The cassette player, compact disc, MP3 player, and today’s smartphones and tablets were all portable music evolutions.
Newsflash: Humans are not always in motion. Sometimes — a great deal of the time — we are at home. And yet as a general population, we are all hackers and settlers-for-good-enough in this place where we spend most of our time. Touring the homes of your friends and family will reveal a hodgepodge of iPod decks, clock radios, surround sound speakers, stereo systems, powered speakers, desktop speakers, and boomboxes, none of which work together or make it super easy to access online music.
It can be a pain (or impossible) to connect some of these to the internet or remote control them without special hardware. People have so much going on in their lives that “good enough” often suffices for music setups in the home. That restricts music choice. We don’t like that.
The following hardware gadgets will compete to deliver you the truly-musically-connected home in 2014, combining the choice of the internet with the convenience of a remote control-like device in your hand as you sit blissfuly on the couch, prepare dinner, play cards, amuse the kids, or whatever else you get up to. Eventually, one or two of these systems could dominate. All of them are viable, and each has a chance in the war for connected music in the home as it gets real in 2014.
In alphabetical order here’s a short list of your best options for playing all of the music in the world in your home — the ones that will be competing for your wallet next year, if you have yet to make digital music a convenience in your home, rather than a kluge. You might even find that the answer, for you, lies in multiple solutions:
Apple AirPort Express, Apple TV, & AirPlay Speakers
What can you stream it too? Anything with Apple’s AirPlay stamp on it, including AirPort Express, Apple TV, any of the myriad AirPort speakers that have emerged since we rounded up this already-lengthy list, or even make an Android function as an AirPlay receiver (which Apple’s own phones can’t even do).
If all you’re trying to do is zap music from your phone or tablet to speakers around your home, it’s hard to beat the AirPlay ecosystem. One disadvantage is that the music gets sent through your phone or tablet, which eats up battery life, but that’s not a huge deal when you’re at home anyway.
If you’re looking for a small speaker for the home that you can chuck into a backpack or overnight bag to play music where there’s no WiFi network or even electrical outlets, it’s a Bluetooth speaker that you are after. Luckily, they sound better now when paired with iOS.
Top choices include Jawbone Jambox (the most popular one), its legion of imitators, or this splashproof option, suitable for the shower or poolside.
This one has been around forever. Nobody seems to know they have it, but it connects a crazy number of devices for media sharing, including music. A typical setup might involve beaming music from Windows to a gaming console. This protocol has been around for long enough to have grabbed the market, but it hasn’t done so. Likely, something easier to understand — even if it’s more proprietary — will grab consumers’ attention next year.
People are buying many, many of these right now, because the latest versions just came out. Some of these people will use them to listen to music on their nice speaker systems and navigate music on their big televisions. The services they might use — which also work on iPhones, iPads, Android devices, the web, and various computers — are Microsoft Xbox Music and Sony Music Unlimited.
Google’s $35 Chromecast is probably the cheapest hardware you can find for sending online music wirelessly from a phone or computer to an entertainment system.
On the plus side, Google recently made it easier to play any of 20,000 songs in your free Google Play locker on Chromecast.
On the minus side, there’s still no music-dedicated Chromecast. The current, super-cheap Chromecast is geared more towards video, so the audio signal gets sent out over HDMI, meaning you then have to figure out how to route it out of the television to your speakers. Users are clamoring for an audio output, and we think Google will eventually give it to them. But for now, we’d only recommend Chromecast to budget-conscious buyers who don’t mind routing music through their televisions.
Announced in September, this newcomer appears to be Qualcomm’s follow-up to Skifta. At this point, it’s basically a kit that lets developers build the ability to send music via AllPlay into iOS and AirPlay applications to other devices, as AirPlay and Chromecast already do. Some apps will likely have buttons for all three, which could get crowded.
Qualcomm is hoping that it can win this race to the living room by making AllPlay a more open version of AirPlay, as we suggested Google do with “Fling” over three years ago. So far, no AllPlay speakers are available though, so this one will have to wait until next year.
Apple charges companies for making AirPlay speakers (the same way it charges when manufacturers make things that connect to iPods, iPhones, and iPads).
Spotify saw an opportunity to release Spotify Connect in September — like AllPlay and AirPlay, it’s another proprietary protocol for sending music to speakers — but with only the ability to play songs via Spotify. You can already upgrade certain Pioneer speakers to work with Spotify Connect, and we expect a rash of the things to be announced at CES in January.
If you’re ready to take this whole “digital audio in the home” thing seriously, Sonos is probably the way to go. It’s by far the most expensive solution on this list, but what you get is worth it — access to all sorts of music services, all controlled via any computer or major smartphone, through a dedicated box with its own wireless network. The music keeps playing, even if you start it on your phone and leave, because the music goes straight over the internet to your Sonos. Many speaker options exist. Somehow, Sonos is the only company with this strategy.
(We’re also keeping an eye on AllCast.)
Image courtesy of Flickr/Hunter Peddicord