The Digital Shift

Everyone loves their MP3 Player or iPod — perhaps because these devices allow us to carry our entire personal music collection in our pockets.

Many people define the analog-to-digital shift that began over a quarter-century ago by recalling their last vinyl album purchase. For this author, the last record album was U2’s Rattle and Hum, which was two years after the first CD purchase (Elvis Costello’s King of America). In retrospect, the first wave of the digital shift was gradual.

But in the Internet years, time goes more quickly, and the shift continues. The evening news is reporting on recent research from NPD saying that 48 percent of US teens got through 2007 without purchasing a single compact disc, and that nearly one million consumers no longer buy CDs.
So we mourn the passing of the compact disc, the vinyl record, the “single”, 8-track tapes, cassettes. But, it’s time to move on.
Whole-house “Networked” Audio
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Digital audio, and the methods by which it is purchased and distributed, enhances the listening experience for the common music lover. One of the most in-demand methods of listening to music at home is to create a whole-house music listening experience – allowing one musical selection, from a single audio source, to be heard simultaneously in every room of a home.

While Digital Connect Magazine calls Multiroom Audio Systems (MRAS) “one of the most sought-after home solutions,” this in-home experience is often beyond the budget of many music fans. The digital shift is making the whole-house music experience less intrusive and less expensive to acquire.
The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) recently reported some facts about the adoption of MRAS. According to the CEA study, 43 percent of MRAS owners have systems that cover four or more rooms, and over 81 percent of current MRAS owners say they would purchase another system.
People love music. People love MP3 Players. People love MRAS.

While digital music players allow people to store their entire music collection on a single portable device, a user can listen only through headphones or a “docking” device that connects a player to a receiver or a type of amplified speaker. Save for turning up the volume full-force or running wires into every room in a home, whole-house music is still not an easily achieved goal: cost and installation are often their concerns.
Wiring is No Longer an Issue

Recent technological innovations have solved this wiring problem, which is making a whole-house music experience more affordable and less intrusive. In the year 2000, a number of companies in the consumer electronics, computer, communications and retail spaces started work on a technology that allows the distribution of a digital signal throughout a home that requires no new wiring.

The electrical grid inside a home already offers a path for a signal to travel: the electrical power wires. The HomePlug Powerline Alliance introduced the HomePlug technology standard in 2001, and since then, HomePlug technology has been incorporated into scores of different applications and sold over 16 million products around the world.

While the primary application has been to distribute Internet access and networking, some companies are employing HomePlug technology to facilitate the union of digital music and whole-house audio systems. And this is where HomePlug technology shines bright.
The Digital Advantage

Recently, this author received a shipment of a new AV component and was excited to incorporate it into my home’s existing home theater system. The installation process concluded after several frustrating hours of trying to match “guzintas” with “guzouttas” and making that requisite trip to RadioShack. Of course, being heavily involved in the HomePlug alliance, I couldn’t help but wonder what these home theater components would look like if they all used embedded powerline communications only. Red/White/Yellow RCA connectors? Gone! Expensive HDMI cable? Not needed! Coax splitters? Splitsville! Imagine that all your consumer electronics needed no connections – except to electrical power – and that they automatically connected to each other and were automatically configured with each other. Without all those connection points on the front, rear and sides of every CE component, they’d also be a lot smaller. You could place them anywhere you wanted to – maybe keep the DVD player near the couch where you can easily change disks.

At Arkados, we’ve been working with our customers to help realize this scenario. The home theater solution I described above is not quite ready for prime time yet, but products coming to market this year are audio-centric, and no less amazing in simplifying the user experience.
Now Playing: Whole-House Digital Audio

There are many variations of digital home audio products, but they can placed into two basic categories: transmitters (the source of audio) and receivers (where audio is rendered).

Transmitters can take input from an audio source, such as a CD player, MP3 player or even Internet radio, and transmit it on the powerline network to the “receiving” units.

Receiving units can connect to existing speakers or may incorporate the HomePlug technology inside of powered speakers or boom-box type units. Receiving units might have screens that will display the names of the song titles and artists, and may also have an IR receiver so that the transmitting unit can be controlled (play, stop, next song, etc.) by pointing the remote control at the receiver.

Scenario 1:
Imagine you come home from a day out. You take your MP3 player out of your pocket and place it in a recharging dock, which also doubles as an audio transmitter. Then, you go upstairs to relax and sit in your favorite recliner. You pick up a remote control, point it a speaker and press play. The music from your MP3 player – which is still docked in its recharging unit downstairs – starts playing throughout the entire house! You decide you need a small bite to eat and your music stays in beat as you travel down the stairs, through the hallway and into the kitchen.

Scenario 2:
You have a subscription to an online music service but want to free the music from your computer’s tiny speakers. With products using Arkados solutions, you can access online music services with or without the computer. Simply point your remote control at any connected speaker, select a station from the LCD and press play. Music from the Internet now fills the whole house! Moreover, you can change stations with your remote control, with a Web browser or even with push buttons.

Now that we’ve gone digital, there’s no going back. The advantages of digital connectivity are so compelling, so beneficial to the user, that we may wonder how we survived without it. Arkados is working with our customers to bring HomePlug technology – with its great combination of sophistication and simplification – to the consumer electronics space.

NPD Press Release:

Quote and CEA data from Digital Connect Magazine, May 2006.

Varieties of transmitters may include audio-to-powerline bridges (which can connect any audio device with audio outputs such as a satellite radio receiver, AM/FM radios, computers, CD Players, etc.), or iPod docks, boom-boxes, or even “traditional” audio equipment (such as a CD Player) with HomePlug transmission built in.

A system may have up to four audio transmitters placed in different rooms throughout your home.

Not all subscription music services would require a computer to be present in this scenario.