The House That iPod Built

High-end audio makers are scrambling to deliver gear that lets your iPod bring music into every room

For Audiophiles, Apple Computer's (AAPL ) iPod has always been a conundrum. It's a slick-looking device that gets gadget freaks salivating. But the iPod is an island of tunes, miles away from the professionally installed audio systems that pipe music into rooms throughout the house. There has never been an elegant way to bridge the two worlds.

But, like car- and home-stereo makers before them, the companies that develop high-end audio gear are starting to jump on the iPod bandwagon. Their "whole-home" systems have long allowed you to listen to music in any room of the house and remotely control tunes using screens or keypads that can turn up the sound in the bedroom or turn off speakers in the den. Now they're coming out with gadgets that let you pop your iPod into a dock when you walk in the front door and listen to your favorite music throughout the house.

But beware: These entries are not for the light of pocket -- and they're far from perfect. The iPod adapters run $600 to $800, and that's just one piece of the puzzle. To make the adapters work, you need to plug them into systems that include amplifiers, speakers, touch-pad remotes, and distributed audio servers that let you play whatever music you want in whatever room you happen to be in. These whole-home systems start at about $5,000 and can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The sound invariably rocks, since no one who is spending that much money on audio gear is going to skimp on speakers or amplifiers. So the best way to compare iPod adapters is to evaluate their ease of use. The iPod's brilliance, more than anything else, lies in the elegance of its navigation. It's a breeze to zip through thousands of songs to find the right one in a matter of seconds. For any whole-home audio system to measure up, users need to be able to pick and choose music as if the iPod were in the palm of their hand.

Only one of the three systems I tested met that benchmark -- Crestron's $700 CEN-iPod. And it did so only because it was hooked up to a 15-inch touch-screen monitor, also made by Crestron, that costs $12,000. And that's for one monitor. To fully use your iPod throughout your home, you would need a monitor in every room where you want your music. (Crestron also offers touch-screen monitors starting at $1,250 for a 3.6-inch screen.)

The CEN-iPod won't be available until March. But if you have the money and the hankering for iPod everywhere, it's worth the wait. At the center of the touch screen is an oversize image of an iPod. To navigate through your collection, you can tap the Menu button on the screen with your finger. Up pops listings for artists, albums, and songs. Spin your finger around the scroll-wheel part of the picture, and you're zipping through your music. Pretty slick. To play a tune, you can press the center Select button. Or you can do something you can't even do on an iPod: tap the song name onto the screen to start the music.

A Sea of Songs

Navigating an iPod using the iPort IW-3 is much more of a challenge. That's because the $600 device I tested was connected to an in-wall keypad with limited capability from audio-equipment maker Sonance. It just wasn't designed to wade through thousands of songs. Rather, the tiny screen -- roughly 1 inch by 2 inches -- was intended to let folks do basic tasks, such as starting and stopping music or adjusting the volume. But if you're up in the bedroom and want to switch from Billy Bragg to Green Day, you have to trudge back downstairs to the iPod itself to make the change. iPort does make another device that connects to touch screens made by Crestron and others, but didn't make it available to review.

Audio Design Associates's iBase tries a little harder to help you pick and choose from an iPod music library. But it comes up short, too. The $800 iBase I tried connected to an Audio Design preamplifier that's wired to its own controller. To manage the entire hi-fi system, Audio Design offers a 28-button remote with a one-line alphanumeric display that you place on an end table.

The challenge came when I wanted to swim through the sea of music on my iPod. The controller buttons aren't designed with the iPod in mind. So users have to press the fast-forward and reverse buttons to move up and down through lists of artists, songs, or albums. I have 4,200 songs on my iPod from more than 500 artists. To get to a band with a name in the middle of the alphabet -- Los Lobos, say -- literally took minutes. You can turn off the controller and navigate using the iPod itself. But that means that, once again, you have to go back to your iPod to change tunes.

In its brief life, the iPod has evolved from a cool way to hear music through headphones to a portable music library that snaps into car stereos and portable speaker systems so you can play your favorite music just about anywhere you want to hear it. The iPod hasn't conquered whole-home audio systems yet. But a few more gadgets like Crestron's CEN-iPod, and it will.

By Jay Greene

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