RHT How To: Whole House Audio How-To: A Homeowner’s Guide to Planning a Whole-House Audio Distributi 
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Written by Joe Hageman   
Tuesday, 01 February 2005

RHT How To:
Whole House Audio How-To: A Homeowner’s Guide to Planning a Whole-House Audio Distribution System

By Joe Hageman
February 2005

The dream: To own an affordable whole-house audio system that effortlessly pipes music throughout your home, where all the components “talk” harmoniously to one another as if they were one symbiotic unit. Reality: This stuff is expensive, can be down-right tricky to operate and even though we can beam back images from the Red Planet, we can’t seem to figure out how to get audio/video components to talk to one another without a virtual argument ensuing. Welcome to the wonderful world of custom home audio distribution, where the homeowner is a slave to a bunch of temperamental black boxes often run by proprietary software that even the most ardent computer whiz would struggle to figure out.

Is this true? Could it really be all that bad? Well, I will admit I’m being overly dramatic and painting a very bleak picture of an otherwise exciting industry. But let me tell you, it isn’t as pretty as the manufacturers’ literature and advertisements make it out to be. A lot of them make it seem like you just buy their black boxes, install some touch screens and Presto!, instant whole-house audio. Nothing could be further from the truth, my friends. There is a lot of planning, installing, programming, more installing, even more programming and testing that goes into the professional installation of one of these systems. I will attempt here to demystify whole-house audio distribution and hopefully give you the necessary tools to plan one with your installer. Yes, I said installer. Unless you have a smallish house, and buy a true one-box solution that doesn’t require hours of programming, please don’t attempt to do this yourself. Trust me: you’ll only be calling an installer later to fix it.

Speaking of installers, a great resource for finding a qualified one in your area is the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, or CEDIA (www.Cedia.net). To quote their web site: “The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) is a global trade association of companies that specialize in planning and installing electronic systems for the home. CEDIA members are established, insured businesses with bona fide qualifications and experience in this specialized field. Member classifications include designer/installers, manufacturers, sales representatives, distributors, consultants and affiliates.” Also, go view a recent installation that your prospective installer has completed. You can get an idea of his/her craftsmanship, as well as how an actual custom install works, before making any financial commitment. Or visit their showroom. Chances are, they’ll have a demo version of a distribution system set-up in their shop.

Whole-house or multi-room audio is simply a way to easily get one or more music sources (radio, CD, music server, etc.) from one room to another. Imagine you’re hosting a small get-together. In the main areas of the house, including the outside porches and decks, you have lovely music playing through strategically-placed in-wall speakers. Much better than a strategically-placed boom box blaring at full volume, right? Now imagine that at your fingertips, whether in the living room, kitchen or dining room, you have access to your music collection and can easily switch tracks, adjust volume or change sources completely. That’s whole-house audio at its finest and most simple. Depending on the size of your home and your needs, this musical bliss can be achieved in many different ways and price points. At the very basic level, many surround sound receivers offer a multi-room output. This output allows for the hook-up of a separate amp to amplify your multi-room speakers and is often tantamount to a glorified A/B speaker switch. The same effect could be achieved just by hooking up another pair of speakers to an already occupied speaker channel, although you run the risk of overheating your receiver. Higher-end receivers and preamplifiers offer more robust multi-room capabilities by allowing for independent sources to be played in the second zone, and sometimes even feature dual tuners. In this case, it would be possible to listen to one radio station in the bedroom and another in the living room at the same time. Of course, without the support of keypads and/or touch panels, one would always have to aim the remote at the receiver or preamp to do anything.

Jumping up to the next level involves incorporating a separate component or components to handle the switching and routing of independent audio sources throughout the home – the “brains” or hub of the system, if you will. There are also two different levels of this type of system. One involves simple volume controls and alpha-numeric keypads to control sources, and the other incorporates LCD touch screens that access not only your audio/video devices, but also your HVAC and security system. (Keypads can also do this, but admittedly on a much more basic level.) The first level will typically house everything in one component, including processing, audio/video switching, amplification, IR and RS-232 inputs, etc. This component accepts all of the inputs from your various sources, i.e., DVD player, tuner, satellite, music server, etc., and routes those signals so that they can be played independently throughout the various rooms (often referred to as zones) in your home. Now you’ve taken it to that next level, allowing yourself access to several different music sources at the touch of a button. Companies like Niles, Russound, Sonance and newcomer Z_N offer packages of whole-house audio distribution systems, including the “hub,” speakers, volume controls, amplifiers and keypads. Venerable audiophile manufacturers are even jumping into the foray with their own multi-zone products. In fact, Audio Design Associates (ADA) has been innovating the custom install field for years with solidly-built products that offer outstanding performance, which are the benchmark for many custom installers. ADA products are also featured at Disney World’s Ultimate Home Theater Experience in Orlando, Florida.

The next level I mentioned above is usually reserved for larger homes with six or more zones, or 24+ channels of amplification, with 12+ pairs of speakers dotting the drywall landscape of your home. This type of system involves several of those sometimes-temperamental black boxes that not only distribute audio into each zone, but also send video as well. Video sources such as CCTV, satellite, or even the video output from a music server that displays cover art, can be routed to each zone and displayed on an LCD screen. This type of system also typically handles your lights, as well as your HVAC and security systems. Believe it or not, there are also two levels to this type of system as well. I refer to them as “open architecture” and “closed architecture” systems.

I’ll start with open architecture systems. Open architecture usually refers to software that is open to the user. That is, as the homeowner, you can “dial” into your system and manipulate it as you see fit. In other words, you don’t have to call your installer for every little change you want to make. Open architecture systems run off software that is accessed through your LAN or remotely by accessing your system’s unique IP address. From there you can add new components, teach the system that new component’s IR codes, initiate timing sequences, or simply turn on and of the lights at random from your office and freak out the nanny. Some open architecture systems come with their own components, as is the case with Xplore Solutions. Others like SYS software from Premise Systems are just that – software. You build the vehicle to house the software with all the input and output cards you need to connect the various devices and the SYS software makes everything “talk” (well, almost). In my home, I have a traditional closed architecture system installed, but starting looking to these open architecture systems when I grew frustrated at the limitations and closed nature of my current system. The problem I have found is this: not all systems (lighting, security and some A/V devices) can be controlled by these various software programs. This is a very new category in this industry and one that is not fully supported yet. Many of these software programs require that device protocols be written to control other devices. Without those protocols, they cannot “talk” to one another, which means you have no control over the second device. This is where the advantage of a closed architecture system comes in.

Closed architecture systems typically do not provide their software to the end user. It is reserved for the installer to program and troubleshoot the installation. Some do offer very limited access to the system via software programs, but most do not, for the simple reason that if you do not know what you are doing, it would be very easy to crash your entire whole house audio/video distribution system. Trust me – if your telephone, security, HVAC and other important devices are tied into your whole-house system, you don’t want to be tinkering with the hub with reckless abandon. In a system of this nature, your various A/V devices connect to the hub – sometimes one box, but often several – and your installer jacks into the hub to program it to operate the devices connected to it. If you’re lucky, you will own at least a few devices that feature bi-directional RS-232 communication. This is a simple connection between the device to be controlled and the hub (looks like an oversized phone jack) using CAT5 cable. If you’re even luckier, the hub will automatically recognize the device connected to it and minimal programming is required. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Many RS-232 jacks are not bi-directional (meaning they can only accept commands, not give commands or status information) or the jack is utilized for the sole purpose of “talking” to the device’s siblings (devices from the same manufacturer). Devices that usually feature bi-directional RS-232 communication are lighting control and security. This is needed so the lighting and security systems can communicate status information to the hub, which relays that information to the homeowner on the connected LCD touch screens. A/V devices, however, do not necessarily need to communicate such information and, therefore, often do not feature RS-232 communication. This leaves the installer no choice but to communicate with the “dumb” device via IR commands. The installer builds an interface that typically mimics that device’s remote control, and one-by-one teaches the hub each IR command. This type of programming expense, along with the physical installation, can often match or exceed the price of the A/V distribution equipment itself.

Even more confused now? I hope not, but it is clear to see this stuff ain’t cut and dried. This just about covers Part One of this How-To adventure. In Part Two I'll discuss what type of system works best depending on the size of your house and your individual desires. Stay tuned...

Joe Hageman is vice president of Caster Communications, a consumer electronics-based Public Relations firm. He was previously an equipment editor for Home Theater magazine and has written for E-Gear, Sound & Vision and Home Automation.

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