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Home Audio Hooking Up

3/26/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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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