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Streaming Audio Turns Into Torrent

LAS VEGAS -Suppliers went to CES to harness the flood of Web-based audio content with the introduction of consumer-electronics-type devices that play streaming or downloaded music, in some cases without the assistance of a PC.

The products include audio-component-style devices, tabletop radios and shelf systems, and product from such newcomers as AudioRamp, DigMedia, Full Audio and SmartMedia. Traditional CE companies such as Harman Kardon, Kenwood and Philips are also entering the market.

Some of the devices sport additional features, including hard drives that store music ripped from an internal CD drive. Some also provide content-management software that lets users access content from connected DVD/CD changers, not just from the hard drive or Web.

Here’s what dealers found:

AudioRamp: The Tustin, Calif.-based company launched two devices that use an Ethernet or HomePNA 2.0 connection to stream audio directly from the Web or from a PC.

One device is an AM/FM tabletop stereo with speakers. The other is an audio-component-type device that connects via a digital output to a home stereo system. Both devices are expected to retail for $199. From a PC’s hard drive, they stream MP3, ADPCM or Windows Media Audio (WMA) files.

A ship date was unavailable.

These products join a shelf system and a component-style device that link directly to the Web without a PC to stream and download Web audio. Downloaded content is stored on internal hard drives.

DigMedia: The San Diego-based digital media distribution company is expanding its selection of Internet audio appliances with the launch of DigRadio, a component-style device that connects to the Web via internal dial-up modem or Ethernet-connected broadband modem.

The Windows CE-based device accesses a personal website that lets users log onto streaming audio sites based on user preferences. The site also acts as a music locker service incorporating digital-rights management technology.

Additional details were unavailable.

Full Audio: The Chicago company’s first product is the Music Navigator, a system that wirelessly connects a PC to a home stereo system via 900MHz to stream content obtained through the company’s subscription service.

That service delivers access to online radio stations, as well as to a customized music service, which works like this: Users pay a subscription price to download and store songs on their PC’s hard drive, which will play back the music as long as the subscription is in effect, said senior business development VP Gary Cohen.

He declined to reveal the details of how this would be accomplished, but he said the intent is to guarantee sound quality by letting users play back music from their hard drive rather than from a website.

Full Audio said that two of the big five music companies are working closely with it to launch the service.

The system consists of a device that plugs into a PC’s USB port and a minicomponent-style device that plugs into a stereo system’s RCA inputs. A two-way 900MHz RF remote with LCD screen is used to select music and view title and artist information residing on the hard drive.

The company is focusing mainly on pursuing relationships with CE manufacturers, Cohen said.

Full Audio hasn’t revealed device or subscription pricing, nor has it decided whether the device will be usable without its service. The products could be available as early as April, a spokesman said.

Harman Kardon: The audio company offered more details about its DMC 100 Digital Media Center, due in the spring at a suggested $899.

The set-top device streams and downloads Web-based audio and video content, rips and stores CD music on an internal 30GB hard drive, and plays DVD-Video discs on its single-disc DVD/CD transport.

It results from a collaboration between HK and technology company ZapMedia.

The device accesses the Web via an internal modem or Ethernet-connected broadband modem. Consumers can use any ISP but AOL to access any website through the device as long as they subscribe to ZapMedia’s $9.95/ month portal service, which formats the content of ZapMedia partners for display on TV screens.

The hard drive stores MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) formats, and it supports Microsoft’s digital rights management (DRM) technology. Stored music can be transferred via USB to select portable players.

The DMC 100 also streams Web-based MP3 and WMA audio.

Video capabilities include streaming Web video and storage of up to 30 hours of downloaded video. It doesn’t time-shift or pause TV programs.

Zap’s subscription service also includes an e-mail box, online purchasing of CDs and DVDs, and periodic software upgrades. Subscribers will also be able to automatically download CD disc information when they rip CDs for storage on the hard drive.

Philips: The company offered more details about its FW-i100 Internet Radio shelf system, which will stream audio from the Web via an Ethernet-connected broadband modem. It will also stream audio from an Ethernet-connected PC’s hard drive.

The device will access more than 1,000 MP3 streaming sites via a free tuning service operated by IM Networks, formerly Sonic Box, of Sunnyvale, Calif. It will also let users access MP3 locker services.

The device will connect to an IM site that delivers access to about 800 streaming sites, but via a PC, users will be able to access an IM Web page to select additional stations that will be displayed automatically on their i100’s menu.

The device supports only MP3 streaming sites, but IM could upload support for other streaming codecs.

Before the show, the company planned Q2 delivery, but at CES, it cited July or August shipments. Pricing hasn’t been announced.

IM’s technology is already incorporated in Acer’s Internet receiver, which accesses IM’s service through a connected PC and streams the music to a connected stereo system.

IM’s service is free to consumers, but the company will generate income through licensing its technology, ad sales, e-commerce and other potential strategies, said IM founder David Frerichs.

RCA: The company cited development delays in pushing back deliveries of its set-top Digital Media Manager until Q3 from Q1. The company announced a $999 suggested retail.

The device streams audio from websites via the free Kerbango Tuning Service (KTS). An internal hard drive stores MP3 songs ripped from CDs spinning in the internal single-play CD/DVD drive.

The hard drive, whose capacity hasn’t been finalized, does not record video programs.

As indicated by its name, the device manages a variety of A/V content through an onscreen menu that displays information from a variety of sources. They include TV programs (via Gemstar’s TV Electronic Program Guide), Real streaming sites (via Kerbango’s service), local AM and FM stations, music stored on the hard drive and in 1394-connected DVD/CD changers, and DVDs stored in those changers. Disc data is downloaded from Escient’s GraceNote (formerly CDDB) website via Escient’s OpenGlobe software.

The device features a built-in modem but also connects to a broadband modem via an Ethernet dongle attached to one of its two USB ports.

The other USB output can be used to transfer music files to an Internet audio portable.

The device might also ship with support for other Internet audio codecs, said a spokesman.

As for its $299-suggested RIR 111 tabletop Internet Radio, Thomson announced a revised March 1 delivery. Through the Kerbango service, users will be able to access more than 5,000 Real streaming sites. Thomson will add Windows Media streaming support in midyear, said Rocky Caldwell, strategic business development manager.

The tabletop radio, which also features AM and FM, uses an Ethernet connection to connect to a broadband modem, but in June or July, models will be available with internal dial-up modem.

SmartMedia: The Los Angeles start-up plans limited Q1 shipments of its DDL Player, an Internet appliance that links to a home stereo to deliver streaming audio content from the internet.

The Windows CE 3.0-based device features built-in modem and Ethernet connection to broadband modems. It will support sites that use Windows Streaming Media, and the company is finalizing a deal to support Real’s streaming format as well.

The device will access a SmartMedia site that streams content from more than 4,000 online radio stations, president Eran Pick explained. The device’s programming menu will be regularly updated with additional stations. Consumers can also contact SmartMedia by phone or the Web to add sites.

In Q1, SmartMedia will market the device and service direct to consumers via its website and a toll-free number, and through the La Curacao department store chain in southern California.

The company also wants to partner with CE companies to deliver the device under those companies’ brand names, Pick said.

The DDL Player will retail for $99.95 when bundled as a turnkey solution with the company’s ISP subscription service, which is supplied by nationwide ISP wholesaler UU Net through dial-up or DSL modems. Dial-up ISP service will cost $14.95/month; DSL service pricing hasn’t been set. Without the company’s ISP service, the device will cost $199.95.

Consumers can opt to use their own DSL provider to avoid a monthly charge from SmartMedia, but dial-up access will be available only to subscribers of SmartMedia’s dial-up ISP service, Pick said. The intent is to ensure a minimum level of sound quality, he explained.

SmartMedia will generate revenue by selling the device, reselling ISP service, and selling advertising airtime.