In the early days of multi-room audio, homeowners gladly took what they could get: AM/FM radio, a CD player, and maybe a tape player delivered to a few zones around the house. From remote keypads, they could control volume, advance tracks forward and back, and choose radio station presets. But they had to store presets in their own memories, too, since there was no return data to tell them which station they were hearing.

Later on, Category-5 wiring to and from keypads gave consumers limited feedback from tuners, CD players, and cable TV music channels. You knew you were listening to, say, CD No. 3 in the changer or preset No. 5 on the FM dial, but if you couldn't remember that it was Kim Carnes who sang “Bette Davis Eyes,” the display couldn't help you.

The digital era has changed everything. Our iPods feed us the names of the track, artist, and album that's playing. Satellite radio providers give us that information plus the scores for the baseball and football games we follow. It's no longer enough just to hear music or entertainment. We want to know who, what, when, and how much time is left. It's the information age, after all, and we expect our electronics to keep up.

Add to that the variety of music sources we want at our fingertips, and the old sound systems are no longer suited to the task. The successful multiroom systems of the future will pack the flexibility and bidirectional communications functionality current and future digital audio sources will require—and will be easy to use, to boot.

end zone Miami-based Niles Audio Corp. has a leg up on the future with IntelliControl ICS (Integrated Control Solutions), its latest and greatest distributed-audio system. Unlike conventional multizone systems, Intelli-Control ICS can be personalized to a homeowner's specific audio needs. If you want to know the name of the Bonnie Raitt song playing on XM satellite radio, the display on any ICS interface—touchpanel, wall-mounted keypad, or handheld remote—will read out that it's “Trinkets” from the “Souls Alike” album.

It's not just about convenience, though. Menu-driven digital sources demand user interaction for consumers to be able to operate the device. To browse through a category of satellite radio stations, you need to be able to see the category you're in. To get to the MP3 player's list of playlists, you have to get to the playlist menu first.

“Older multizone systems pretty much came the way they came,” says Frank Sterns, president of Niles Audio. “You'd stack a CD player and radio on it, and in order to customize it you had to write custom software for each touchscreen or keypad to make it do what the customer wanted. It was very expensive because of all the programming.” Niles addressed the cost issue with a system that eliminated the programming by offering a set group of sources, but that solution had limitations too. “You could have AM/FM and then three other sources that were infrared-controlled,” he says, but that was it. “Installers didn't have to do any programming,” he adds, “because it wasn't very flexible.”

Sterns says IntelliControl ICS brings flexibility back to users without the need for programming by the installer. The system uses Ethernet-based Web server technology to go out and look at connected devices and then automatically draws the proper interfaces for whatever equipment is connected to the system. At the heart of IntelliControl ICS is the GXR2 receiver, which is based on interchangeable source-card modules. Homeowners choose modules according to their particular tastes. For example, one family could choose two satellite radio tuners and four iPods—one for each member of the family; another might opt for six separate sources: an AM/FM radio, Sirius tuner, CD player, satellite TV music channel, MP3 player, and music server.