Home Audio Hooking Up

By Joseph Palenchar On Mar 26 2012 - 4:01am




NEW YORK — Home audio gear has embraced the connected home in a big way to tap into such new music sources as PCs, MP3 players, cellular smartphones, tablets, USB drives and Internet radio.

Home audio components, HTiBs and tabletop speaker systems that stream music from the Internet and from networked PCs have gone mainstream. Technologies such as Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), certified networking and Apple’s AirPlay let consumers push music wirelessly from smartphones and tablets over a home’s Wi-Fi network to A/V receivers (AVRs) and amplified tabletop speakers. A growing selection of Bluetooth- enabled tabletop speakers, sound bars, and A/V receivers also stream music wirelessly from cellphones and tablets.

Sales statistics underscore the trends. Among component A/V receivers, for example, 45 percent of units sold to retailers will feature an Ethernet port in 2012, usually to connect to a home network to stream music from a networked PC and the Internet, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) forecasts show. And 16 percent of home radios shipped by suppliers will feature Internet radio in 2012.

Audio networking also takes another form in the home: docking of portable devices such as smartphones and tablets to A/V receivers, HTiBs, tabletop speakers, and tabletop radios and music systems. In 2012, CEA forecast that 84 percent of all AVRs sold at the factory level will dock with and control MP3 players, mainly Apple’s iPod or iPhone. Among HTiBs with DVD and Blu-ray, the percentage will hit 83 percent.

Here’s a look at what to expect this year in connectivity trends this year in each of audio’s main product categories:

Components:
AVRs priced down to an everyday $249 will offer Pod/iPhone/iPad-compatible USB ports, enabling receivers to play back music from connected iPods, iPhones and iPads and charge the mobile devices.

The first AVRs that quickly charge USB-connected iPads hit the market in 2011 from Pioneer. More suppliers will offer this feature in 2012.

Among AVRs that connect to a home network to stream music, prices in the first half will start at about an everyday $379 for a new Pioneer AVR. A model from at least one other supplier will start at a suggested $399.

Other streaming options for AVRs include stereo Bluetooth and Apple’s AirPlay technology. Most AVRs accept a plug-in Bluetooth module, enabling them to wirelessly stream music stored on Bluetooth-equipped cellphones, tablets and MP3 player. For its part, AirPlay lets users stream music from Wi-Fi-equipped mobile devices and a PC’s iTunes application.

AirPlay-equipped AVRs were available from at least three brands in 2011 at prices starting at an everyday $549, but more suppliers are joining them in 2012 with prices starting at an everyday around $379 for a new Pioneer model and a suggested $399 with a planned launch by another supplier.

Suppliers have also developed new types of components to tap into new music sources. Multiple component-audio suppliers, for example, offer high-performance two-channel CD receivers with iPod connections. Some add Wi-Fi to stream Internet radio and PC-stored music. New types of components called USB DACs and component-size networked media players (or media streamers) have also appeared. USB DACs plug into the USB port of a PC to replace the PC’s low-quality sound card, and it brings that music into a connected component-audio system.

For their part, component-size networked media players from multiple companies are available to add to existing component-audio systems, enabling the systems to stream Internet radio and stream music from networked PCs and Wi-Fi-equipped Android smartphones. Models from at least one supplier, Pioneer, add AirPlay.

HTiBs: Because of their home-theater functionality, networked HTiBs expand their networking capabilities to video. In 2009, suppliers launched the first Blu-ray HTiBs that stream on-demand standard- and high-definition video from Internet-delivered video-streaming services. The products also access such Internet services as YouTube, Picasa and Internet radio.

Prices of HTiBs that access Internet audio and video services will fall to a suggested $199 in 2012 with a Philips- branded model from P&F USA. Both P&F and Panasonic will start DLNA-certified networking at a suggested $299. At least two suppliers – Samsung and Panasonic — will offer Blu-ray HTiBs with built-in web browser.

Also at $299, P&F is incorporating Apple’s AirPlay.

Tabletop speakers: Tabletop speaker systems that dock with and charge Apple’s mobile devices have established themselves as a primary source of music playback in many homes at prices ranging up to as much as $999 for a Bang & Olufsen model.

With sales having been so strong for so long, however, the market has begun to decline, and in 2011, CEA estimated factory-level dollar sales of docking speakers fell 29.5 percent to $600 million. CEA forecasts a 2012 decline of 18 percent.

In response, suppliers are taking steps to expand the appeal of powered tabletop speaker systems, with or without Apple docks. For one thing, they’re adding Apple’s wireless AirPlay technology to docking speakers, or simply launching AirPlay speakers without docks.

Suppliers are also taking steps to expand the total addressable market to owners of smartphones and MP3 players that don’t carry the Apple brand. For these consumers, companies are adding stereo Bluetooth to docking speakers and launching dock-less Bluetooth speakers.

Suppliers are also combining AirPlay with DLNA technology so that tabletop speakers can stream music from any brand of DLNA-equipped smartphone, and from PCs loaded not just with iTunes but also with other music players.

Apple’s AirPlay appeared for the first time in tabletop speaker systems in 2011. In 2012, the selection of AirPlay speakers will grow dramatically, with at least 18 companies offering AirPlay-enabled tabletop speaker systems, up from about half that in 2011. Some existing suppliers will also expand their AirPlay portfolios in 2012. Prices start at around $199 for an Acoustics Research model to $1,399 for a Libratone model.

In dock-less Bluetooth speakers, the number of suppliers will grow to at least 20 suppliers with prices starting at about $49. Some models also incorporate a MicroUSB port to charge a connected mobile device.

For connectivity of almost any type, Samsung this year is combining iPod/iPhone docking, Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Wi-Fi DLNA networking into two tabletop speaker priced at a suggested $449 and 799.

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