DRM nightmare: Why $20,000 worth of gear won't play my 99 cent songs

DRM nightmare: Why $20,000 worth of gear won't play my 99 cent songs

Summary: It's kind of screwed up if you think about it.  In search of that zen feel where I can have the benefits of modern day audio/video in any room in my house, but without all sorts of unsightly equipment, wires, and splitters spilling out from the nooks and crannies of those rooms, I've already sunk nearly $20,000 into a state-of-the-art whole-home system and I'm not even done yet.


It's kind of screwed up if you think about it.  In search of that zen feel where I can have the benefits of modern day audio/video in any room in my house, but without all sorts of unsightly equipment, wires, and splitters spilling out from the nooks and crannies of those rooms, I've already sunk nearly $20,000 into a state-of-the-art whole-home system and I'm not even done yet.  Microsoft's Bill Gates may have the ultimate digital crib in the suburbs of Seattle. But, by the time I'm done, I won't be far behind.

The sidebar to this story (perhaps for a different day or a different blog) is that the gear you need to do that home audio/video project the right way isn't sold by Microsoft, Intel, Apple, Dell or any of the other brand names that we've come to know and love (or hate) in the computer industry.  Nor will it be.  What they sell, and plan to sell in the coming years, are toys when compared to the gear sold by companies that specialize in home theatre -- companies with names like Xantech, Integra, and Escient that most digerati aren't very familiar with but that audiophiles are.  I digress.

The mainbar to this story is that the one of my most important goals for this project -- to have a shared, centralized (and largely out of sight) system that handles the delivery of audio and/or video to any room in my house -- is being undermined by Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology.  One obvious candidate for such centralization is the audio and video content.  Today, in very unzenlike fashion, I have multiple CD and DVD players around the house and each is typically accompanied by a very unorganized pile of discs and jewel cases.  Whatever I play in one of those players is only available locally, in the room where the player is located.  If I want to listen to my favorite Beatles CD in my home office, but the CD happens to be in the boom box in the kitchen, I have to make a special trip on foot to get the music I want, put it into the CD drive in my computer, and hope that the scratches it has taken on from so much usage, unprotected transportation, and abuseby the kids doesn't keep it from playing.

In the old days -- and even today to some extent -- audiophiles solved this problem with centralized CD and DVD jukeboxes and special audio/video routing gear to make sure the content gets to the right televisions and/or speakers.  As good as that approach was/is, it's expensive, takes up a lot of space, very mechanical (in other words, more prone to failure), and quite limited in terms of scalability.  But the one restriction that didn't keep audiophiles from achieving their goals was some form of DRM technology.

Today, virtually all of the limitations incurred by the older clunkier mechanical and hardly scalable jukeboxes have been easily overcome by centralized digital music servers such as Escient's $3,000 Fireball MP3 server or Xantech's XMUSIC Digital Music Server (just announced and price is TBA, but it'll be in the same ballpark as the Fireball, if not more).  The devices are much smaller, hold way more content, and involve significantly fewer moving parts which means that they're less of service nightmare.  But just when the content centralization looked like it was going to get better, it got worse thanks to DRM.

How ridiculous is it that today, I can buy a song for 99 cents that I can't just go and play on my $20,000 system? Instead, to use the music I purchase (not just at the iTunes music store, but, pretty much any online music store), I have to use a PC to jump through a ridiculous amount of hoops to remove the DRM wrapper in a process that can often result in a loss of quality.

According to Windham, New Hampshire-based Audio Video Experience president Andy Himmer (my CEDIA certified home theatre specialist whom I highly recommend if you're in the New England area) who sells the high end gear and runs into problems like this all the time "the iPod is the biggest product in our industry, but it's also the biggest pain in the ass."  Before plunking down three grand for a music server, I called Himmer to double check the compatibility with Apple and/or Microsoft's DRM formats.  "None" he said.  "But your system is compatible with a special dock that you can stick your iPod into.  What I mean by that is that it can deliver music to any one of your zones and you'll be able remotely browse the music and control the iPod from keypads on your walls in each of your rooms."  Talk about your kludges. 

Surely, I'm not alone and the other customers of companies like Escient and Xantech are running into the same sort of roadblocks.  In a phone interview earlier today, Escient president Bernie Sepaniak confirmed that DRM is not only a very significant challenge that his company and his customers must deal with, but that even if he did (or was able to) license the necessary technology from Microsoft and/or Apple, that the technology isn't even mature enough for most serious applications.  "For example," said Sepaniak, "if you download something that's DRMed and then you want to stream it to a remote device where it must be decoded (a scenario supported by Escient's gear), you can't.  If you tried to do this today, the stream would end up encrypted as a result of the DRM and you'd have to pass a key to the remote device.  The software to do this doesn't even exist."

All is not lost however.  Sepaniak has a clear vision of what the end game is.  "We have a lot of customers that aren't nearly as PC literate as you.  The only way to do this right is to dis-intermediate the PC and make it so that something like our Fireball can directly find, buy, and download and play the content." The problem, according to Sepaniak, is that it's going to be a while before we can get there.  The technology just isn't mature enough.  Sepaniak also hinted at a cloudy picture when it comes to licensing the necessary technology.  For example, although Motorola has been able to license Apple's DRM and compression/decompression (CODEC) technologies to come up with an iTunes phone, it's not clear to him whether the same opportunities will exist for other companies like Escient. 

One of Escient's sister companies under the D&M Holdings umbrella -- the MP3 player maker Rio -- was a head-to-head competitor with Apple and, although Sepniak didn't say it, I got the distinct feeling from the conversation that Apple isn't at all enthusiastic about licensing its technologies to competitors.  Said Sepaniak, "One of D&M's other companies -- Denon -- has a relationship with Apple so things are not as confrontational as they could be."  Last month, citing lack of fit with the rest of the company's holdings, D&M announced it would shutter the RIO portable MP3 player business.  The first RIO by the way, a product of  Diamond Multimedia back in the late 90's, is the device that gave birth to the portable MP3 revolution. I remember looking at the first prototypes and listening to then Diamond Multimedia vice president Ken Wirt telling me how such technology would not only turn the entertainment industry on its ear, but it would also be the source of many lawsuits. He was right on all counts. 

When it comes to licensing the required technologies, Sepaniak said it's pretty easy to absorb licensing costs into high margin gear like that made by Escient and it's remaining sisters Denon, Marantz, McIntosh (no relation to Apple), and ReplayTV.  But in commodity markets like $79 MP3 players, such licensing fees can nickle and dime a product to death.  Sepaniak predicts only the largest companies will be able to survive in that market.  The more individual copies of Apple-DRMed music that Apple can sell into the market, the more Apple is guaranteed to be one of those companies. Like me, people will want to continue to have access to the music they've paid for through the iTunes store. Unless Apple does for many others what it has so far done for Motorola, licensee's of Apple DRMed content will have little choice but to buy their gear from Apple to play it.  This, quite frankly, sucks.

Although Sepaniak didn't say whether Escient's gear stands a better chance of supporting Microsoft's DRM scheme over Apple's, it's sort of clear that it does.  The Fireball is already compatible with Microsoft's WMA audio format and Microsoft's business model for it's DRM technology is to license it to third parties (compatible online stores and devices are a part of Microsoft's PlaysForSure ecoystem).  Also, by way of the now-shuttered RIO outfit, D&M had a pre-existing relationship with Microsoft (the RIO Carbon is a PlaysForSure-compliant device).  Message to self: If I'm going to buy a Fireball, now would be a good time to stop buying music from iTunes and start buying it from a PlaysForSure-compatible store

But, as said earlier, licensing the right technology isn't the complete cure.  At least not today.  Some of the technologies needed by Escient and other companies like it don't exist yet.  In the meantime, Escient has work arounds.  For example, Escient's heritage stretches back to the early days of jukeboxes when audiophiles sometimes had their music located on more than one device.  Living up to the company's tagline "We make technology behave," Escient's digital media management solution abstracts the existence of multiple repositories by presenting the user with a single library of content.  When a user selects something for playback, Escient's management solution figures out where it is -- could be one of the old jukeboxes or a  Fireball -- and takes care of the rest. 

According to Sepaniak, Escient will be coming out with an iPod dock that turns an iPod into another repository that's browsable by the management solution.  Docks?  That's what my CEDIA guy Andy Himmer was talking about.  Only he had a different one in mind that goes with my Xantech gear.  Not my as-of-yet unpurchased MP3 server.   In other words, so far, the whole-home theatre industry has no other way to deal with DRM but to work around it with something like docks.


The whole idea was to get it down to one device in the first place.  Thank you (not) DRM.

Topic: Apple

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  • You have got to be kidding

    You are spending $20,000 on a full home multi-media system and you can't even find someone to integrate a touch screen video panel with a Mac mini iTunes server connected to your audio system via digital out audio?

    You, sir, are getting ripped off.
    • That's not the problem. The problem is:

      why must I buy a Mac Mini to play the music I buy? Why can't I have it and enjoy it with the device of my choosing?
      • Portable Music

        I agree. When you buy something you shouldn't have to be concerned with it not working on a mainstream platform... Linux/Mac/Windows/etc. DRM is valid, but limiting usage is not the way to do things.
        • Bought Tires Lately?

          " When you buy something you shouldn't have to be concerned
          with it not working"

          When you buy tires, you buy the right size for your automobile,

          If you had bought a set of spankin' tires, then bought the car
          and they didn't fit, would that be the automobile manufacturer's

          If you buy something DRM, take responsibility for the purchase.

          DRM is the only way we can buy legal music: there's no other
          choice unless you want to buy CD's and rip your own MP3's.

          Which REAL audiophiles DO, I believe.
      • As some will say

        because that is the way they license it. If you don't like their terms, don't buy it. Otherwise, you are reinforcing their thoughts that this is a good thing.
        Patrick Jones
      • Poor writing

        Your article clearly stated that you COULDN'T build a $20,000 home multimedia system and play your iTunes music. That's patently wrong.

        Be honest. What you are really saying is that you don't WANT to spend $500 for an iTunes server as part of your $20,000 home multimedia system.

        Can't and Won't are two entirely different animals. Don't pretend one is the other.
        • reading comprehension

          No... what he said is he wants ONE system, ONE server to host and server all his entertainment media. A very reasonable and realistic goal, especially when he's willing to spend $20K on that system. DRM makes this impossible.
      • Why?

        Why must you buy a CD player to play the music you buy? Why must you buy a turntable to play the music you buy?

        Answer: Because that's the format the music is sold in. It's iTunes music and requires an iTunes player to play, just like music on a CD requires a CD player to play and just like sheet music requires a pianist and piano to play.
        • Sorry, but

          I can go online and literally pick from thousands of CD players made by hundreds of companies. With iTunes, I get to pick from a handful of products from one company (OK, two if I need a cell phone with it). You're logic doesn't hold up.

          • At least try to be consistent

            First you complain that you have to buy a piece of equipment in the first place. Then you say the problem is a lack of choice among vendors. So which is it? Your story is somewhat variable, it seems.
          • He is

            He is pointing out that both issues he's facing consistently suck the same.
          • Wrong

            He wants to buy a device, but just ONE device made by the company HE thinks makes the best for HIS needs. Not three or four that work together in a slipshod manner. And in this day of digital media, he's 100% right.
          • Sour Grapes ?

            "He wants to buy a device, but just ONE device made by the
            company HE thinks makes the best for HIS needs."

            I dunno. Seems he's shopping around to build a system, and
            just plain unhappy that the system he likes doesn't support

            Then apparently he doesn't want to buy Apple hardware to play
            his MP3's.

            Well, buy a PC then, and use iTunes for Windows ! The
            software is free, after all.

            Or use a Mac to stream the audio wirelessly to an Airport
            Express and plug that into the system !

            David, is it the remote control problem?

            You only want ONE remote for your Theatre system.

            What you want is a super-remote that can control the computer
            running iTunes as well as the components.
        • bad analogy

          format schmormat. MP3 or WMA. That's the format. All the DRM wrappers are restrictions that would be akin to Sony putting special headers on it's CD so that they will only play in Sony CD players.
          A DRM free MP3 will play anywhere on anything... the real 'PlaysForSure'!
      • The Simplicity of it all is exactly as you said...

        Once I have the MP3 or whatever music format I download on my computer. Why can I not listen to it in my car on a burned cd?
      • You are really stupid aren't you!

        You are soooo stuck on using crap that you are willing to spend 20 large to get it to work? Then you blame the company that has a good and cheap solution? OMG! I wish I could toss money out the window like that! BUY A MAC DUMMY!
        • huh? did you read the story?

          yeah, that would solve the problem wouldn't it? Go home fan-boy. Take your Mac with you, it can't compete.
        • Please post your plans

          for a solution that uses a singe Mac to send music and video throughout the entire house, with controls to watch any movie on any TV or any song on any set of speakers, regardless of the room you're in.
      • Becuase Apple want's money

        They're a business. Plain and simple.
        John Zern
        • No, Apple's my friend!

          They love me! The really care about my needs. The fact that I cannot play my songs without dragging my iPod into the car and jacking into my stereo system is MY fault. I should have bought the Bug with the iDock.
          I appreciate the way they keep me from listening to my iTunes library at work too. I really should buy each song twice, that would make life sooo much easier...