After hinting at a "digital stereo" product in The New York Times last week, Cisco unveiled the details of its Wireless Home Audio System today, which will be released under the networking giant's "Linksys by Cisco" consumer networking brand.
At first glance, the system — which is actually a suite of six products that will be available separately or in a variety of pre-configured bundles — bears a remarkable resemblance to the Sonos Multi-Room Music System. Like the Sonos, the Linksys product has a large-screen remote and offers networked base stations designed to live in several rooms of the house where they can play digital music from networked PCs or online audio sources (internet radio via RadioTime, Rhapsody subscription service in the US, and the AudioLounge premium service in Europe). The Linksys can also use a "zone" system, so different rooms can access different audio sources, or be linked together for synchronised playback of a single audio stream in multiple rooms simultaneously.
But the Linksys system offers some potentially compelling departures from the Sonos, which — despite several rounds of software and hardware improvements — is still based on an aging hardware architecture first released four years ago. First off, the Linksys system's networking is completely wireless (802.11n Wi-Fi); the Sonos system utilises a proprietary wireless mesh network, but at least one of the base stations (or a separate US$100 bridge accessory) needs a wired link to the user's home network. Secondly, the Linksys remote utilises a touchscreen, while the Sonos remote's screen has no touch sensitivity (at least one of the Linksys base stations also has a built-in touchscreen for control). And thirdly, the Linksys system offers an iPod dock that allows access to the iPod (and its DRM-protected iTunes library) from any of the base stations on the network (though the Sonos' inability to access DRM-protected iTunes audio files is likely to become a moot point now that Apple is moving away from DRM). And unlike the Sonos system's old "iPod white" colour scheme, the Linksys products are available in a more stylish black.
I had a chance to briefly audition the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System behind closed doors last month, and it performed well, effortlessly streaming Rhapsody, internet radio, PC and iPod-based music to three rooms. It was also easy to sync up multiple rooms with the same music stream, or opt for separate content to each room. Of course, this was in a hotel suite under conditions controlled by Cisco, so we'll wait for our own independent in-depth review before making a final judgement — but there certainly weren't any significant red flags in the product's performance.
Even if it performs well, the Linksys system has plenty of hurdles to overcome. The Sonos' performance has been honed with years of software tweaks, and its mesh network doesn't cannibalise any of the bandwidth of your home's existing wireless network. The Sonos also lets its users access the free Pandora and Last.fm music services, as well as Sirius and Napster subscription services — in addition to the Rhapsody and free internet radio stations also found on the Linksys. That said, Cisco reps hinted that more audio services will be coming to its system as soon as they can ink the necessary deals. Likewise, they implied that it would be fairly easy to develop the sort of iPhone control app that's available for the Sonos and Apple TV for their system as well. In Australia, a lot of this is moot — most of these audio streaming services aren't available anyway.
Another challenge for the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System is that consumers may be overwhelmed by the number of components and bundles available. There are six members of the product family:
- The Conductor (DMC350 Wireless-N Digital Music centre): the flagship component is a self-contained module with a built-in touchscreen control, stereo speakers and even an integrated CD player. It also includes a small IR remote.
- The Director (DMC250 Wireless-N Music Player with Integrated Amplifier): with its built-in 50-Watt per channel amp, the Director can drive speakers attached directly to it (or you can opt to connect it to an external component via its line-out). This component also includes a screen and small remote.
- The Player (DMP100 Wireless-N Music Extender): attach this entry-level module to any stereo, boombox or AV receiver to access the system's digital audio stream.
- Stereo Speaker Kit (DSPK50): this speaker package matches the look and feel of the Director.
- Controller (DMWR1000 Wireless-N Touchscreen Remote): the touchscreen remote is the heart of the Linksys system, able to control any and all of the base stations wirelessly.
- Docking Station for iPod (MCCI40): attach the MCCI40 to one of the base stations (Conductor, Director or Player) to enable access to your entire iPod's audio collection throughout the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System.
Those products will initially be available in three preconfigured bundles: the Premier Kit for two rooms (Director, Player, Controller and 2 IR remotes); the Trio Kit for two rooms (two Players, one Controller, 2 IR remotes); and the Executive Kit for single rooms (Director, DSPK50 Speaker Kit, IR remote). Users can mix and match individual components and bundles according to their needs.
Cisco did not officially disclose pricing for the components or bundles, but company reps hinted that at least one of the bundles would be priced in the same ballpark as a Sonos two-room bundle — US$1,000. If the company sticks with that pricing scheme, it would likely make it harder for the system to find an audience (compare the similar Logitech Squeezebox line of products, for instance, which start at AU$449.95).
The product is scheduled to hit stores before the end of this month.