Electronic Design

As Audio On Demand Hits Its Stride, Video On Demand Isn't Far Behind

When it comes to music, I'm old school. I buy most of my tunes on CD, and I even spin vinyl sometimes. While iPods are handy, a really good system should rumble your entrails.

Still, I love the infinite variety of Internet radio and particularly my subscription to Real Networks' Rhapsody and its multimillion-song library. Being able to look up (almost) any song to play it when I want to hear it is a thing of beauty. But I'd never gotten around to integrating my stereo with my PC or my home wireless network. So when wireless digital music system developer Sonos collaborated with Rhapsody, I knew I had to check out their system.

And the Sonos designers sure got it right! Sonos uses networked Zone Players to broadcast music from the PC and Internet throughout the house to as many as 32 zones. The system can play the same or different music in each of the zones. The Zone Players are available with or without 50-W amplifiers, so you can use them by themselves to drive speakers or to network your existing audio system, as I did.

Now I can sit in my comfy chair between my speakers using the Sonos wireless controller to navigate through the thousands of artists in Rhapsody's online music library plus 200 Internet radio stations. The controller has a touch-sensitive scroll wheel for navigating by genre, artist, or song. Its color LCD displays cover graphics, and the menus are easy to read, even without my glasses!

Also, the system can access up to 16 PCs, Macs, or NAS devices. That's a surprise bonus because while I haven't taken the time to rip too many CDs, my kids have been running off with my discs to populate their iTunes libraries. That's been a big annoyance because the CDs themselves are never where they're supposed to be—filed alphabetically next to the stereo like my LPs used to be.

Suddenly, I've got access to all their libraries! So finally, I can find and listen to my music again. The Sonos system can index and play a wide variety of music formats, including MP3, WMA, MPEG4, Audible.A4, Ogg Vorbis, Apple Lossless, and FLAC (lossless) files, as well as uncompressed WAV and AIFF files.

Sonos offers easy synchronization between the computer and the home audio system. The setup of the system was simple—one install wizard on the PC, and the rest was plug and play. And best part is that the audio streams are seamless with no apparent buffering.

Where audio leads, video will follow. Experiencing the wonders of audio on demand got me thinking about the imminent future of video on demand (VOD). Media gateways for moving content from the PC to TV are a hotbed of competition, but everybody is watching Apple's move into TV and movie downloads.

Up until now, Apple has left the integration of iTunes content with home entertainment systems to third parties like Sonos. But that will change with the introduction of Apple's wireless streaming-media box, codenamed iTV, in the first quarter of next year. Steve Jobs gave a sneak preview of the 802.11 box in September, calling it "the missing piece" in the iTunes digital content chain.

Apple will roll out iTV with a base of millions of iTunes users. Since Apple first introduced TV shows for iTunes last October, customers have downloaded more than 55 million episodes. The iTunes store carries more than 220 shows from 40 networks, including NFL games. Apple has partnered with Disney and moved into film distribution as well, with iTunes 7 offering videos at 640-by-480 resolution.

In this issue's cover story on digital TV, Lou Frenzel says downloading a movie via a typical DSL connection via the current Internet TV protocol that Apple uses takes anywhere from an hour to two hours. But higher-quality IPTV is coming fast, with an expected $13 billion market by 2010. When VOD catches up to the level of quality and service that the Sonos/Rhapsody partnership offers in audio on demand today, consumers looking for video nirvana will find it.

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TAGS: Components
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