December 11, 2006 7:58 AM PST

Home audio without the wires

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Tech tunes into TV at CES

January 3, 2006
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."

CONTINUED: Pent-up demand…
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