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Wireless speakers: Sound at last?

Early attempts have been marred by high cost and low performance. Now, Avnera thinks it has the answer. Photos: Cutting the speaker cord

Audio speakers untethered by unsightly wires have long been a consumer dream.

While wireless speakers have been on the market for a few years, they've largely stalled out due to their high cost and lousy performance.

Avnera says it has conquered both problems.

The company's VoiceMagic and AudioMagic chips essentially integrate all of the components--radios, analog-to-digital converters--needed for wireless communications on a single piece of silicon. Integration allows the company to get the price for a pair of its chips (one that receives and one that transmits) for $14 or less.

"You will see a dozen products by the end of the first quarter" including sub-$100 speakers, said Mats Myrberg, Avnera's vice president of product development. More details will likely emerge in January at the Consumer Electronics Show.

The performance of Avnera-equipped systems seems up to snuff. I tried a set of Acoustic Research wireless headphones with Avnera's chips ($111 on Amazon) that came out recently. There was no noticeable degradation in performance or cracking and popping while standing approximately 35 feet from the source of the music.

A prototype headset with a built-in power amp delivered a Tchaikovsky symphony at more than 100 feet away, and I was standing behind a wall and around a corner from the music source. The music, which isn't compressed for wireless delivery, sounded CD-quality.

Although the Beaverton, Ore.-based company has to date mostly operated in stealth mode, it's gaining ground in the electronics world. It has raised $42 million in three rounds of financing, including investments from phone maker Polycom, which is coming out with a wireless headset based on the VoiceMagic product line, and Panasonic.

Electronics retailer Best Buy is also an investor and has already come out with a $99 kit for unwiring home speakers under its Rocketfish house brand. (Although products have come out, Avnera's name to date has been hidden.) Redpoint Ventures and Intel Bessemer Venture Partners also put in money.

Crack, snapple, pop
Wireless audio and video has proved to be an elusive goal for the electronics world. Cellular or PC data networks function well even if packets get lost or arrive out of order. But with TVs and stereos, lost and jumbled packets turn into audio crackling and pixilated images.

For the past several years, companies large (Samsung) and small (Neosonik) have demonstrated wireless entertainment gear at CES. Most have subsequently delayed products or experienced slow sales.

Next year, possibly, could prove a turning point. A few chip companies have seemingly honed their products and gained the support of major manufacturers. LG, Matsushita (Panasonic), NEC, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba have all joined the WirelessHD consortium, which touts a standard of the same name. SiBeam conceived the standard and makes the chips. Demos will be aplenty at CES, according to SiBeam CEO John LeMoncheck.

Israel's Amimon, which has developed a wireless version of the high-bandwidth HDMI protocol for TVs, has landed an alliance with Motorola.

Avnera unveils low-cost, high-yield chip.

Even IBM is getting into the act. IBM and MediaTek have banded together to devise wireless chips on a millimeter wave standard so you can swap big files in the living room.

The sordid history of wireless, though, means many remain skeptical. "It is a good idea, but I'm a little concerned," said IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell, who also hosts a weekly radio call-in show on technology. "Speakers are the classic analog product."

Cost and compatibility will always remain as headaches. Fourteen dollars is a lot for a lot of electronics manufacturers, he said. And the transmitter for wireless headphones is a USB dongle that plugs into a PC, O'Donnell said, wondering how many home stereos have USB slots.

Avnera will not compete directly, much, against Amimon or SiBeam, said Monica Enand, director of marketing for Avnera. Avnera will only sell chips for wireless audio, not audio and video. And, even though Amimon's and SiBeam's chips can be used for audio, the extra video functionality makes them too expensive and too power-hungry for headphones or speakers, she argued.

The VoiceMagic and AudioMagic chips operate in the 2.4GHz band, the same one used by most household appliances. However, the chips use a proprietary wireless transmission standard. The standard has a small spectrum footprint and can use up to 40 different channels in the spectrum. This lets the chips dynamically elect channels not being used by other devices and cut down interference.

The chips also sport dynamic power support, according to Myrberg. Simply stated, when you stand somewhat close to the source of the music, power is cranked down. When you walk away, power increases, thereby increasing the power of the signal.

Unlike Wi-Fi chips in computers, Avnera has not included an ability to accept out-of-order packets. The transmitter streams data and the receivers catch it. To make up for lost or out-of-order packets, however, the transmitter sends redundant data. The receiver can interpret when some data has been lost and reach into the redundant data to smooth it over. In all, the system sends 2 megabits of data a second and only 1.5 megabits is for the primary data stream. The rest consists of redundant data.

Additionally, the chips get bundled onto a board with two antennas, rather than one, which improves reception while a user is walking around. "The inside (of buildings) is like Swiss cheese. There are holes or blank spots," Myrberg said.

VoiceMagic and AudioMagic are nearly identical. The VoiceMagic chip receivers, however, also come with an analog-to-digital converter. Without that, a person who receives a phone call couldn't speak. The receivers in the AudioMagic chipset don't have an A-to-D converter.