improving the partnership programs and making it easier for partners to develop drivers and applications for Control4 systems,” Fowler stated. “While the demand and breadth of streaming services is growing, the driver developer community for these services is increasing just as fast.”
Savant emphasizes its Apple-based control backbone and end-to-end solutions available to set itself apart in the distributed audio realm. “The big differentiator for Savant’s distributed audio solution set is the speed and reliability of an Apple-based system tied to the familiar, intuitive iOS user interface, along with the convenience and ubiquity of iTunes Match,” Spinner said. “There is a tremendous advantage to having Apple devices communicating with Apple-based media servers, delivering seamless performance from devices that millions of consumers already use every day.”
Savant’s in-wall and desktop media docks turn Apple’s iOS devices into media players, giving users full access to their distributed audio functionality in various interface options.
For the less Apple-inclined customers, Crestron also places heavy emphasis on its ability to offer every component of the home system. In terms of distributed audio solutions, Crestron’s One-Wire audio transport technology drives home this point. “We are able to remove the process of homerunning cables, purchasing separate amps/preamps and switchers, and the extensive cabling requirements that accompany them,” DiBella said.
RTI’s Baker said the differentiating focus relies on benefits to consumers, “such as matching user interfaces across all control devices, from handheld and in-wall controllers to smartphones and tablets.”
RTI has also responded to demand for iPod integration with the RTiDock, which connects an iPod to a local or distributed audio system for control via an RTI in-wall or handheld controller. The RTiDock can sync with iTunes over the network, features component video output for navigation through a video display device. “A clean, streamlined design and the unit’s sliding tray provide easy access and discreet storage of the iPod, and the flexibility of rack-mount or desktop installation,” Baker said.
The biggest challenge for distributed audio manufacturers is being prepared and adapting to the constantly changing roadmap in the category. An open architecture is what this means for RTI, allowing for simpler integration when new technology elements introduced are introduced.
Spinner believes Savant’s software platform “is integration friendly with other systems and devices, positioning Savant as a market leader through the migration toward greater cloud-based functionality.”
IP technologies might be relatively new, but they are bringing about changes and the future of distributed audio, according to Proficient’s Marshall. “It is already opening up market opportunities outside the new home construction sector that our dealers grew up in. These technologies represent a huge opportunity for all who participate in systems contracting to redefine and grow their business.”
At the end of the day, the integrators out there designing and installing these systems have the biggest opportunity to help push product development to the next level. “Listening to our system integrators really helps a lot,” Marshall said. “We try to adjust our strategies on the fly based on their feedback. We rely on this help from the field to provide our systems integrators with the right products at, hopefully, the right time.”
Lindsey Adler is associate editor for Residential Systems, Systems Contractor News, and Healthcare AV.