Linksys by Cisco Launches Mix-and-Match Wireless Home Audio System

This is the Linksys by Cisco Wireless Home Audio product family. The IR remote is in the foreground; the other products, from left to right, are the Player, Conductor, iPod docking station (in front of the Conductor), Director, speaker set, and Controller.
Details are finally out on the most poorly kept pre-CES secret: Cisco plans to enter the wireless home audio fray with a family of mix-and-match components for playing music throughout your home over an existing 802.11n Wi-Fi network. The Linksys by Cisco Wireless Home Audio system will consist of half a dozen components, ranging from a miniature boom box called the Conductor--with integrated speakers, a CD player, and an LCD touch screen--to a handheld Controller that has a touch screen for managing all the other system components.

The system will compete with offerings by several other vendors, most notably Sonos (for more, see a recent Macworld review of the Sonos 2.7, the company's latest product).

Cisco appears to be providing more options at competitive prices. The Conductor (pricing not yet announced) is the high end of three principal components that are meant to play music from various digital sources--PCs, Web services, or even the new Linksys by Cisco Media Hub (basically a network-attached storage device with a very nice user interface)--over your 802.11n home network. Though the Conductor is not yet available, Cisco says the other components are.

The other playback components are the $450 Director (featuring a 50-watt-per-channel integrated amplifier and a built-in LCD controller, but no speakers) and the $300 Player (no amplifier, speakers or LCD; the idea is that you'll plug it into an existing powered stereo setup, a receiver, perhaps). All three playback devices come with IR remote controls so that you can manage them wirelessly in the absence of the more robust, Wi-Fi- and LCD-based $350 Controller, shown below.

Linksys by Cisco Wireless Home Audio Controller

Other options in the product family include a $150 stereo-speaker kit that you can hook up to the Director, as well as an $80 iPod Docking Station. Additional IR remotes are available for $30 each.

Confused? To help you get started, Cisco is offering three component bundles. The $1000 Premier Kit consists of a Director and its remote, a Player and its remote, and a Controller; the $850 Trio packages two Players and IR remotes with a Controller; and the $550 Executive Kit is simply a Director and a remote paired with speakers.

I'm looking forward to seeing how well the system works in a real-world setting. Even with 802.11n bandwidth, I've had issues trying to stream music on a 2.4-GHz network in the past; the question is whether Cisco has come up with solutions to channel overcrowding for people who want to use their system in an urban environment.

I'm also wondering how long Cisco will keep up the rather awkward "Linksys by Cisco" branding. It appears Cisco would like to drop the Linksys brand without sacrificing its consumer recognition.

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