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Multi-Room Audio Going Mainstream

This is the year wireless multi-room audio enters the mainstream, and it could whet consumers’ appetite for higher priced custom-installed multi-room-audio systems.

Consider these recent developments:

Pioneer plans to launch AirPlay in A/V receivers starting at $549 to stream and play back a PC’s iTunes-stored music files over a Wi-Fi network (with the addition of a Wi-Fi dongle to the $549 model). At International CES, Sony launched powered Wi-Fi speaker systems that stream music via Wi-Fi throughout the house from networked PCs and network-attached storage (NAS) drives, from a wireless iPod dock, from a wireless iPod-docking speaker system, and from an iPod connected to two new iPod-docking HTiBs.

In the Pioneer and Sony examples, PC-stored songs can be selected from an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad used as a Wi-Fi remote control.

Earlier this year, Onkyo announced that, for this year’s A/V receivers, it would offer an optional transceiver equipped with Avnera-developed Rocketboost wireless-audio technology to deliver music wirelessly to a second audio zone. In that zone, a Rocketboost receiver module would be built into, or optionally plugged into, planned Onkyo Zone 2 one-piece tabletop audio systems with iPod dock.

In addition, Onkyo is bringing DLNA-certified A/V receivers down to a suggested $399, plus the cost of a Wi-Fi dongle to add wireless capability.

On top of that, multiple companies — the latest of which is JBL — plan to or have begun marketing tabletop speaker systems with embedded Air Play to stream iTunes music from a networked PC.

Also this year, more A/V components and HTiBs are also coming with DLNA certification at lower price points to ensure their ability to stream audio and video from a DLNA-certified PC or NAS drive.

Many of these products fall short in delivering on a key promise of custom-installed multisource, multizone systems: That’s the ability to stream different songs simultaneously to different rooms from a central music source. Air Play, for example, allows only one PC-stored song to be streamed to multiple rooms at a time. (Air Play also enables Wi-Fi streaming of a song from an iPod, iPad or iPhone to one Air Play-enabled audio system at a time.)

Sony’s system, on the other hand, allows for different songs to be streamed simultaneously from a PC throughout the house (though from a networked iPod, only one song can be streamed at a time).

Every system is limited in some way compared to a custom-installed multi-room-audio system. Tabletop speakers used by some systems, for example, don’t deliver the output and sound quality of larger speakers installed in the wall or ceiling.

Likewise, DLNA-certified networked products allow for multiple songs and videos to be streamed simultaneously from a PC, but these systems — like custom systems — don’t de-clutter a room by eliminating the need for A/V receivers and HTiBs in multiple rooms.

All of the new mainstream developments, however, will introduce a broader base of consumers to the multi-room-audio concept, and that could spur demand for installed systems when consumers are ready to step up.