Saturday, April 14, 2007

What is multi-room audio?

What exactly is multi-room audio? Or more precisely, what is the point of it? Whilst I can’t say that this question has been exactly eating me up for years, yesterday I got the chance to quiz one of the industries’ experts, Adrian Ickeringill, who is runs Systemline’s Modular project which aims to get multi-room audio into houses being built by developers.

Systemline is a small part of the Armour Group. Armour is itself an AIM-listed micro-conglomerate that specialises in car and home audio and electronics. It’s a difficult market to be in because, whilst it’s undoubtedly a growth market, the products keep changing and so you have to be nimble if you are to survive. Armour history reflects this: it was big in in-car entertainment but found itself getting sidelined as car manufacturers started putting the kit in as standard. Armour switched attention to the burgeoning home entertainment market and it started acquiring smaller businesses like Systemline. But now this market has been turned upside down by the arrival of the iPod, which has rendered all manner of products obsolete. When you have a digital jukebox in a slick white case, who needs a media server the size of a video recorder?

Systemline reacted by creating a wall mounting for the iPod, so that you can dock your iPod and play it through their Systemline ceiling speakers. Whilst this is neat, it is hardly earth shattering, and Adrian let on that one of their key markets is now furniture, by which he means building-in speakers and screens. To aid this, in 2005 Armour purchased Alphason, a Lancashire based business specialising in screen support cabinetry. There are, apparently, much juicier margins in the furniture than in the hardware.

Adrian’s job is to sell multi room audio to developers. He does this by first getting them to install Systemline speakers into their show homes and flats and then persuading the developers to offer Systemline’s products as an extra, all just added onto the mortgage. Whilst this is unlikely to be a sale clincher, the developers like it because they get a cut for doing very little work and they get the cachet of selling smart homes, which is seen as being increasingly important, especially in many urban apartments. There are different levels you can opt for. At its simplest, you can get a few built-in ceiling speakers; or you can opt for home theatre and lighting control, in fact the full home automation kit. These systems are now seen as being somehow separate from home data cabling, which is basically about connecting computers to each other and to the internet. I had always lumped them together in my mind but it seems the way the market is going is to differentiate the two. The internet is increasingly being seen as a commodity whereas audio and video remains an aspirational purchase.

We talked briefly about the non-appearance of Part Q, a phantom building regulation that has been mooted for a long time, which would require a structured cabling backbone to be installed into every new home. Apparently, Portugal has become the first (and as yet only) EU state to introduce a Part Q-type requirement. Apparently, high level discussions have been taking place in Britain about whether to follow suit but methinks it’s unlikely to become mandatory any time soon, especially as the dust is still settling over all the many recent building regs changes which have upset the industry. The trouble is that this is an industry still evolving and there would be great danger that you would end up building in technology that would be rendered obsolete within a few years.

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