A redheaded stepchild of sorts, wireless audio was recently a rather maligned category rife with performance issues and sub-par audio fidelity that integrators did their best to avoid. Flash-forward to today, and this is a distant image of the new status quo where consumers not only demand wireless listening options, but they expect it, and they expect it to work well.
NAD’s Master’s Digital Suite comprises three reference models that download, store, and stream music without adding or subtracting anything from the digital music source.
Thankfully, the technology has come of age and manufacturers have stepped up with a wide range of innovative options to suit the gamut. Despite technological advances and broader product offerings, there are still many factors installers must consider when selling wireless audio.
“Customers will always be easily sold on the idea of being able to play their music wirelessly throughout their home, but before simply throwing in a wireless audio system, it's important to ask them what they really want out of it,” said Ryan Simpson, Pioneer’s assistant, marketing and product planning manager, home electronics division. “There are more and more options out there–from stand-alone wireless speakers to networkable multicasting systems. None is necessarily a better solution than the other. It really depends on how the customer envisions taking advantage of wireless audio in their homes.”
This is where the integrator’s value to consumers comes into play. This is especially the case with some of the more sophisticated options emerging. Take for example the Klipsch Music Center (KMC) Stadium, a 2.1 tabletop sound solution equipped with AirPlay, apt-X Bluetooth, and DLNA, created to deliver audiophiles the convenience of portable music storage in smart devices. The KMC Stadium features dual 1-inch, horn-loaded tweeters and 3-inch midrange woofers. These are combined with dual 5.25-inch, built in subwoofers. The $2,000 high-end flagship model, just released at CES, “takes a specialist like a custom company of really knowledgeable people to sell,” said Mark Casavant, senior VP of global product development for Klipsch Group.
The Klipsch Music Center (KMC) Stadium is a 2.1 tabletop sound solution equipped with AirPlay, apt-X Bluetooth, and DLNA, created to deliver audiophiles the convenience of portable music storage in smart devices.
David Tschirpke, president and CEO of Wireless Audio Solution Products (WASP), a former custom installer turned wireless audio entrepreneur, offers some cautiously optimistic advice to integrators. “Do not be afraid of wireless audio, yet understand system limitations. Choose the correct platform based on wireless environment and performance expectations,” Tschirpke said.
WASP recently introduced and is shipping a complete line of LINK-Family products that use the tri-band wireless platform and amplification for flexible installation while maintaining sound quality. The retrofit-friendly system includes a 2.1 uncompressed transmitter and three wireless speaker brackets.
Customer expectations and understanding of what the options are for wireless audio are some of the biggest challenges CIs face with the category. The term itself can be misleading for consumers. In fact, Troy Baron, national sales manager for Channel Vision identified the biggest barrier to selling a wireless audio systems as, “the misconception that everything is wireless. Power will still be required for the devices, and amplification for the speakers is still necessary,” he said.
Another major issue integrators must consider is that of good networking setup and equipment. “Designing and installing a proper wireless network and ensuring adequate wireless coverage throughout the home is paramount for reliable listening,” said David Krinker, CEO, Casatunes.
Krinker recommends installers research and test any networking equipment they plan to install, noting the bevy of tools and software available for this purpose. Cautiously documenting and setting up all IP addressable devices is part of the equation, as is setting up static IP addresses in many cases.
CasaTunes CT-8 multi-room music system outputs lossless music in up to eight wired rooms.
Along the same lines, Greg Stidsen, NAD’s director of technology and product planning, suggests employing a certified network installer, or getting certified yourself. “Technical schools and community colleges offer courses and are an excellent resource,” he noted.
According to Stidsen, proper network infrastructure can address the two biggest obstacles to selling a wireless system, which he identified as “the perceived complexity of setting up networks and fears about wireless reliability.”
David Rodarte, vice president and general manager, NuVo Technologies said his main advice to integrators selling wireless audio is “to keep in mind that the existing infrastructure within a home can be as critical to the overall product performance as the device itself. When starting out on a wireless project, ensuring that the router already in play is up to the task of supporting current technologies is a necessary step.”
WASP recently introduced and is shipping a complete line of LINK-Family products that use the tri-band wireless platform and amplification for flexible installation while maintaining sound quality. The retrofit-friendly system includes a 2.1 uncompressed transmitter (pictured) and three wireless speaker brackets.
Beyond networking, compatibility issues with major control systems can be a potential sticking point. “Integrators need confidence that the products and technologies have been tested with major control systems,” warned Al Baron, product line manager, Polk Audio. “This can be a nightmare for an integrator, chewing up lots of time chasing down problems to get everything to play nice. Qualified reassurance is needed on the part of the manufacturer.”
Baron stressed the role of trusted, reliable manufacturer partners “that have a reputation for not only performance, but diligent testing with respect to compatibility. Manufacturers can’t make the installer the beta tester!”
At CES, Polk introduced its Woodbourne wireless speaker system, which incorporates AirPlay and Bluetooth with apt-X. “Even hard core audio enthusiasts agree that the performance is of such a high degree that they would not hesitate to recommend it, even to their most critical customers,” Baron said.
Walt Zerbe, senior product manager for Legrand also emphasized the importance of solid manufacturer partners with “bulletproof customer support.”
In addition, Zerbe noted the challenge that incorporating legacy sources can present, as well as multi-zone issues. “A solution that works in one room may not work in the other,” he said. “This is why we recommend that installers sell wireless systems in a modular fashion, zone by zone.”
Legrand’s airQast system is one such offering, allowing users to stream from smart devices to PCs. “Unlike most products that simply offer embedded services, airQast offers mostly uncluttered wireless path from the device to the speakers or home audio system,” Zerbe added. “Also, we offer a line-in option for connecting TVs and legacy sources, making airQast a one stop solution and an easy retrofit for existing systems.”
From a new technology perspective, the Wireless Speaker and Audio Association (WiSA) approaches wireless audio differently by offering a solution for speaker manufacturers to build into their designs. Powered by Summit Semiconductor technology, WiSA products operate on the UNII bands, free from the interference of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices, guaranteeing an interference-free experience with dynamic frequency selection (DFS), according to Jim Venable, WiSA president. DFS can detect potential interference on a channel and will automatically move everything to an alternative channel.
The NYNE NB-500 portable Bluetooth speaker features USB charging, digital signal processing, and an auxiliary input.
One of the biggest benefits for integrators and consumers with WiSA’s technology is that it is brand agnostic. “We believe the integrator and consumer wants the ability to have choice of what brand speakers they want…that’s the flexibility we’re trying to offer.”
Where WiSA technology also distinguishes itself from other wireless audio technologies is with multichannel audio in a home theater type environment. This is something AirPlay and Bluetooth can’t do.
Venable’s big prediction for wireless audio this year is that most WiSA speaker manufacturers will be bringing their products to market. He said, “2014 is when the major volumes will start being shipped.”
The latest wireless technology NYNE–a new WiSA member–is considering implementing into its lifestyle oriented speaker systems are “scalable, less congested with less interference, and feature technologies that enable connectivity and therefore platform independency, as well as ease of setup and use,” said Arman Arami, president.
All of NYNE’s audio products feature Bluetooth to be brand agnostic. “As far as Wi-Fi models are concerned, we are currently studying a few different solutions, but have not committed to any specific ones yet,” Arami said.
NAD’s latest wireless audio products, like the Masters Series Digital Suite, boast performance better than optical disc-based systems, Stidsen noted. “This is achieved through the use of hard drive storage and FLAC lossless encoding, combined with our innovative DAC technology and BluOS music interface,” he said.
Stidsen predicted that in 2013, “Support for high definition 24/96 music will be a required feature in better wireless audio systems.”
Pioneer is improving on Wi-Fi performance with external antennas in its SMA line and catering to Android users by building HTC Connect into its wireless speakers. Using a wireless direct feature and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery in one model, “the speakers themselves become wireless access points that the customer can connect their phones to directly to play music,” Simpson said.
For the near future, CasaTunes’ Krinker prediced that, “while Apple’s AirPlay and DLNA solutions will continue to dominate the landscape, we expect Google, Amazon and Microsoft to enter into the fray with potentially their own standards and leveraging their own music ecosystems.”
Lindsey Adler is associate editor for Residential Systems, Systems Contractor News, and Healthcare AV.
Read about Skifta, a new wireless content aggregation and distribution system that speaker manufacturers will start integrating with their designs later this year.