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

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.