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An ultra-cheap Wi-Fi router wants to solve your streaming music woes

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The world's biggest Wi-Fi network launches Gramofon with a Kickstarter campaign that starts at $30

Streaming music through your home entertainment system should be simple, but like many forms of media, it often becomes hopelessly tangled in a morass of broadly incompatible standards the moment you try to stream it from device A to device B. It’s a mess. And of all the incompatibility hells we deal with on a daily basis, the sad state of audio affairs can be particularly tragic: nothing kills a party faster than 60 seconds of awkward silence. All it takes is one would-be DJ with a Galaxy Note trying to connect through an Apple TV to crush the vibe.

Gramofon wants to solve that. The plastic box, no bigger than a few ice cubes, is a Wi-Fi router that has built-in support for music services (beginning with Spotify at launch, and more to come) and connects to a sound system over a standard 3.5-mm jack. It's made by Fon with help from serial entrepreneur Amol Sarva, perhaps best known for creating Peek, a one-trick pony of a wireless device that did email (that’s it) and offered an unusual lifetime service plan. Fon, meanwhile, boasts that it offers the largest footprint of Wi-Fi hotspots in the world by selling cheap, special routers to individuals that expose a sliver of bandwidth to the public in exchange for access to Fon’s global network.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of products that can stream music, of course; even a cursory visit to a local Best Buy will uncover shelf after shelf of wireless speakers. But stereo Bluetooth, the standard used by the overwhelming majority of them, is a low-fidelity compromise that has limited functionality and poor range. "Your friends can’t control it. You go to the bathroom or get a phone call, the whole thing breaks," Sarva notes.

"Your friends can’t control it. You go to the bathroom or get a phone call, the whole thing breaks." Then there’s Wi-Fi, most notably AirPlay. In fact, Gramofon is roughly the size of an AirPort Express — but the AirPort's problem is that compatibility stops when you leave Apple’s front door. Gramofon works with both custom apps and Spotify on Android and iOS, and anyone who is connected to the Gramofon network can add songs to the queue or control the current song using their mobile device. Whoever owns the Gramofon can sync it with their Facebook account, after which Facebook friends can connect without a password. And because it pulls media directly from the cloud to the device — much like Google’s Chromecast — the music won’t stop if your mobile device wanders out of range or you receive a call. "We want to make music social again," Sarva says. It’s certainly not the first time music has been "social" (remember iTunes DJ?), but at $30 to $60 for the first batch of orders, it might just be the cheapest and the most compatible.

Facebook friends can connect without a passwordGramofon faces varied competition — everything from AirPlay, to set-top boxes that support music apps like Roku and Fire TV, to the lauded Sonos system, to music-focused gadgets new and old. There’s Beep, which is still in preorder and bills itself as a Sonos-style multiroom music synchronization system, but so far it only offers your own music library plus Pandora. It’s also an idea Google played with on the short-lived Nexus Q. Fon and Sarva are banking on Gramofon’s impressive price combined with the fact that it grants users access to Fon’s Wi-Fi network to set it apart. The device can function as a full-fledged Wi-Fi router, too, which is a nice bonus.

Could Gramofon become the Roku of streaming music? Maybe — its makers claim they’ll be adding support for a wide variety of other services including SoundCloud, Google Play Music, Rdio, and Pandora, making it the cheapest way to turn any speaker into an all-purpose cloud player. The caveat, of course, is that these are still just promises: right now, Gramofon is an unfunded Kickstarter that hopes to send out its first units this July.