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 March 2005


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

By Joe Hageman
March 2005


In Part 1 of this How-To adventure, I discussed the various types of audio distribution systems available. But which one is right for you? Do you have to spend upwards of $50K and rewire your entire house to accommodate dozens of pairs of speakers and LCD touch screens?

Of course not, but as is the case with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Choosing the right audio distribution system for you depends on many different factors from the size of your house to how long you plan on living there. More important, it depends on your lifestyle and how often you plan on using the system. If you never entertain or lead such a busy work life that you’re rarely at home, spending a small fortune on a distributed audio system may not make sense for you. However, if you’re a social butterfly who likes to throw dinner parties and spends a lot of time at home, a distributed audio system is a must.

Another thing to consider is the value of your home. If you live in a nice neighborhood where the median price of a home is above the national average, then adding an audio distribution system may add significantly to the value of your residence when it comes time to refinance or sell. Conversely, if you live in a more depressed area or a neighborhood that is full of summer houses, you may never see the return on your investment in your audio distribution system if you do decide to sell. Buyers on a budget or those looking to buy a summer house might not see the value in a state-of-the-art audio distribution system and are less likely to pay a premium for it. Also, most banks don’t take into account the value of electronics when appraising a home. So what you perceive as an added amenity, the bank only sees as gadgetry that doesn’t add to the home’s value. This is slowly changing, though. Banks and mortgage lenders are starting to place a value on structured wiring and differing types of distribution systems, albeit they are not placing as much value on them as the homeowner would necessarily like.

Now that you’ve decided you want an audio distribution system, which one should you pick? As I explained above, there are many different factors to consider when choosing a system. Let’s start with the physical size of your home. The size of an audio distribution system is typically referred to in terms of zones. 2-4 zones is a pretty small system that one could easily address with an affordable, one-box solution. 6-8 zones are more typical and require a more robust system with several sources and access points. What constitutes a zone? That depends on where you want music. Common areas, such as sitting rooms and the kitchen, are a must, as well as outside porches and decks. Guest rooms and bathrooms are optional and depend on how many guests you entertain and whether or not you feel it necessary to listen to music while doing “business.” I would recommend making guest room(s) an independent zone. I had a friend of mine stay in my guest room, which features two in-ceiling speakers and a volume control but is a sub-zone of the first floor. He commented that he couldn’t access music from his room unless he went to the touch screen in the kitchen and turned the entire first floor zone on. This was a major oversight on my part and one I plan on correcting.

Some systems offer a fixed number of zones, while others are based on an expandable platform where zones can be added as needed. Why would you ever add more zones, you ask? Well, a perfect example is my little guest room dilemma. As it stands now, my system is set up for four zones, but I can easily add more zones with the addition of some hardware and extra amplifiers to drive the speakers in those zones. If you are quite certain you’ll never put an addition on your house, then expandability might not be a priority for you, or one you’re willing to pay extra for. Then again, you may not want to expand, but you might sell your house to someone who does and the audio distribution system they are about to inherit might not be as useful to them if they cannot expand upon it. It is my recommendation to buy a system that has at least two more zones than you currently need; go ahead and install enough amplification for those two extra zones as well. This way, should you decide to expand, you won’t need to tear apart your equipment rack and install new hardware.



The complexity of the system is also something to consider. While adding a ton of extra features and loading touch screens to access all things electronic in your house may seem cool at first, after a while, your system can become cumbersome to use and downright impossible to use for those not familiar with it. Keep it simple. Add just enough features to make it useful. You can always add other sources and features later on if necessary. Keeping it simple also makes sense if you ever plan on selling your home. Rule of thumb is, if your parents can’t figure the system out, chances, are a potential buyer won’t be able to either. You may have the most beautiful house in the neighborhood, but if people can’t figure out how to turn the lights on and off, your automation system goes from being an asset to actually devaluing your house.

For smaller homes, an all-in-one-box solution is a good one because these systems are affordable and give you just what you need, nothing more. Typically, they’ll come in varying kit forms containing all the components one would need and of course, will carry a cute little moniker like “Elegante” or “Voila!” Contained in the kit will probably be the A/V controller that may or may not house a tuner, enough amplification to distribute music to up to four zones (about 12 speakers or so), a few volume controls and maybe a keypad. Some of the better systems of this nature I’ve seen are available from Nuvo Technologies and ZoN. These “audio distribution-in-a-box” products offer homeowners a simple solution when they’re trying to choose the system that is right for them – plus they’re extremely simple to use.

Larger homes require, you guessed it, a larger audio distribution system. In a larger home, you want more access points (keypads or otherwise) to the system so you have full control no matter what room (or wing) of the house you are in. You don’t want to be on the third floor and get stuck listening to Maroon 5 and have to run down to the first floor to change it to … well, just about anything but that. You will also want the system to be able to access other features, such as security, lighting, HVAC, CCTV, etc. This requires a much more sophisticated A/V controller (a “hub,” if you will) and the use of touch screens. Yes, keypads can do the trick as well, but they have nowhere near the sophistication and ease of a touch screen. A good A/V controller/touch screen combo can give you access to the Internet, the temperature reading outside, let you adjust the lights in any room and, of course, listen to music. They can also go as far as letting you watch TV or a DVD on them.

To save money, one might be tempted to mix and match keypads and touch screens. I don’t recommend this, because the look and feel of the system changes from room to room and makes it harder to use. When a system looks the same and acts the same in every room, it makes it much easier for you and others to use. Unless you have a zone that requires only very limited access to the audio distribution system where a small keypad will do the trick, either go with all keypads or go with all touch screens.

When choosing an audio distribution system, you need to carefully map out the location of speakers and volume controls and/or keypads/touch screens with your installer. Depending on the size of the area two or four in-ceiling speakers may be appropriate or not appropriate at all. For instance, unless your dining room is secluded from the other rooms, I don’t recommend installing speakers in this area. Music at dinner time should be background music and not interfere with the conversation at the table. Speakers located directly above the table can become distracting to the point where you’ll stop using your system altogether at dinner time.


A quick word on music servers – get one! I have the very excellent Via! DJ from Elan (made for them by imerge) and I love it. Elan actually did me a nice service by importing all my CDs onto my server for me. A music server allows you to access all of your CDs (or WMAs and MP-3s if your server is capable) from anywhere in the home at the touch of a button. You can browse your music collection based on title, genre and even cover art, and since music servers are hard drive-based, there’s no more waiting for a carousel to spin around, find and load a disc. Many of today’s “media” PCs can do the same thing – all you have to do is network your PC to your audio distribution system and you’re good to go.

Lastly, I have three words for you: integration, integration and integration. As I explained in Part I, different systems and components don’t always play nice with one another and getting them to cooperate can often require a lot of expensive programming. One way to avoid this is to choose a system from a manufacturer that does it all – from A/V distribution to HVAC and lighting control. Crestron is one such company, with great products and a good reputation. Another way to go would be to keep it down to two companies whose products you know integrate smoothly with one another. ADA and Vantage Controls, for instance, work extremely well together and a lot of the more high-end installers use these two products together for their huge, mega-buck installations. ADA handles the A/V distribution and amplification, while Vantage Controls takes care of the lighting and HVAC. They blend seamlessly together on a Vantage Controls touch screen. Vantage also makes a wonderful theater integration product called the TheaterPoint, which integrates lighting control in your theater or media room, so that when you push “Play” to watch a movie, your drapes can automatically close and your lights will dim. It also incorporates sophisticated IR control of your theater components with intelligent “if this, then that” technology, so the IR sequence doesn’t get screwed up and turn off something when you actually wanted it turned on.

If done right, an audio distribution system can be one of the most enjoyable and smart investments you can make. If you’re building a new house, this is a no-brainer – wire it up for distributed audio and stick in-ceiling speakers all over the house. Remodeling? Do the same thing. Also, wireless technology is getting better and better so even those of you who live in an ancient house with no possibility of getting into the walls to run new wires have no excuse not to have distributed audio in your home. Just make sure you pick a good installer who knows what the hell s/he is doing. I’d rather have a second-rate system put in by a pro, then a high-end one put in by a novice any day.

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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