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The Sound of Things to Come

A few months ago, we reported on a trend in the professional audio-visual industry toward the use of streaming audio to reduce cable clutter and create multi-zone audio playback in classrooms, churches, and corporate boardrooms. Last week’s Electronic Home Expo, held in Orlando, Florida, reveals that the trend is moving into the home audio market as well, with some very interesting demonstrations leading the way toward ubiquitous use of streaming in the home.

Three demonstrations, two on the show floor and one off, were especially appealing. First, San Jose-based NetworkSound created and demonstrated to potential customers a six-zone audio system to showcase its audio chipset, which allows input and playout of up to 64 channels of fully synchronized, uncompressed 24-bit 84KHz audio. NetworkSound’s Zone6 system consists of a "server" offering connectivity for five outlying zones as well as local audio inputs and outputs—eight audio input channels (four stereo pairs) and two audio output channels (one stereo pair). The outlying zones, which are housed in a single-gang wall plate, consist of one stereo pair each of input and output; all audio inputs can be decoded at any or all outlying zones within the system. NetworkSound President Barani Subbiah also noted that the company plans to integrate a 30-watt Class D amplifier within its wall plates over the next few months, providing localized audio playout without the need for an additional amplifier.

Audio playout is fully synchronized with NetworkSound’s ZoneSync technology, meaning that all channels of audio will play at the exact same time across multiple zones, with a total latency of less than 20 microseconds. This technology is critical in the home audio environment, where zones are often within hearing distance of one another.

Austin-based NetStreams showed a similar system on the show floor, touting the ability of its DigiLinx system to convert audio in real time from a legacy source (such as a CD player) to uncompressed audio streams, as well as playback of compressed audio files such as MP3s from select audio/media servers. Netstreams was founded by a former Crestron employee, so it also integrates well with Crestron control systems, which are popular for home theater and home automation control. NetStreams’ booth personnel also claim a theoretical 1.8 million simultaneous streams, although the current Digilinx systems fall into the 16-32 channel capability. Unlike NetworkSound, which sells a chipset to its OEM customers with no licensing fee, NetStreams licenses its technology to potential partners for a recurring fee.

One partner licensing the NetStreams technology showcased an innovative speaker that is a harbinger of streaming audio’s dominance in the home market. Polk Audio demonstrated the LC265i custom in-wall speaker as the world’s first IP-addressable speaker. Polk has taken the NetworkSound and NetStreams concept of IP-distributed audio one step further by integrating the decoder board and a 30-watt Class D amplifier directly into the in-wall speaker. The speaker housing sports three RJ-45 connectors, one for power and two for daisy-chaining the IP-based audio transmissions from speaker to speaker. Due to the nature of IP-based audio, NetworkSound and NetStreams both recommend separating audio networks from standard data networks, allowing a high-end home audio system to have more than 100 directly addressable IP speakers.

Sound quality on the LC265i speaker was quite impressive, aided by the fact that the decoded audio travels less than six inches from the Class D amplifier/decoder to the analog speaker inputs mounted directly on the LC265i’s dual speaker cones. This extremely short distance means that the 30-watt integrated amplifier produces an output equivalent to traditional amplifiers rated at more than three times its wattage.

Polk also showed a diagram of its intended roadmap, with traditional floor- or bookshelf-mounted speakers set to receive the IP-addressable treatment in the near future. Other speaker manufacturers on the show floor were taking notice of the interest in Polk’s LC265i speakers; several of these manufacturers expressed interest in pursuing a similar strategy, citing the small, localized amplifiers and the ability to decode audio from any audio source on the network at the speaker—without the need for a large, centralized matrix/zone amplifier—as primary benefits of the streaming audio implementations from NetworkSound and NetStreams.

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