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Car audio is forging ahead into the computer age as nearly a half dozen leading suppliers debut the first hard-disk-based head units and the first radios with removable media.
Following in the footsteps of the home audio and computer markets, car stereo suppliers are incorporating computer-based technology to allow consumers to store or record MP3 and WMA files, to increase the capacity of stored music, and to make way for future technologies in the automobile, they said.
"Music libraries are quite huge now because of compressed audio over the Internet. The key element here is that the hard drive allows consumers to store much more music in the car," says Michael Townsen VP, marketing for Pioneer's Mobile Entertainment division.
Kenwood VP sales and marketing Bob Law notes that hard drive-based head units will become the way of the future. "The flexibility of the hard drive in a head unit is not only for music, but storage for navigation and time shifting in the car and it's going to open up a whole new product category." By time shifting he explained, "You add record capability. You can set up the head unit to record your favorite radio programs, so if you are a Howard Stern fan and you don't commute during the time of his program, you can record him, similar to a TiVo."
Adds Townsen, "At some point down the road, when telematics is more mature, the hard drive could be used to store data sent to the vehicle. It could be navigation or traffic information or points of interest sent via cellular or Bluetooth into the vehicle, and it could be constantly upgraded almost automatically."
Both Pioneer and Sony are showing hard drive-based CD players at CES that enable users to rip CDs as they drive. Both incorporate Memory Stick slots for removable media.
Pioneer's new model is the DEH-P90HDD, a single CD player with a 10GB hard disk drive, Memory Stick slot and MP3 playback. It incorporates a special labeling system by Gracenote that automatically tags a recording with the appropriate title and artist information for easy archiving. Users can download music from an XM tuner or outboard MP3 player as well as a CD, although the unit does not record music from the AM/FM tuner or the Memory Stick reader, due to SDMI and SCMS legal issues, said Pioneer. The DEH-P90HDD will ship in January at a suggested price of approximately $2,000.
Sony's new AM/FM/CD hard drive unit is the MEX-1HD. It has a Memory Stick reader allowing users to rip up to 100 CDs worth of music to the 10GB hard drive as they listen. Users can also set the unit to continue downloading after the car is shut off. The unit cannot, however, download music from the tuner. It comes with the new Sony motorized CD tray and G Protection. Users can listen to the tuner as the unit is downloading. Music can also be downloaded from the Memory Stick reader, or users can store photos on the hard drive from a digital camera with a full Memory Stick. The user can temporarily download the photos to the car stereo hard drive and retrieve them later for viewing.
The unit also has a mini USB port so users can plug in a USB hard drive to back up the head unit's hard drive. It comes with a dot matrix screen with flourescent backlit display. The MEX-1HD is expected to ship in April at a suggested retail price of $1,499.
Also new from Sony is a second unit with a built-in Memory Stick reader as well as an actual TFT color display.
Kenwood opted for a cartridge-based head unit rather than a hard drive "because we feel it makes it easier to get the music to the car," said Law.
The company is showing an Excelon Music Keg KHD-CX910. It uses the PhatNoise 10GB cartridge system for downloading and playback of MP3 and WMA files. The Music Keg comes with a desktop USB cradle for a home PC and a playback unit for the car that integrates with a Kenwood head unit in the same manner as an add-on CD changer.
Users download songs from a PC onto the cartridge via the desktop cradle and then play back the cartridge in the car. The Kenwood Excelon KHD-CX910 is expected to ship in January at an estimated price from $749 to $799.
Eclipse is debuting a unique hard-drive-based, add-on car stereo unit that allows users to rip CDs as they drive, record a DVD video, and record from the radio or from any other source, the company said. The 20GB unit has a five-minute buffer feature so if a user listens to a song he likes on the radio he can press a button to record it even after the song is finished airing. The unit plugs into a head unit in the same manner as a CD changer. It is MP3 and WMA compatible and can store up to 225 CDs worth of music. It is expected to ship in April at a price to be determined.
Blaupunkt is debuting at CES a 1GB IBM Microdrive designed to work with certain Skyline and Funline series head units. Called the MDP-01, it is about the size of a handheld PDA and it stores up to 18 hours of music at a suggested retail price of $799.
Alpine said it expects to show a multimedia car stereo system that uses smart media in its future technology section.
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