Digital whole house audio comes of age
The concept of the “connected home” is not a new one to the geeks among us – the X10 system has been around in one form or another since 1978 believe it or not!
It now seems that the idea of digitally serving audio and video content from a central source has started to catch on in the mainstream – the recent What HiFi / Stuff show had a few manufacturers bringing variants on the streaming media theme to the market.
First up (of course) there’s the Slim devices squeezebox that I reported on before . I’m a big fan of this little device – it was designed to do a specific job at a competative price and that’s what it does very well indeed. As long as your requirements tally with it’s specification you can’t go wrong. The downside of their solution is the need for a PC to host the server software. That’s probably not a problem for our regular readers but it could be an issue in the wider market.
In a similar vein to this were Cambridge Audio with their media center offering, the Azur 640H Music Server. Cambridge have a similar approach to Slim devices in that their unit works as a component in a regular Hifi system. You still need an amp and speakers to complete the package.
Cambridge do have a few nice extras though – the unit is also a CD player that can be used as is, or can be used to rip music with. No need for a PC here. It’s a burner too so you can create an ad-hoc compilation for the car with the minimum of hassle. As well as being able to access music on a LAN the unit also includes a 160GB hard drive so if you have no PC infrastructure you can still get up and running quickly. Finally it has the ability to display an interface on a TV – useful if you’re running an integrated A/V system and the TV is on most of the time anyway.
One thing I didn’t like about the cambridge system was that they only support MP3 and Apple formats – no FLAC. It’s software upgradeable of course so in time they might get around to supporting it but as it stands right now I couldn’t use it in my system without an awful lot of work converting my FLAC encoded CDs into something else.
Round the corner were Sonos (as previously covered here ) and we got to play a bit with their system too. Sonos seem to have gone for a more standalone approach – the unit is clearly intended to be used in isolation rather than as a component of an A/V system. They support FLAC too
The obvious difference is that their unit includes an amplifier, although it does still need speakers. The plus side of this is that placing multiple devices around the house is a lot more convenient than with the other two systems. The down side is that you don’t get to choose a high quality external amp (well you can, but you’re still paying for the internal one which pushes the price up)
Sonos did not see fit to include an internal hard drive so you still need to find a LAN and some storage from somewhere but Wifi should be able to take care of that.
The other thing Sonos do very well is “wow” factor – the remote is a very nice colour LCD tablet that displays information about the music currently playing as well as the status of all the connected players. You can synchronise players in different rooms together via this remote and have total control over each device.
While the tablet looks fantastic and works well, it’s also wifi so there’s zero chance of integrating the sonos system into your programmable system remote, if you have such a beast.
So, the audio side of the connected home is well in hand. Now all we need is someone to do video properly! That’s still tricky because of the vast number of video formats to support and the equally varied array of display connection possibilities. For my money the best thing out there right now to handle video is a modified xbox but I’m sure that time will see a more consumer friendly device coming to market – and when it does I’ll definately be trying it out!