Audio Paradigm Shift Ahead

CD changers holding hundreds of discs at a time have found their place in a sizable percentage of consumer homes, and have proven especially useful in the custom installation market. Fans of these mega-changers love to drop their discs into one place, never having to crack open a CD case again. Drawbacks, however, include not being able to easily move the disc from home to car or portable, and the mechanical whirring and clanking the machines make as they slowly plow through the user's playlist.

Last week, Lydstrøm announced the official national launch of the SongBank SL CD Memory System, which the company describes as the first product in "an entirely new category" of home audio technology intended to replace the mega-changer and open new vistas of audio storage and playback opportunities. The Boston-based company says that the SongBank SL can store up to 7000 songs on its internal Quantum Quick View 10.8 gigabyte hard drive using Lucent's ePAC encoding algorithms. According to Lydstrøm, the SongBank can also organize music according to song, album, artist, mood, and genre, and that users may create an unlimited number of playlists with the remote or using an on-screen display when the unit is hooked up to a TV.

Lydstrøm is initially planning three versions of the SongBank, with larger HD capacity and support for multiple streams or "zones" of audio slated for the next two products planned for late this Fall. The current model, the SongBank SL, is available now and retails for $799.95 (including shipping) at the company's website with a 30-day, full refund return policy. Lydstrøm says it will also provide customers with free software upgrades designed to enhance the product's capabilities in the future. The company says it is also working to build a network of select e-tailers and custom installers as well as brick and mortar retailers, targeting September for in-store distribution.

CDs are inserted into the SongBank and "ripped" to the hard disc in about one-quarter of their actual playing time. Lydstrøm says that users can choose from four compression rates on a track by track basis: "Pure CD" at 1.4Mb/s ("Red Book" audio) for about 350 songs; "CD Transparent" ePAC compression at 128kb/s for 3500 songs; "Near CD" (the default setting) ePAC compression at 96kb/s for 5000 songs; "High Capacity" ePAC compression at 64kb/s for 7000 songs. The company says that it is also considering adding a mode between "Pure CD" and "Near CD" that will store 700 songs with lossless compression.

The company says it thinks it has the audiophile answer to MP3. Lydstrøm's Ashwin Kochiyil Philips explains that "we chose Lucent's codec because sound quality is very important to us. It wasn't about building an MP3 player---it was about 'more from your music with less effort.' This means, among other things significantly better sound quality than MP3 ,which tends to drop the highs and lows, and compresses and muddies the imaging. It also means that we have better compression ratios. That is why we can fit 350 hours of audio on a 10.8 gig drive."

For consumers needing more capacity, Lydstrøm says that expansion is via SongBank Expansion units that can each store up to 18,000 songs at maximum compression and are connected via the built-in USB ports. Two expansion units can be connected to the base unit and with the addition of an "expansion hub", up to 100 units (18,000,000 songs at high capacity or 900,000 songs in "Pure CD" mode) can be added. Expansion units are planned for release before the end of the year.

But the biggest opportunity for Lydstrøm may be exploiting the Internet for streaming audio directly into the box. Although most commercially recorded music isn't yet legally available for Internet download via the ePAC format, the SongBank SL is equipped with a 56k-modem and Ethernet card. The company says that a simple software upgrade will enable this function, planned for no later than June, 2001. Lydstrøm adds that the SongBank is also designed to be software-upgradeable to support new features, database updates, and new codecs among other things.