With Bose and Samsung launching wireless WiFi audio products, the field now dominated by Sonos and Apple AirPlay is getting hot. But it looks like it's going to get even hotter -- and more crowded. All of the technologies I've mentioned are proprietary. When you choose Bose, Samsung or Sonos, you have to buy their gear -- and you can't use anyone else's. With AirPlay, you can get gear of various brands, but it's still a limited, all-Apple-approved ecosystem.
A new industry standard called AVB (for "Audio Video Bridging") promises to change all this. It'll do the same thing all these other technologies do, but in some cases better, and in some cases easier, and in some cases both. To dig a little deeper into AVB, I recently had a chat with Kevin Stanton and Greg Schlechter, two directors of the AVnu (pronounced "avenue") Alliance, the industry organization formed to certify and promote AVB products.
AVB is not a media transmission standard, it's just a way of getting media to synchronize across various devices. Synchronization isn't important if you're just streaming from, say, your smartphone to a single audio device. But it's vitally important for multiroom systems. If the sound in one room is delayed, you get a nasty echo effect. It's even more important in systems where you're pairing two audio devices to run as left and right stereo speakers, as Sonos and Samsung can do. But for Sonos and Samsung to do that, they require a separate wireless network that runs on top of your WiFi network, plus a device of some sort (like the Sonos Bridge or the Samsung Hub) that serves as a central clock for the whole system.
Of course, AirPlay does multiroom without requiring any type of external device, but AirPlay doesn't, at present, let you do the kinds of things that require super-tight sync, such as using two AirPlay speakers as a stereo pair -- something that Sonos and Samsung can both do, and that's also increasingly common in Bluetooth products.
AVB provides a clocking signal for media playing over a WiFi network, basically saying, "OK, all you speakers on the network -- that piece of audio you just got? Start playing it ... NOW!" Every second or so, it re-syncs the signal, to assure that the system synchronization doesn't drift. According to Stanton and Schlechter, the system easily achieves a sync accuracy of 1 microsecond (a millionth of a second).
So the advantage is, you can use a normal WiFi network -- AVB is now a subset of the 802.1 set of standard governing WiFi systems -- and manufacturers can build gear that all syncs to the same standard. So you could have, say, a pair of Cambridge Audio wireless speakers running in stereo in your living room, a single Sony wireless speaker running in your kitchen and a Monoprice wireless speaker out in the garage, all running in perfect sync from the same interface on your iPhone or Android.
According to Stanton and Schlechter, Apple is "well aware" of AVB, and the technology could be incorporated into future versions of AirPlay. AVB has already been incorporated into Apple's OS X Mountain Lion operating system.
Great, you say, now when can I buy it? "I would guess probably some manufacturers will start using it over the next 1.5 years, and we'll probably see a major rollout in about 2 years," Schlechter said. "A lot of the networking gear manufacturers are already building it into their silicon [integrated circuits]."
How the technology will be branded and marketed -- under the AVnu logo, or as an extension to WiFi or DLNA, has yet to be determined.
"We want this to be like speakers and amps and wires," Schlechter concluded. "You can use any brand of speaker with any brand of cable and any brand of amplifier and everything works fine. WiFi audio ought to be the same way."
Image of AVnu logo provided by AVnu Alliance.