Belkin's Digital Home

The first thing you notice is the rather large black foam rubber foot sitting (standing?) in the room. And then the swanky furniture and trendy layout.

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We're staying at the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, guests of cable, power conditioner, and iPod accessory manufacturer Belkin. The company has invited us down to talk about the future of home and car audio at their Digital Home showcase near Chinatown and then to attend the Grammy Awards the following day.

This trip is all about modern: modern design, modern media, and modern music. So the hotel they've chosen is apt.

Though it pains many audiophiles to admit it, the iPod is the hotest modern audio/music product so far this decade, and it represents so much more than just a portable music player. This fact is not lost on Belkin, which is creating products to integrate the iPod into your home and car in several clever ways.

I walked in to the Digital Home wondering if any of this has high-end audio potential. To help me find out, Belkin's press laison, Melody Chalaban, introduced me to the company's Senior Technology Manager, Brian Van Harlingen. After showing us Belkin's version of the standard iPod dock that connects to your hifi, the next thing he brought out was an iPod mini, with a small device attached at one end. The device was a Bluetooth wireless transmitter that could send audio from the iPod to a small receiver with stereo RCA jacks that then hooked into your stereo. The company calls it TuneStage.

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Van Harlingen points out that the beauty of this design is that TuneStage turns your iPod in to a wireless remote control for your music library. "People love the iPod interface for selecting and playing music, so we put that in your hand so you can control what's playing on your home system." You carry your music library packed into a small device from your home to car and over to a pal's house and then control it from a familiar interface. Brilliant.

How does it sound? Right now, the Belkin TuneStage system hooks up to your analog iPod headphone jack, converts that signal using a lossy codec, and sends the data wirelessly to the receiver which then converts the stream of bits into analog again, plugging into an analog input on your preamp or receiver. Since bluetooth bandwidth is currently limited to around 720kbps, this represents only half what is needed to send an uncompressed CD WAV file from your iPod to your stereo, but more than enough for MP3 or AAC files. Great idea, but not necessarily audiophile . . . yet.

What if you used Apple's lossless compression scheme to reduce the amount of data? Or what about using one of the higher-bandwidth wireless technologies on the horizon and then sending the digital data straight out of the iPod without converting it from the analog jack? What if the wireless receiver unit was built in as part of your digital preamp or AV receiver?

Belkin is looking into all that, and the company says it will keep adapting to better and better platforms. However, explains Van Harlingen, Belkin can't currently process that digital stream, because of proprietary DRM concerns. We may see a wireless Apple iPod someday, but that system would not be compatible with a wireless player from Microsoft or Sony, etc.

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The Belkin Crew. L-R: Andy Paul, Carey Medrano, Chet Pipkin, Jan Pipkin, Brian Van Harlingen.

Companies like Belkin are at the mercy of the music industry and Apple, but they still grab every opening they see. Belkin's TuneFM car adaptor for the iPod Nano is the best I've seen, and Belkin's focus on great design will certainly pay off. But when will the DRM issues will be sorted out so we can get better-sounding products? The consensus at the Belkin event was hopeful that this will happen within five years, after a few of the players shake out, and the labels and CE giants adopt a universal DRM that can be licensed by anyone.

Or, the infighting might continue, assuring that it will never work out in a way that benefits consumers, and that would be a shame. The idea of a wireless portable music library/ controller, at whatever resolution technology will allow, is compelling and needs to happen. Belkin gave us a tantalizing glimpse of a very modern and cool future that has the potential to sound good too. Let's hope that they can pull it off.

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