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Russound Banks on Collage Audio System During Collapsing Housing Market

Oct 20, 2008 12:00 PM, By Rebecca Day

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The product development folks at Russound looked in their crystal ball and saw the bubble burst. “I don’t think any of us guessed it would be as deep or as bad but we saw signs of the housing bubble starting to collapse,” says Michael Stein, senior director of research and technology for Russound. The fruits of the vision will appear in the second quarter of 2009 when the company launches the Collage powerline-based multiroom audio system for the retrofit market.

Even in a good year, Stein says, typical CEDIA dealers have been generally focused on new construction or major remodels at the expense of a vast untapped market of existing homes. “That’s one percent of the housing market in any one year,” Stein says. “And they’re focused on the top 20 percent of those homes. They have 0.2 percent of the market that they all battle for within that space,” he says. “But when you look at the retrofit market in any given year, it’s 100 times larger than new-construction market.”

Collage will set itself apart from the pack both in target and in features. Comprising a Media Manager module and keypads, the IP-based system supports up to 10 keypads or zones and a somewhat unlimited number of audio sources. Each amplified keypad packs an FM tuner and the networked system can add iPods, PC-based music libraries, content from ShoutCast and Rhapsody, and any other music source connected to the network. “We came up with well over 40 sources but since you can only listen in 10 rooms, it gets silly to count after a while,” Stein says.

Stein says Collage is pushing a new price point in fully integrated multiroom systems. The system can be as simple as a Media Manager and a keypad, but in reality homeowners would have at least two keypads to take advantage of the built-in intercom, which can handle room-to-room conversations, house-wide paging, and room monitoring.

Collage’s pricing flexibility is due to its simple general architecture, which Stein says defines true retrofit. “Lots of people use different terms, or have different ways of looking at the retrofit market,” he says. “Some would say CEDIA dealers already do a lot of retrofits. But I would argue that most of that work is retrofitting in a house with significant amounts of reconstruction being done—like room additions and kitchen remodels where the place is already a mess so it’s no big deal to poke a few holes for pulling wires.” True retrofits—Collage-style—involve going into a house that’s fully occupied, fully sealed, and livable, and being in and out in a day or two, leaving no mess behind, Stein says. “To me, there’s the big market. If you can go in and not disrupt people’s lives and get systems in, you can sell it on Monday and get your final check on Tuesday or Wednesday. There’s a whole new business opportunity for dealers to exploit.”

Collage operates over an extension of the HomePlug 1.0 standard. Stein says the 22Mb network supports up to 10 rooms of audio at a bitrate of 192kbps, equivalent to typical iPod-quality audio. “We can have 10 simultaneous rooms listening to music while also viewing CCTV cameras (with composite video) and browsing metadata on devices, and there’s plenty of bandwidth to spare,” he says.

Although the higher bandwidth HomePlug AV could handle eight uncompressed stereo streams simultaneously along with control data, HomePlug AV devices have heat issues that are problematic with in-wall amplified keypads. Stein says Russound looked at Wi-Fi, too, but interference and quality of service issues were too difficult to overcome. “We’ve chosen HomePlug for our Collage system based on the fact that it has a high level of reliability, and power wires are where we need to put our devices anyway,” Stein says “It’s a natural.”

Down the road, the company is looking at no-new-wires video distribution which presents a new set of challenges due to HDMI protocols, DRM requirements, and disparate encoding systems. “As we look at retrofit opportunities in the video space, there’s a good chance we might choose multimedia over coax, or 1394 over coax, or some other network physical layer because it’s more appropriate to the task,” Stein says. “I’m not a big believer that a single networking topology will win. In the house, I think we’ll see a heterogeneous set of networks.”

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