By Stephen H. Wildstrom Let's say you have a large collection of digital music, downloaded from the Internet or pulled from CDs, on your PC. But your desktop machine has crummy little speakers that can't do justice to the sound. And while you have a quality sound system, it offers no way of playing the digital music on your computer. What to do?
As we enter a new era of networked home-entertainment products, help is on the way. A new class of appliances, from producers ranging from PC makers like Compaq to traditional entertainment vendors like Kenwood, will allow your existing sound system to connect to your PC and the Internet via a home network.
This is still an early-adopter market. Units such as the Compaq iPAQ Music Center, the Hewlett-Packard Digital Entertainment Center, the Kenwood Entré, and the SONICblue Rio Advanced Digital Audio Center range in price from $1,000 to $2,000.
A HOME MUSIC HUB. Though operation details vary, all have some basic features in common. They plug into the auxiliary input jacks of your audio receiver or pre-amplifier using standard RCA cables, though some offer an optical connection. The devices can copy the music stored on your PC's hard drive to their own drives, and they come with CD writers that can create audio CDs or disks containing MP3 or Windows Media files. They can connect to the Net to download music, play streaming audio from Internet radio stations, or obtain album and track information on CDs you have digitized.
I recently spent some time playing with the Kenwood system, which is probably the most sophisticated -- and pricey -- of the lot. The $1,800 Entré Home Entertainment Hub is part of Kenwood's Sovereign line of audio/home theater gear. It's designed to work with Sovereign receivers ($1,200 to $3,000) and a 400-disk CD/DVD changer ($1,800).
The Entré takes control of your system -- its remote also controls all the other components. So when you play a CD on the disk changer, the Entré fetches information, including the cover art and track list, from the OpenGlobe online database. (My one quarrel with the approach is that it requires a television set to display all the information. In my home, I have a sound system connected to my TV, but there's no TV anywhere near my good stereo.)
PHONE-WIRE FRIENDLY. When you first set up the Entré, it checks a database to locate all AM and FM radio stations in your area and create presets for them. Later, it attempts to tune all the stations and drops those that don't yield a strong enough signal for acceptable reception. It also builds a list of available Internet radio stations by genre.
The Entré is designed to connect to a Home Phoneline Networking Assn. network. HPNA, which uses existing phone wiring to move data in a home, seems to be a lot more popular with consumer-electronics manufacturers than it is with actual consumers. Fortunately, Kenwood included a USB port that can be used to attach other networking modules. A standard Ethernet module is already available. A wireless module, which I suspect will be the most popular, is being developed.
The Entré can be used to spread music around your house, using the $399 Axcess remote portal. The Axcess works over the network to bring all the Entré functions to other locations. It includes a low-power amplifier and is intended for use with relatively modest speakers in, say, a bedroom. Alas, the Axcess works only with HPNA -- other networking options are needed, especially wireless.
These networked entertainment devices clearly aren't ready for a mass market yet. Though the numbers are growing fast, home networks remain scarce, and the expensive prices discourage all but the most affluent and enthusiastic. But the trend is clear -- by the end of 2002, I expect to see simpler and lower-cost versions starting to hit the market. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online