manicwave

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Home Music Distribution - the Landscape

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I have been thinking about, dabbling in and writing about home media distribution for a while.

Several years ago I wrote an embedded java application in the spirit of the route66 project. It used a CrystalFontz 634 serial lcd display, Xaudio library connected via JNI (which allowed me to do a dancing bar graph), etc. It never made into my car, but it created a lifelong passion for writing MP3 tag editing routines in every language I touch (including non-published versions in Ruby and a horrible experiment gone wrong in the summer of Haskell).

In short, my wife was driven to purchase a simple am/fm radio because my experiments never make it to GA :-)

The Landscape

The SqueezeBox

As an early observer of the Slimp3, I was intrigued by its thought leadership in the space. A strength and weakness of the slimp3 was its server software. An open source cross-platform server, it did not (the last time I reviewed it) support interaction directly with your desktop music player of choice. While this leads to maximum portability, the game changed significantly with the arrival of iTunes and other music management systems. Who wants to build playlists in multiple formats? (This is now fixed)

Slim devices has now released updated versions of the slimp3, with WiFi support and some sexier colors. Cost: $199-$289

The Roku

On the heels (and backs) of Slim Devices comes the Roku Soundbridge. A sexier packaging of similar function, the Roku supports a wide array of music formats including DRM protected content (AAC and WM10).

I am generally impressed with their continued innovation and wide variety of packaging and options. Cost: $199-$499

AirportExpress

The AirportExpress is a combination 802.11b/g wireless router with streaming audio support for iTunes. Controllable only from iTunes on the Mac or PC, the AirportExpress offers a convenient way to get audio from your PC to the home stereo. iTunes supports multiple AirportExpress units, but you are limited to controlling output from your PC.

The clone crowd

Everybody and their brother offers a variant of streaming playback devices. Linksys, SMC, HP, Creative, Dell - all feature some server software, platform support varies by vendor. Probably a reasonable choice for the technologically unwashed, but not enough geek cred to interest me.

The HomePod

The HomePod from MacSense is an interesting hybrid. Featuring 802.11b wifi, 10/100 ethernet, RCA and SPDIF outputs and a very tinny set of speakers, the HomePod is positioned as a distributed control system for audio. The HomePod discovers available HomePod servers on the network as well as supporting streaming internet radio. It connects to iTunes, WMP, Musicmatch or straight to a filesystem including local USB2.0 drive support. I recently purchased one and connected it to my Bose Wave Radio.

The good news is that it plays music and plays it well. The bad news is that the interface lacks the thoughtfulness and usability of the iPod. Apple obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how users navigate music collections. The Homepod becomes eminently usable if you select a playlist and hit play. It doesn't deal very well with selecting by artist when you have over 2000 artists and are searching for wyclef or Warren Zevon.

The Bomb

Recently buzzed on engadget, the Sonos Digital Media System takes an entirely new approach to affordable music distribution. Featuring ZonePlayers, an amplified networked cube and a very sexy color controller, Sonos brings (relatively) affordable multi-zone playback into the home. As detailed here Interview with John MacFarlane, the product is targeted for a January 05 ship date. The risk here is a closed system with a price point stiff enough to want to know if they will make it in the marketplace. I for one believe that their tech and vision is spot on.

So I am getting by with the HomePod covering the bedroom and the AirportExpress dealing with the primary stereo system. Would I drop it all for the Sonos? You bet. I'll be very interested to try one out.