The AudioFile: The iPhone Is Eyeing Your Living Room

Image by Leah Perrotta

This week: Computers, set-top boxes (like AppleTV), and AV
receivers are battling to be your household hub, streaming music and
movies back and forth across your pad until you become sterile and
glow in the dark. All this gear is versatile, but it’s hard to know
which one to pick — especially when hefty sums of money are involved.
Sonos and now Denon seem to have the most promising solutions, but
life is passing their equipment by while gadgets like the iPhone and
Archos’s 605 WiFi threaten to swoop in and take all.

If I can get my digital music from any place to any other place with
no wires in between and control it easily, I’m a happy audio geek.
But assuming you have a reasonably sized budget, how do you choose
among dedicated streaming hardware (Sonos, Squeezebox, etc.), Media
Center-type PCs, straight-up networking gear (AirPort Express,
Sondigo), and networked home stereo components?

At a press event the other day, Denon introduced some very cool
networked stereo gear that has a lot of potential, thanks to a TV-
screen interface that functions as your command center. But it’s
going to have a tough time competing with some of the stuff already
out there, not to mention what’s just on the horizon.

What’s new
Denon turned over its entire line of AV receivers for the first time
in 10 years, but the most noteworthy changes came at the top end:
Denon’s 5308CI ($5200) and 4308CI ($2500) both have built-in WiFi and
USB inputs for hard drives and some portable players. The WiFi is for
things like remote maintenance, multizone music distribution (similar
to Sonos), and Internet radio, and streaming music from an iPod (via
an optional $129 dock).

Of course, these aren’t the first WiFi receivers and won’t be the
last, but it does show that the big boys like Denon and Sony are
trying to retain the living room control they’d had in the pre-
wireless era. And other WiFi-capable stereo components are garnering
attention, like Olive’s line of high-end CD players, which can stream
music from anywhere on your network — or as I accidentally found out
back in my days in PC Magazine Labs, it can take down a swath of a
corporate network).

The hottest thing Denon introduced the other day, though, was an iPod
dock that also turns any stereo component into a wireless music
system. You just hook it up to your receiver and/or TV, and it can
access files from anywhere on your home network using your TV screen
as a navigation interface.

Impressive, but even with their reliance on handheld remotes, all of
these tether to your TV screen for browsing and controlling your music.

Best of what’s around
Sonos’s wireless digital music system and handheld controller (with a
big LCD and iPod-like scroll wheel) seems to hold the most promise in
terms of convenience, and the entry point there is $1000. It’s hard
to beat taking your music around with you and wirelessly controlling
it in every room in your home. But honestly, that controller is
pretty ridiculous to lug around while you’re hosting a party, and the
other remotes on my living room couch are scared of it.

Sonos is on the right track, but the controller could just as easily
be a bitchin’ WiFi music player (iPhone? 6G iPod?), not a big brick
with only a few more features than a paperweight. The current iPhone
could easily be rigged up to transmit signals to WiFi-capable gear
with a simple firmware upgrade — in fact, someone should do an
infrared transmitter attachment so you could use it to turn on your
TV! (Might as well… no one really talks on the iPhone
anyway, do they?)

What’s next
I remember being amazed 7 or 8 years ago when I saw a buddy of mine
take out his PDA and turn it into a fully customizable remote for the
TV set — it was brilliant! Where did this idea go? Hopefully into next-
gen music players from companies like Apple, Archos, iRiver, and
even Microsoft.

If you’re wondering whether you should make a big investment in a
wireless streaming audio setup, consider that in the next year or so,
the iPhone/iPod/Zune combined with something along the lines of
Apple’s AirPort Express or Denon’s new WiFi gear could be what keeps your digital music — and
probably video — pumping to every nook and cranny of your house.

The image above was created by Leah Perrotta, a Brooklyn-based artist and all-around lovely gal. Check out her stuff every week right here on the AudioFile, and Flickr.