A hi-fi wish, from the bottoms of my ears

David Braue
29 September, 2008
View more articles fromthe author

Some people assume that the homes of technology writers are filled with cutting-edge, HAL-esque systems that do everything from bark out sharemarket changes to make the coffee in the morning and exercise the pets. This may be truer in Chez Braue than in most homes, but it is with some humility that I confess to you: I do not have surround sound.

This may not seem like a big deal to many of you, but for someone who has always had a deep love of music, an appreciation of the finer points of audio quality, and an empathy (in theory, no in deed) with those who wax nostalgic about vinyl – this is a serious shortcoming indeed.

It is the equivalent of having Stephen Hawking over for dinner and serving fish sticks. It is the equivalent of inviting the entire Hawthorn Hawks football team over for a BBQ and asking them to play hackey sack with your 6-year-old.

It is, dare I say, the equivalent of walking into Singapore’s Sim Lim Square electronics market looking for a do-it-all music and video player, walking right past the iPod nanos because they don’t play video yet, and walking out with a slick-looking Chinese ripoff that stops working properly as soon as you clear Customs at Changi. Not that ANYONE in their right mind would do that.


The reason I’m sharing this is that I really, really like the idea of surround sound, and I really, really think it would be a great addition to everyday DVDs and TV watching. But I’m still waiting for stereo makers to include the one feature that would be really, really cool – and they have, for years, failed to add.

And it’s all Apple’s fault.

The feature I’m talking about is support for DAAP. Yes, you, say, that sounds serious. Try not to roll your eyes.

DAAP (Digital Audio Access Protocol), if you are not familiar with the lingo, is the protocol Apple uses to make your iTunes music available across networks in your house. It’s proprietary to Apple, and it’s the thing that lets your Airport Express base stations, Apple TV, and other iTunes-equipped computers see the iTunes libraries you’ve shared on your network.

But if you want to get a decent stereo – say, something from Onkyo, Pioneer, or Sony that also includes surround sound – you’re out of luck. There’s no DAAP to be seen in the consumer electronics market, and as far as I can tell there is, as usual, one reason for this: Apple doesn’t want anybody else to have it.

I lamented this philosophy as it pertains to Apple’s disappointing App Store policies last week, but the lack of DAAP is surprising because – unlike banning competition on the App Store – Apple doesn’t actually benefit from keeping DAAP under such tight control. Heck, it’s not as if Airport Express sales are going to make or break the company.

Why would I want it? Well, I have wired the house with a LAN (see, I told you it was truer than in most homes) but can only listen to iTunes music on other computers. What I would really like is to have some sort of device in the family room, hooked up to a decent set of speakers (even, if you can imagine, surround sound speakers), that included a DAAP client so I could just pull the music from my iTunes library, navigate through the artists/albums/songs right there on the screen of the device, and enjoy my music – without having my TV involved.

Some people do still just listen to music, you know.

But of course this is just dreaming. As far as I can learn on Wikipedia, Apple has only officially licensed DAAP to one company – Roku, whoever they are – and continues to keep the keys to its iTunes systems close at hand.

Personally, I suspect DAAP is based on an algorithm so secret that it’s tattooed on the back of Steve Jobs’ neck. Which would explain the turtlenecks.

A number of companies have reverse-engineered DAAP enough to produce systems that can set up their own iTunes servers – for example, many home network attached storage devices offer your MP3s over the network as an iTunes share – but this is stabbing-in-the-dark stuff. No serious electronics company would touch those reverse-engineered things with a ten-foot pole, since Apple could render them inoperable with a single iTunes update – causing a customer support nightmare.

Netgear – a networking products company, for goodness’ sake – figured out a way to pull iTunes music to the TV with its EVA8000, but this was through means most unkosher – something to do with skimming audio from the Windows sound system and feeding it through a flux capacitor to forward it over the network as an uncompressed audio stream. Netgear’s page on the product doesn’t even mention iTunes anymore, which makes me suspect the Hand of Jobs may have interfered to get Netgear to de-emphasise it.

Logitech promises iTunes integration with its new Squeezebox Boom radio, but if that’s surround sound I’m the King of Persia. The Squeezebox does use open-source software called SqueezeCenter to integrate with the iTunes library, but there’s no telling whether this software has jailbroken DAAP in any meaningful way.

In the end, without DAAP, stereo makers have exactly no kludge-free way to really, truly, seamlessly feed their high-end audio systems with music from the one place that most people these days now keep their music: iTunes.

The closest we can get these days is, frankly, embarrassingly awful. I have a no-name Chinese-made PVR that can pull music off the network, but its interface is sufficiently klutzy that I am convinced it was actually designed and written at an alcohol-laced wrestling party by inebriated Apple engineers, then fed into the pipeline in some sick April Fool’s Day joke – just to convince people that everything else out there sucks and to make the Apple TV look much, much better.

Now, I understand that Apple is all protective with the iPhone and everything else, but withholding DAAP from the consumer electronics market seems like a pointless exercise in schadenfreude – like holding a half-eaten chicken leg just out of reach of your neighbour’s salivating dog, then watching his sad expression as you throw it in the bin instead.

OK, Apple withholds some technologies because it might one day compete in those areas and needs strategic differentiators. But honestly – does anybody really see Apple releasing component surround sound stereos in this century? Apple doesn’t even sell the iPod Hi-Fi anymore. And while the Apple TV is cute, no amount of squinting or drunken confusion will make it look – or work – like a high-end stereo system.

The closest we get is the inclusion of iPod docks in some products – but, really. Is it necessary to make me copy my music onto an iPod, then carry it into the living room and plug the thing in just so I can listen to music on big speakers? Couldn’t Apple just open its eyes (and its heart) and let the world enjoy just… a… bit… of its innovation? I’m sure the likes of Sony, Logitech, Pioneer and so on would jump at the chance to license a reliable DAAP client instead of fudging their own solutions, or offering none at all.

Would customers respond favourably? Goodness knows I would – and then, just then, maybe I could stop watching ‘Armageddon’, ‘Star Wars’ and even ‘Australian Idol’ in such ordinary, uninspiring stereo sound.

What do you think: will Apple ever learn to play nice with the consumer audio market? Share your thoughts in the AMW Forums.

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us