New tech syncs small speakers for big sound

Music is good. It's even better when it's loud, high-quality and playing all over the house. (Just one guy's opinion.)

To achieve this, you can buy multiple, expensive speakers from a company like Sonos and distribute them around the house. That can cost thousands of dollars.

Another idea is to synchronize the speakers you already own, and have them all play the exact same music at the exact same time for a quality- and volume-multiplying effect.

Sounds simple, right Trouble is, it's hard to synchronize music.

A smattering of startups and upstarts tried and -- well, I won't say failed but I will say didn't succeed. In 2013 and 2014, companies like Beep, Seedio, Boombotix, TuneMob and others attempted to launch products for synchronizing speakers or smartphones. Most of those products don't sync right, don't have cross-platform support or just don't work. And some of them don't even exist anymore. The category as a whole has not caught on with the public.

Suddenly, however, we're hearing about two companies -- one of them Google, the other a tiny startup -- that may have cracked the code on synchronizing speakers or phones for big sound on the cheap.

Is the world finally ready for music played across synchronized speakers If so, here are the two products that just might make it happen.

On Tuesday, Sept. 29, Google may launch a new product called Chromecast Audio, according to a report on 9to5Google.

Internally code-named "Hendrix," the Chromecast Audio product uses dongles plugged into speakers for playing streaming music all around the house. The system reportedly will use Wi-Fi for connecting the speakers, which makes sense given Google's recent launch of an Internet-of-Things-centric Wi-Fi router called the OnHub.

Chromecast Audio may also support the mirroring of whatever music or audio (including audio from videos) is playing in a Chrome browser or on an Android phone or tablet.

Finally, Chromecast Audio should support Spotify and, one can assume, Google Play Music.

Chromecast Audio sounds a little like Motorola's Moto Stream, which features adapters that pair phones and sound systems via NFC (near field communication) technology. But most consumers have never heard of Moto Stream, and its price of $50 per adapter makes it a little expensive for connecting speakers throughout a house.

Given Google's history with Chromecast, I expect Chromecast Audio to be innovative, cheap, flexible and by far the most popular form of synchronizing home speakers. We'll have to wait and see, however, before we know for sure.

Meanwhile, a new mobile app has already proved itself, at least to me.

A free new app for both iOS and Android shipped last week. It's called AmpMe from a Canadian startup called Amp Me Inc.

The app synchronizes music between two, three or even dozens of smartphones to create high-quality, high-volume sound. The phones can be iOS or Android devices, or both.

AmpMe's secret sauce is the use of encoded sound to synchronize the music, according to the company's CEO, Martin-Luc Archambault.

Here's how it works: First, the app must be downloaded on each participating phone. When you launch the app, the main screen asks if you want to "host a party" or "join a party." The host phone is the one that will play the music; the phones that join the party are the ones that sync with the host.

The user with the host phone then goes into SoundCloud from inside the AmpMe app and chooses the music or the playlist (or the podcast), and starts playing the audio.

Users who want their phones to join the party enter a four-digit number provided by the host. The AmpMe app on the host phone then plays a barely audible series of clicks and beeps that quickly synchronizes the music exactly. (Amp Me has a patent in the works for its "server­centric proprietary audio fingerprinting technology process," as the company's press release calls it.)

In my test, it took about a minute to download the app and start a party and then have others join and start playing the synchronized music. It worked flawlessly and quickly.

And I have to say, if you walked into a room with even as few as two or three devices playing music in sync, you'd never guess that the sound was coming out of smartphones. In my test, the audio quality was so good that it sounded like the music was playing over a Sonos setup or another high-quality speaker system. (I used iPhone 6 Plus phones for my test.)

Nobody knows the maximum number of phones AmpMe's system can support, but Archambault told me that, at the company launch party last week, they had 50 phones playing at once, and that's the most he's aware of.

Interestingly, the synchronized phones don't have to remain in close proximity to one another after they're connected. The AmpMe system doesn't connect phones peer-to-peer via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Once the music is synced, it stays synced -- no matter how far apart the phones get.

If the host user has an iPhone and an Apple Watch, the watch can control the music. And if the host is using an Android phone, Bluetooth speakers that also have a microphone can be added to the party.

Users of participating phones can even take calls during a party. The music will stop on any phone that accepts a call, but it will continue playing on all of the other phones -- even if it's the host that gets the call.

AmpMe says it will support other streaming services in addition to SoundCloud "in the coming months."

I'm really excited about AmpMe, and I'm tentatively excited about Google's Chromecast Audio.

It sounds to me like the speaker-syncing sound revolution has finally arrived.


Mike Elgan

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