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Pay-for or pirated, digital music downloads have changed the way we listen to music. The good thing is that it is easier to find the music you’ve got and pick the track that takes your fancy. The downside is that it is only easy to do on your computer or on a portable MP3 player. How about listening to your newly organised music library where you used to listen – in the living room?
A few years ago, kitting your home out with multi-room audio would set you back thousands of dollars. But now you can do it for under $150 per room (not counting the cost of your computer). But hardly anyone is bothering.
Apple is hoping it can build on the success of the iPod to put iTunes at the heart of a wireless digital home that is about more than browsing web pages from the sofa, using the AirPort Express and its AirTunes feature.
Like any 802.11g wireless access point, the AirPort Express lets you browse the net and share files over a wireless network. It also has a USB port that you can plug a printer into so you can use it from any computer. What’s really different it that you can plug in a cable from your hi-fi, select that as the output in iTunes (on a Mac or a PC) and hear your music there. To listen in more than one room, just connect another AirPort Express to the speakers there.
Nigel Fowler, Apple’s product manager in the UK and Ireland, showed off the system hooked up to an iBook, HP Photosmart printer and the futuristic JBL Creature II speaker system but said it worked with any computer, printer and speakers.
There are plenty of wireless devices that plug into your TV or your stereo; Mr Fowler says the difference with AirTunes is combination of features and the simplicity of setup. “It builds on Apple’s knowledge of how normal people think, not how geeks think. Anybody can do it – maybe not my mother but pretty much everybody else.”
The AirPort Express also takes a different approach from most. Other digital media streamers such as the Roku SoundBridge, Slim Devices Squeezebox, Netgear MP101 or D-Link Wireless Media Player take music (and sometimes videos) from your computer and do the playing themselves; the AirPort Express takes the signal that would normally come out of the soundcard and pipes that into your speakers.
That means there’s no problem with protected music files bought from the iTunes store (although iTunes can’t play protected files from other online services). You’re not getting a compressed or degraded version either.
Size matters in the living room. The tiny AirPort Express does not need the extra components to play music locally that make most media adaptors obtrusive. Making the AirPort Express plug straight into the power socket keeps things neat and cuts down on the cables wi-fi is supposed to get rid of. Other pocket-sized wireless access points from D-Link and Netgear have a power cable with an adapter on the end – and they don’t play music directly. The disadvantage is that you need a spare power socket next to your hi-fi where you may not have much room for your printer.
There’s one cable you’ll miss: the audio socket lets you connect an analogue or optical cable from your hi-fi, but you have to buy it yourself. There’s no remote control either – apart from the iTunes software, so you’ll have to trek back to wherever your computer is to pause or skip a track. Competitors usually have at least a basic remote control and a single-line screen to show the track name; the pricey but powerful Sonos Digital Music System has a remote with a colour screen and scroll wheel that looks rather like an iPod.
Even devices that solve all the technology and interface problems still face one final hurdle: confusion. Start with the terminology: you’ll see them called media streamers, digital media adaptors, wireless media players, digital audio receivers, network media players and probably something else by the next manufacturer to come along.
In case music isn’t enough to tempt you, many of these devices offer something extra. Some play photos or videos as well as music; others let you listen to internet radio (the AirPort Express copes with anything you can hear in iTunes). Some incorporate a DVD player or a PVR for good measure.
So it is hardly surprising manufacturers do not know how to categorise them and shoppers do not know where to buy them. Is this hi-fi equipment that you’ll find next to speakers and amplifiers, home entertainment displayed with TVs and DVD players, or network kit over with the PCs?
Sticking to music and tying that music to iTunes (although not to Macs) makes the AirPort Express a less confusing proposition than many digital home devices. It is a small step towards digital home entertainment rather than the big picture that more complex devices promise.
If iTunes is where you want to start from it is a logical step, but in spite of the success of the iPod that may be too limiting for the wider market.