Hardware: Sounds Abound

To meet that need, digital integrators are working with vendors such as New Market, N.H.-based Russound, whose products easily distribute any type of media, including CDs, DVD movies and even satellite radio, from numerous sources to multiple receivers.

"The Russound products are easy for my guys to install, easy to program and easy to add devices to," says John Goldenne, president of Palatine, Ill.-based Digital Home Technologies, an integrator with a long history installing Russound products. The company is currently installing the products in a new 200-unit housing complex. "The products offer everything you want in Crestron or AMX [units] but at one-tenth the cost."

Russound makes a wide variety of products, including receivers, control units, media sources and output devices. Files can be streamed via analog signals through RS-232 technology. The company's A-Bus product line eases communication among devices for simple installations, while its proprietary RNet communications platform can be used for connecting its higher-end products.

Integrators say the offerings all boast high-quality designs and stylish looks, making them easy to use, install and sell.

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"The nice thing about using Russound is it allows us to use the same product line for a 2,000-square-foot house to a 15,000-square-foot house. It's definitely an advantage. We don't have to deal with multiple manufacturers; we just have one workhorse line," says Leo Golubitsky, CEO of Smile, a Cleveland-based integrator who serves on Russound's dealer council and is one of the vendor's top integrators. "The quality of the products is excellent. We've experienced a lot of success and have little service and downtime."

2004 was a busy year for Russound and its integrators. In October the company began shipping its SMS3 Smart Media Server, which eases the storage, management and distribution of music. Music can be ripped from a CD to the unit's 160-Gbyte hard drive, and files are stored simultaneously uncompressed and compressed at one of three levels. The hard drive can store between 250 and 3,000 music files, depending on the level of compression. As the hard drive starts to reach capacity, it begins deleting the uncompressed files of less frequently played tracks, but it saves the compressed files for later access and always plays the highest-fidelity version available, says Andy Lewis, Russound product manager for its distributed A/V products.

The unit includes RS-232 and composite video output to simultaneously distribute media files to three independent zones throughout the house and additional devices. External storage devices can also be attached for backup via the product's USB port.

The Media Server includes Russound's Personal Media Assistant software, which allows users to easily create playlists or music streams of preselected titles or music genres. Users can choose and play particular music streams in individual rooms. Users can also rate tracks, and the ratings are used by the software when selecting songs for random play. The Media Server costs about $2,899.

Also new is the ST2-XM Smart Dual Tuner, which allows consumers to receive and distribute XM satellite radio or AM/FM radio to six zones throughout a house or business. The unit costs about $999. Russound expects to release a Sirius satellite radio receiver in the summer, Lewis says.

"Their XM tuner, that sells itself. We can't keep up with it," Goldenne says. Both Goldenne and Golubitsky note that most of their XM installations are for customers new to satellite radio.

Integrators say the flexibility of Russound's products makes it easy to set up any external device with an audio or video output for home distribution for additional revenue streams.

"I once took a rare player piano which was located on the third floor of a loft, and took the audio out. I hooked it to the Russound system as a source, and now everyone in the house, or in the backyard [or] patio, can hear the player piano," Goldenne says. "I also took a guy's eight-track player and put it throughout house. All through Russound."

Integrators also report strong interest among consumers to hook up their Media Center PCs or other computers to their Russound systems to stream stored music and image files. Another popular music source is Apple iPods, which can be plugged into Russound units for playing in a single room or throughout a house.

"You won't believe what [the iPod] does to upgrading and making the job sell. We're not doing the job now just for mom and dad, we're doing it for the whole family," Goldenne says. "Most other systems are just for dad, but now we're letting the kids use it. You have to make this a whole family affair."

Integrators say that the flexibility of Russound's products also extends to their ability to tie into home automation platforms from numerous vendors, including Crestron, Home Automation Inc. (HAI) and AMX. Russound and HAI are working on a device that allows customers to select music streams from the same interface they use to access automation or security control. However, Golubitsky says, there needs to be more integration between Russound and Crestron products, noting that the two vendors have had difficulty working together.

Russound also provides a variety of support, including sales and technical training from field-based representatives and phone-based technical support. "They've supported us very well over the years with every aspect of our business," Golubitsky says. "They've never let us down."