Home audio without the wires

PCs, notebooks phones have all gone wireless. Will your stereo and TV soon be untethered? Photos: Wireless TV in action

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
7 min read
Scott Rust, senior design engineer at Neosonik, pushes a cart holding an LCD TV down the driveway. We pass a semi-constructed 1967 Mustang, a boat trailer and a couple of incomplete trucks. The guys at the neighboring warehouse are discussing a coming storm.

When we are almost in the street, the picture begins to flicker. The TV set is now about 120 feet from the wireless base station that has been transmitting high-definition television signals wirelessly from a PC the whole time.

"At the San Mateo Marriott, we borrowed the maid's cart and went down the hall with it. We went 200 feet, through six rooms and three external walls" before the signal got a little weak and caused the picture to get pixilated, he said. "Often, people want me to unplug the TV to make sure it isn't power line networking."

El Granada, Calif.-based Neosonik is part of a wave of small and large companies trying to eliminate one of the more aggravating issues in consumer electronics: wires. Wireless is firmly established with notebooks and phones, but TVs, speakers and stereo equipment remain largely tethered to each other through tangles of cable.

And for good reason. Video files can be huge, requiring more bandwidth than has been available, and issues such as synchronization and sound quality have bedeviled products in the past. In addition, walls can be hazards to good wireless transmission, and so can distances.

"Wireless speakers are the holy grail," says Ted Feldman, president and founder of Neosonik. "But when you go to a retail store and you ask the sales guy he says, 'Oh, yeah. I remember that crap.'"

The picture, though, may start to change over the coming years as TV, the PC and the Web continue to blend and consumers demand an easier way to be couch potatoes. Analysts expect a slow ramp, but the companies say consumers will jump on it when they see the results.

Neosonik, which is set to come out with wireless home theater systems, receivers and speakers next year, plans to debut its products at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month.

Neosonik TV pictures

Other companies are right behind it. A jumble of standards and home-grown technologies--each with its own virtues and shortcomings--makes it hard to predict which will succeed, said IDC analyst IdaRose Sylvester. One thing is a given: expectations will be exacting.

"If you drop a few packets, consumers will get really agitated," she said. "I think the industry will solve the feeds-and-speeds issue before the quality issue."

In Europe, carriers like Telefonica are building momentum for power line networking, where data gets transferred along the electrical wires in the house. It's not wireless networking, but it eliminates speaker and TV wires. Power line backers say that they will achieve 200 megabits per second and beyond, but bandwidth and customer acceptance are question marks, Sylvester said.

Start-ups like Quartics, founded by AST founder Safi Qureshey, says it will produce chips that can transfer 720p high-quality video, and audio from virtually any standard, over Wi-Fi or wired networks.

Wi-Fi signals carry far, but bandwidth can be low--wallowing around 54 megabits to 108 megabits. Worse, it sits in a public, crowded spectrum that can hurt performance, according to Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner.

A company called Avega Systems showed off a Wi-Fi speaker system at CES in 2006, and promised to start producing speakers in March 2006. You can't find them in stores, and the company did not return requests for an update.

Standards tangle
Meanwhile, giants like Samsung, Panasonic, Sony and Philips are backing standards like ultrawideband and, on some occasions, proprietary technologies that can link the living room devices to each other. UWB advocates talk about getting data transfer speeds of 1 gigabit per second, but the signal travel is limited.

Then there is High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), an all-digital audio/video interface that is wired now and may go wireless. True 1080p high-definition video--said to be the best for TV viewing--requires about 5 gigabits per second. That transfer speed calls for something like HDMI 1.3, enabled through cables now, said Leslie Chard, president of the HDMI licensing group.

"I just spoke to some guys doing wireless HDMI," Gartner's Baker said. "Wireless is always appealing because you don't have to deal with the spaghetti, but it's got to be bulletproof."

For its part, Neosonik has come up with chips that employ a proprietary protocol for synchronized streaming of multiple audio/video signals. It runs over the same frequencies as 802.11(a) wireless technology, but it isn't Wi-Fi, so it's insulated from that traffic.

"You can't get it from anyone else but us," Feldman said. The company also doesn't convert the digital signal into an analog signal until it hits the speakers. In most systems, the digital-to-analog conversion occurs at the CD player.

In many wireless systems, the data sent to the different speakers may arrive several milliseconds apart. As a result, you get a lot of "drift" with the sound: it sounds like someone is moving the speakers around the room. In video, that translates to pixilation.

By contrast, the data is synchronized in the nanosecond range in the Neosonik system. A guitar track (or water droplet sound) that the artist intended to "sound" like it's on the far left of the listener sounds that way.

Video files are also synchronized tightly, so viewers don't get jitter. Those files include video based on the 1080i standard, which provides a display of 1,080 lines with interlaced scan, although at the moment it can't handle 1080p, which has the same display resolution but uses the smoother progressive scan.

"We can output 1080i across the wireless link. Later, we will be able to do 1080p, but there is virtually no content out there right now in 1080p," Feldman said. "By the time there is enough 1080p content, we will have 1080p wireless to support it."

High expectations
There is plenty of pent-up demand for wireless audio and video. Sometimes, that demand has translated into premature product releases--and purchases. Last year, I bought a pair of wireless Acoustic Research speakers touted highly in a review in The New York Times. A week later, my wife and I tossed them out: although only about 20 feet from the receiver, the static was unbearable. In the Neosonik testing station--a folding chair in the back of a marine warehouse--the music and TV playback are as good as any wired home-theater system.

"It (the Neosonik speaker system) is very good in terms of the way it sounds," said Antonio Long, who runs Audio Vision, a high-end audio store in San Francisco, which has agreed to start selling Neosonik's system. "Wireless speakers are something we get a request for about once a day, but we don't sell them now. There is nothing we'd put our mark on now."

Neosonik is banking on that demand, Although few have ever heard of the company, it's no start-up. In 1994, Feldman, who had worked in several audio companies, was eating at a Chinese restaurant in El Granada, a small coastal town near Half Moon Bay. He had just returned from CES, where he had noticed something unusual: all of the high-end audio manufacturers were showcasing their speakers by playing CDs.

Even though CD players had been on the market for years, most high-end audio manufacturers had previously stuck to showcasing their stuff by playing good ol' vinyl.

"It was pretty clear that everything was going digital," Feldman said.

Still, that creates a problem. Digital signals don't sound like music to humans. The data stream has to be converted back into its analog form. Analog signals, however, degrade. The problem can be fixed with amplifiers. But, as anyone who ever visited a stereo store can attest, amplifiers climb rapidly in price as quality improves.

"Why don't we keep it digital all the way to the edge, the loudspeakers?" Feldman wondered. "The final moment is when the cone in the speaker pulses."

His first idea was to get rid of the digital-to-audio converter chip. Instead, the amplifier acts as the converter. It issues pulses of power that then pulse the speaker cone. Thus, the signal doesn?t fade. "The amp is basically the D-to-A converter," Feldman said. Compression is less of a problem.

Later, he grafted wireless onto the concept. Last year, Neosonik began to show off a version of the system for stereo to major manufacturers. This year, the company started to demonstrate how video and audio can travel over the system.

Although the system works, Neosonik, among others, faces perhaps an even bigger hurdle of market acceptance. For every Google or Dell that has become a household name, there are millions of also-rans. The hardware business can be even harder than making it on the Web, due to manufacturing costs and retailing issues.

Neosonik plans to do a hybrid strategy. It will release home theater systems--which includes the receiver-like box and speakers--under its own name next year. The systems, which will sell for between $6,000 and $10,000, will be sold at high-end audio stores, while cheaper versions costing $3,000, along with separate components, will begin to pop up in stores like Magnolia a little later. Prototypes will be shown at CES, and the company plans to start taking orders in the middle of 2007.

At the same time, the company will embark on a licensing strategy. In a way, the retail strategy exists to impress the major manufacturers and potential licensees.

"These guys really don't want to talk to you until you have a name," Feldman said.

In the meantime, Feldman, Rust and the rest of the employees will be tinkering away at the warehouse.