Getting Started with Multi-Room Audio 
Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles
Written by Dick Ward   
Monday, 01 November 2010

When we talk about multi-room audio, we've got a certain image in mind.  We picture controlling the source for any room in the house from any room in the house.  We imagine touch control pads in each and full control over a tower of CD players, radios, computers and other music sources.  It's a great goal, but it's not as simple as just going out and buying one component.

Multi-room audio systems are incredibly diverse, and come in configurations to meet a wide range of needs.  Even if you're hiring someone to take care of installation, you'll need to do a bit of research up front to figure out just what kind of setup is right for you.  Different homes will allow for different systems.  If you've got a new construction or you're willing to go through the trouble of wiring your walls, there are options available to you that aren't available to someone in an apartment, for example.
The simplest form of multi-room audio may be something that you already have in your home.  If you've got a high-end receiver or preamp, chances are it's equipped with zone functionality.  Even some mid-level receivers are starting to come packed with it, so if in doubt take a look at your gear. Each of these zone outputs – some receivers have a few - can be routed to a different room in the house.  It's different than simply attaching speakers to an extra output, since each zone can be set up to play audio from a different source.  If you want the radio on in one room and a movie in the other, you can do it.

Receiver multi

There's a downside to using a single receiver solution though, and it's a big one.   Unless you've set something up specifically to deal with the issue, you'll have to be in the same room as the receiver to change your settings.  That includes volume, source selection and power.  A few receivers on the market today can be controlled via WiFi devices like the iPhone, which makes them excellent choices for this kind of setup.  Since they use WiFi, you don't have to be within sight or even in the same room to adjust your controls.  This kind of an arrangement can work nicely for simpler desires, like getting music to outdoor speakers or making sure you've got something to listen to in the kitchen.  To get the whole home audio experience though, you'll need to step up your game.

The traditional whole-home audio system makes use of a separate component to control the whole system.  It's the brain of the system, and the hub of what amounts to a network running through your entire house. These systems can be as simple or as complex as you want, and as bare-bones or as robust as you need.  Most whole-home audio systems require a bit of wiring – some don't, as I'll discuss later in the article – so unless you really feel up to the task, you'll need to call in an installer to take care of the job.

HAI Hi-Fi 2 HubThe process gets simpler and your options get wider if you're installing into a house that's under construction.  Rather than worry about an alternative solution, you can pre-wire each room in the house for audio.  Take HAI's new Hi-Fi 2 as an example of just how simple it can be.  The Hi-Fi 2 hub is designed to sit in your basement, running audio from up to eight sources to up to eight different zones.  Adjusting the settings for each individual zone is simple, and is handled via a wall plate in the room.  The control unit has four buttons.  One turns the volume down, one turns it up, one turns the audio on or off and the final button changes the source. It's not burdened with an excess of features, but it's not incredibly complicated to set up or use either.  It's the sort of thing you could install yourself if you wanted to, and it allows you to make changes if you desire.

Multi-room audio can be far more complex than that.  Some home automation systems boast incredible amounts of features in addition to providing audio throughout your whole home. They include your multi-room audio solution into a suite of other options, like lighting control, temperature control and security.  Of course, this added functionality can come at the cost of customizability. Many of these higher end systems need to be installed and programmed by professionals and don't give you the option to do anything yourself.  If you've set up your own system and you want to add something to it, you can do so.  If you're using one of the high-end closed source systems though, you don't have that option.

That's not to say that going with a closed source solution is a bad idea by any means.  Professional installers can set up equipment far more quickly and efficiently than the average homeowner, and they guarantee that the job will be done right.  They can also fully customize the system to fit your needs, so you shouldn't have to change anything in the first place.

If you're retrofitting your home with multi-room audio, you can still go with a wired solution, but you're probably going to be seeing quite a bit of drywall work in the near future.  Luckily, new technologies allow you to avoid this altogether.  The new kid on the block at the moment is power line audio.  Though it's still gaining ground as a networking technology, Russound, NuVo and others have introduced whole-home audio systems that run on the new tech.

Iogear Powerline
Power line is exactly what it sounds like.  Rather than installing new wires in your home, the data will travel over the wires you already have.  The hub in this case will plug in to a traditional outlet – there's no special installation needed.  Power line systems can be incredibly simple.  IOGear's GHPAKIT power line system, for example, is limited in functionality, but allows you to get audio from any electrical outlet in your house with the use of a stereo audio adapter.  Plug the adapter in, attach speakers, and you're done.  It's not the prettiest solution by any means.  Unlike higher end in-wall setups, the IOGear kit uses external adapters which don't contribute much to the look of a room.  Another big downside is that it only allows you to listen to a single device.

Russound CollageSomething like the Russound Collage gets more complicated, but far more robust.  Instead of plugging in to an existing outlet, keypads will be installed into your wall above your light switches.  It's something you'll need a professional for, of course.  Your sound may be travelling differently, but a power line audio solution is otherwise very similar to more traditional options.  It looks the same, and it works in essentially the same way as well.  The only real difference is the wires you're using.  If you've got an older home and your electrical wiring isn't quite up to snuff then Power line may not be for you.   It also presents some complications when used in an environment with multiple electrical panels.

Another thing that's important to think about when considering multi-room audio is your source.  If you want a variety of sources including CD players, tuners and other more traditional audio devices you'll have to go with one of the wired setups we've already detailed.  If your audio collection is digital, a wide variety of new options opens itself up to you.

Sonos system
The most prevalent and oft talked about of these purely digital audio solutions is the Sonos Multi-Room Music System.  That's not without good reason.  The Sonos system is an incredibly smart adaptation of wireless technology.  Instead of relying on a traditional wireless network, the Sonos creates its own mesh network.  That means that instead of one source for the wireless signal, each Sonos device acts as a repeater, carrying the signal further than would otherwise be possible. While the Sonos and other digital systems may be perfect for those with large music collections on their PC or Mac, the solution is less than optimal if you're looking something more than just streaming from iTunes.

Klipsch lightbulb speakerOne very new entry to the multi-room audio scene is the light bulb speaker.  We've only really started to see this solution show up recently, but it's got the potential to take off in the near future.  Take the Klipsch LightSpeaker system for example.  While the basic concept is the same as any wireless solution, the system forgoes traditional speakers for LED bulbs with speakers built in.  Using the included remote you can switch sources, adjust volume and, of course, adjust lighting.

It seems only natural that the idea of a light bulb speaker be combined with power line at some point in the future.  For now only wireless options are available, but it should be interesting to see what develops over the next few years. Multi-room or whole home audio is just like anything else in home theater.  There's no single solution that's going to work for everybody.  You've got to consider the aesthetics, your audio needs and even your home before jumping into your first multi-room audio solution.

What does your perfect multi-room audio setup look like?

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