Digital Networks: PC to Stereo
WASHINGTON -- "Music wants to be free!"
may be the rallying cry of the digital-music revolution, but all
those MP3s can easily end up in a cage of a different sort --
the trusty home computer.
Music fans may find the tedium of ripping
songs from CDs or downloading them from industry-sanctioned
Internet sites surpassed only by the disappointment of listening
to them through tinny computer speakers in the home office.
Home-burned CDs and portable players like
Apple Computer's iPod, costing $300 to $500, offer one way out.
But electronics makers are coming out with a new class of device
that can pipe digital music through the living-room stereo or
other speakers throughout the house.
Linked to the computer through a wireless
connection, Ethernet computer-networking cable or a power line
network, many of these "digital audio receivers" can also stream
Internet radio and display video or digital photos on the
Such devices are expected to play an important
role as digital music and home networks catch on over the next
several years, though sales in the category so far are minimal,
according to IDC analyst Danielle Levitas.
"The basic idea is a really good one," Levitas
said. "Adapters are a very real bridge solution for the
In his Washington row house, lawyer David
Rhodes prepares dinner in the kitchen while listening to a
random mix of the 8,000 songs stored on his Macintosh three
Music streams over the electrical wiring of
the house to a SLIMP3 audio receiver made by Slim Devices, a
small black box that lists the song title and artist on a
fluorescent display and costs $240.
For Rhodes, the device finally delivers on the
promise of digital music, allowing him to enjoy his extensive
musical collection without smearing tomato sauce on the
The system is also a hit with his wife, Brooke
"She's buying more music than ever," Rhodes
said. "It's taking her back to her high-school days making mix
While the SLIMP3 is one of the few
digital-audio receivers compatible with the Mac and Linux
operating systems, Windows users have plenty of choices.
Hauppauge Computer Works's MediaMVP ($100),
Voyetra Turtle Beach's AudioTron ($300) and Hewlett-Packard's
en5000 Digital Media Receiver ($130) can fit on a home-audio
rack next to the CD player and turntable. Users connect to their
computers with Ethernet cable or a power line network.
Users who have set up high-speed wireless
networks at home can opt for cd3o's C200 ($200) or Cisco
Systems' Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter ($180), which include
built-in Wi-Fi cards to stream the music wirelessly from their
computers. Prismiq's Mediaplayer ($250) includes a slot for an
optional Wi-Fi card, which must be purchased separately.
Onkyo's NC-500 Net Tune ($400) features an
AM/FM radio and a built-in amplifier for the kitchen or other
rooms that may not have a stereo system.
Gadget geeks on a budget might want to
consider the X-10 Lola Wireless Direct Connect ($50) or
Thomson's RCA Lyra Wireless RD900W ($100), which transmit using
the RF technology also found on cordless phones and baby
monitors. Users can avoid the cost and confusion of a Wi-Fi
network by simply plugging one transmitter into a computer's USB
port and another into the stereo. Motorola's Simplefi ($380)
communicates through HomeRF, a similar standard.
For those reluctant to add another box to
their home-theater setups, two companies have introduced
networked DVD players. Gateway's Wireless Connected DVD ($200)
and Go-Video's D2730 ($350) allow users to stream music, movies
and photos from their computers and play DVDs as well.
Wireless networks do have their limitations,
Levitas said. RF signals are prone to interference, she said,
and Wi-Fi networks may sometimes have trouble handling video,
though music rarely poses a problem.
The most expensive bridge devices avoid home
networks altogether. "Hard drive jukeboxes" like D&M Holdings'
Rio Central ($1,500) and Escient Convergence FireBall E-40
($2,000) combine a CD player with a 40-gigabyte hard drive,
allowing users to rip CDs into MP3 form as they play them.
Users can gradually build a digital-music
library that way, or plug in their computers to transfer MP3s
Of course, music fans without thousands of
dollars to spare could run Belkin's Audio Y Cable Splitter ($7)
between the computer and the stereo -- a cheap, if inelegant,