The current wide variety of standards is putting consumers off installing home media networks.
With the existence of multiple networked audio standards today and no real winner, take-up not only into the home but also by OEMs is stalling. There is a market demand, but a lack of agreement is getting in the way.
There are a number of drivers for networked audio but as yet products have not started shipping in large numbers. Drivers include changes in the way users consume music, the cost of storage and evolution of, and access to, high data rate communications.
We are consuming media differently from just a few years ago. We want access to content on demand and in huge quantities. The rise of on-demand broadcast services, as well as premium streaming services, is easy to see. Streaming content is no longer reserved for the tech savvy. Together with the evolution in telecommunications such as 4G, this trend is going to grow.
The result is growing demand for networked speakers. Key features are not only the ability to play audio from the cloud and devices in the home, but also to synchronise playback of music across multiple speakers with the control point often being a phone or tablet app.
Unfortunately though, despite demand, networked audio standards are fragmented and products are expensive. The leader in this space is Sonos, a name that is almost synonymous with networked audio. The popularity of this space is drawing the attention of bigger brands such as Bose and Sony. However, the price of networked speakers is stalling their growth.
It's all very well pushing products that can support multi-zone scenarios, but how many people can afford multiples of these speakers, often at a price point of about £300? Although there is a clear and definite trend towards networked audio the market is still comparatively small, probably still in single-digit millions.
So what alternatives are there to Sonos? There are standards out there such as DLNA, UPnP, Wi-Fi Play and Airplay, which are supported by many audio brands, but these alone don't necessarily provide the same experience. Multi-room streaming using Airplay can only be achieved when streaming from iTunes, and even then you cannot stream different content to different speakers from the same iTunes server. DLNA and UPnP still suffer from usability and interoperability challenges and cannot synchronise the playback of music to multiple speakers. This has meant that to compete with Sonos there is a need for new proprietary technologies.
There are a number of key players including CSR's SyncLock, Qualcomm's AllPlay, Imagination's Caskeid and DTS's Play-Fi, all wanting to become the de facto standard. These major players each providing their own proprietary ecosystem results in hesitation by Sonos's competitors. Although Qualcomm's acquisition of CSR will probably result in some rationalisation, there are still tough choices. OEMs see this fragmentation of offerings as a risk, since the market is small. OEMs need their speakers to work with speakers from other OEMs. This highlights the need for interoperability, something that is not supported between the proprietary offerings. OEMs want to pick the winning system, but there is no clear winner, which is creating a stand-off in the market.
We also have to recognise that networked audio is a new market and has the potential to change quickly. The multi-room issue is an interesting one. It could be that open standards like DLNA introduce multi-room support, or that AVnu (based on Audio Video Bridging) becomes the standard way to synchronise and deliver music; maybe they even combine. WISA is another standard that could gain favour.
The desire for multiple speakers to be synchronised to video playback may mean that networked audio needs to be blended with new technologies and advanced topologies in order to achieve the quality of service at consistent low latencies. All these options mean that OEMs will need to adapt quickly and have the right technology and strategy in place if they are to be successful and win share. To resolve cost it could be that components and processing are assimilated into other devices in the home or the cloud, especially if the networked speaker is going to be as popular as the smart TV.
Jez Stark is head of networked systems with Cambridge Consultants (www.cambridgeconsultants.com)