New Stereos To Download Music

Resident David Wacker stands in front of his barricated home, fearing mud slides and rainstorms, after the Station Fire burned close to the the foothill communities of La Crescenta and Tujunga, in Glendale, Calif. on Oct. 12, 2009
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Imagine if your stereo system were linked directly to an online music store.

Four major Japanese electronics makers unveiled prototypes of exactly that — an audiovisual system that can download songs from the Internet without a computer.

Officials from Sony Corp., Sharp Corp., Pioneer Corp. and Kenwood Corp. said the new product is expected to go on sale early next year. Currently, there are no plans for marketing it overseas, they said.

Developed by a joint venture, Any Music Planning Inc., the Linux-based equipment represents an attempt by the companies to adapt to rapid changes engulfing the music recording industry in the Internet age.

The prototypes shown by the four companies Tuesday resemble a traditional stereo system but have Ethernet ports and liquid crystal displays. They are automatically set to access a Web site run by LabelGate, a Japanese online music shop that opened in August.

Users will be able to browse, download, store and play song files, record them on a mini-disc or transfer them to other digital music devices, said Any Music CEO Fujio Noguchi. The equipment also works like any other audio entertainment system, he added.

The company plans to focus first on the Japanese market, but "Ultimately, our dream is to make the service a worldwide standard," Noguchi told reporters.

With the launch date set for the first few months of 2004, details about how the service will work remain sketchy.

It's unclear whether Any Music hardware will restrict the number of times that users can copy songs, as U.S.-based services such as iTunes and MusicMatch do. Also, officials refused to say how much the systems would cost, and said LabelGate hasn't decided how much it will charge per downloaded song.

The service will be separate from the one LabelGate offers to computer users. Currently, LabelGate, which has music licensing rights with some of Japan's biggest recording companies and has a rotating selection of tens of thousands of Japanese pop tunes and a limited amount of Western music, charges 210 yen (US$1.90) per downloaded song.

LabelGate officials couldn't be reached for figures on how many times the company's music-playing software has been downloaded.

The four electronics makers are betting that as broadband Internet connections spread in Japan, they can attract consumers who prefer downloading music to a trip to the music store. They hope Internet-savvy youngsters and adult music aficionados alike will be drawn to the prospect of convenience.

Moriyuki Okada, who heads Sharp's AV systems department, said the venture partners are also trying to diversify their product lineup in an intensely competitive consumer electronics marketplace that has been hit hard by Japan's long-running economic slowdown.

"Our industry is in crisis. We want to emerge from that by offering new business ideas," Okada said.

Four other Japanese audiovisual equipment makers — NEC Electronics, Denon, Yamaha and Onkyo — are also developing products for the Any Music platform. None is expected to offer e-mail functions or link to online music sites other than LabelGate.