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Home Audio Makers Seek Slice Of iPods’ Popularity

1/31/2005 10:18:00 AM Eastern

New York – Audio suppliers hope that some of iPod’s popularity will rub off on them.

Now that iPods are a de facto standard in the portable-audio industry, suppliers are designing home audio products that play back music stored on the hard-disc drive (HDD) music portables through home audio speakers. The devices are also capable of recharging and, to varying degrees, controlling iPods.

The new products include amplified speaker systems, home theater in a box (HTiB) systems and installed distributed-audio systems.

The latest home audio companies to seek a slice of Apple’s sales include speaker maker Klipsch and distributed-audio supplier SpeakerCraft. They join Bose, Altec Lansing and Sonance in the market. The first HTiB systems that connect to iPods will also be on the way this year from Samsung and perhaps RCA. The HTiBs will enable song selection through a user interface appearing on a TV screen.

Likewise, a growing selection of aftermarket car stereos and original-equipment sound systems from automakers also provide high-quality wired connections to iPods. They play back the portables’ content and enable users to select songs from a menu appearing on an in-dash head unit’s larger, easier-to-view display.

In the United States, Apple iPods accounted for 43.3 percent of all compressed-music headphone portables sold at the retail level for the 12 months ending November 2004, up from 18.6 percent during the year-ago period, and from 7.6 percent for the 12 months ending November 2002, The NPD Group found in its survey of online and brick-and-mortar retailers, excluding Wal-Mart. iPods accounted for 10 million of the estimated 20 million to 25 million compressed-music headphone stereos sold worldwide in 2004, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents 1,450 recording industry companies in 75 countries.

In late 2003, Altec Lansing introduced the first of three inMotion docking stations, which retail from $129 to $179 and feature built-in speakers, charging cradle and battery or AC operation. One comes with a handheld remote. Last year, Bose launched its version, the $299 SoundDock, which features speakers, remote and docking station for all iPod models. Late in 2004, Sonance unveiled an in-wall docking station that integrates with distributed-audio systems.

Now, Klipsch plans March shipments of its $399-suggested silver-finish iFi system, which features a docking station, RF remote, two two-way satellite speakers, a subwoofer and 200-watt (peak) Class D subwoofer, and total of 200 watts of peak Class D amplification. It will be available in Apple stores, A/V specialty stores and other retail outlets, the company said.

For its part, SpeakerCraft plans its first interface to connect iPods to a custom-installed distributed audio system. A ship date was not determined at press time, nor did the company reply at press time to inquiries to determine whether it will enable in-wall keypads to select iPod songs by title.

SpeakerCraft’s interface kit is designed for use with the company’s MZC-66 six-source, six-zone A/V switcher with built-in amplification. The $75-suggested kit turns the iPod into one of six sources that can be controlled from the company’s in-wall keypads. The kit includes an IR emitter to retransmit IR commands to an included NaviPod IR receiver, a miniplug-to-RCA cable for the audio connection, a handheld remote and four iPod buttons to replace other buttons on the company’s in-wall keypads. iPod codes can be downloaded for installation by dealers into the MZC.

For its part, custom supplier Sonance plans a running change to add a composite-video output to its iPort in-wall docking system, which will be able to display images from a docked iPod Photo on any TV screen connected to any distributed-A/V system. The original iPort shipped late last year at a suggested $598 and, like the new version, is compatible with all distributed-A/V systems from Sonance and other companies. The new version is due in February and will also dock with the iPod Mini and 20GB and 40GB iPods.

The upgraded iPort also expands control options from in-wall keypads and in-wall touch screens to almost all iPod functions. Previously, the iPort offered remote control of track forward/back, pause, play and stop. Now, in-wall keypads and touch screens can also select playlists and albums and operate an iPod’s mute, repeat and shuffle functions. Consumers can’t view the names of playlists or albums on an in-wall keypad’s LCD screen, but they can select “next playlist” or “next album.”

Because the iPod’s HDD streams only one song at a time, the custom-installation interfaces don’t allow users in different zones to play back different songs simultaneously.

At least two suppliers, Samsung and RCA, plan HTiBs that link directly via a cable to compressed-music portables to deliver higher quality music playback through the system’s speakers. These systems also control song selection through a user interface appearing on a TV screen. Two Samsung HTiBs add iPod control, and RCA hopes to include it.

The two Samsung HTiBs — the $249-MAP HT-P38 and $499-MAP HT-P50 — integrate via USB with “virtually all” digital music portables to play back the portables’ MP3 and WMA music, and to display the menu and song title of MP3 and WMA portables on a connected TV screen for selection via the HTiB’s remote. Although the HTiBs will play back MP3 files stored on an iPod, playback of Apple-protected AAC files was undetermined.

Thomson launched its first two systems that control USB-connected HDD- and flash-based portable A/V devices. The systems will talk to any USB-based portable device, and the company hopes to incorporate iPod connectivity in one of the models.

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