Survey: Networked Homes Prepare for the Sound of Music

First iPods, now tablets. The numbers of consumers using their tablets to listen to music--more than 60 percent, according to Dallas-based research firm Parks Associates--is reportedly going to trigger a widespread increase in the embedded network technologies in home audio products.

Parks Associates' latest report, Networked Audio Products: Market Update, released Tuesday, predicts that audio product manufacturers will add networking capabilities in order to connect their products to popular mobile devices and streaming services such as iTunes and Pandora.

"The continuing popularity of music services is pushing consumers to find new ways to enjoy their growing libraries of audio content," Kurt Scherf, the Parks Associates principal analyst who wrote the report, said in a statement.

"Consumers are using products such as smartphones and media tablets for music access and playback, and they want ways to distribute that content around the home. Networked audio products give them the ability to have a high-quality multiroom music experience."

In fact, the report forecasts that by 2016, more than 90 million home audio units will ship with embedded wireless networking technologies, which represents almost 60 percent of a global market that includes everything from A/V receivers, MP3 speaker docks, sound bars, and home theater systems. The most likely technologies, according to Scherf, are Apple's AirPlay and those from the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA).

DLNA technology, which addresses both wireless and wired technologies, is already part of Windows Home Server 2011, and is currently licensed by more than 230 brands, for some 12,000 devices. Apple currently licenses Airplay to such high-end manufacturers as Denon, Marantz, Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, and iHome.

That's music to an audiophile's ears, especially since the average broadband-enabled home has a collection of around 800 digital music files. But the real question is, how easy are these multiple devices going to be to set up and enjoy?

PCWorld's Lincoln Spector has written about the challenges of setting up home theater systems, including the bugaboos relating to wireless technology such as WiFi connectivity and range. Streaming audio requires less wireless bandwidth than streaming video, and consumers are less likely to notice latency with audio than video. But unless the devices are mindlessly easy to configure and troubleshoot, they're likely to remain within the realm of computerphiles and not that of audiophiles.

Scherf acknowledges that this could be an issue for users. "The whole notion of home server has changed over the last five years. It could be a tablet computer or a PC rather than a dedicated server. But the biggest issue is that the DLNA have given every manufacturer the freedom create an interface. The wide variety of user interfaces could be an inhibitor for end-user adoption."

Apple has set the bar high with Airplay technology, giving users an onscreen menu that simply asks which connected device should play the music, he adds. "If DLNA-based devices are going to be as successful, that's the model they need to emulate."

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