How to Choose a Multiroom Audio System
Consider these features when choosing a whole-house entertainment system.
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Whole-house audio system manufacturer NuVo offers an app that lets you use an iPad to select a song from your music library and direct it to speakers in a particular room.
July 25, 2011 by EH Staff

Whole-house entertainment systems are available in several different designs and configurations. Some cater to enthusiasts who own a host of audio/video components and want to be able to enjoy their media from several different areas; others are meant for people who are content to listen to soft background music. Whatever your taste, there’s a system to suit you.

Here are the key features to consider when working with a custom electronics (CE) professional, as most distributed A/V systems are best installed by a pro.

Single or Multisource
Be mindful of the difference between a “single-source” system and a “multisource” system. A single-source system lets you see or hear the same video or song in every room. A multisource system, on the other hand, allows you to listen to or watch something different in each entertainment zone. iTunes can stream to the patio speakers while Rhapsody plays through the speakers in the kitchen, for example. Remember, too, that one zone does not have to be one room. Your kitchen and the adjacent dining room—two “rooms”—could easily be configured as one “zone” of your system. Generally speaking, the larger your system (or your family) gets, the more desirable a multisource system becomes. You love your kids, but do you really want to listen to their music?

The Controls
The manner in which you physically access and control your source equipment can vary depending on the complexity of your system. Wall-mounted volume controls and keypads are popular options, particularly when it comes to audio and the desire to set the mood in whichever room you’re in.

Whatever system you choose, make sure there’s an app for it. Just about every major player in the whole-house audio and video market has developed an iPod/iPad and/or Android application, instantly transforming your cell phone and/ or tablet device into a full-color, touchscreen controller for your home’s A/V system. “The one area where we’ve fully embraced wireless technology is with the audio system’s controllers,” says Robert Gilligan, a CE pro at Engineered Environments in Alameda, Calif. “If it can’t be controlled on a phone or tablet with an app, we won’t recommend it for our clients.”

Wired or Wireless
“Wiring provides the most reliable connection [between the source equipment and the TVs and speakers]. But it comes at a huge cost in installation—particularly in older homes and apartment buildings in places like New York City,” says Tom Cullen, co-founder and vice president of sales and marketing at Sonos. “If I was building a new house, I’d wire every room for high bandwidth. But for existing homes, wireless is the best option from a cost and installation standpoint.”

“Wireless systems are cheaper and easier to install, but that’s where the benefits end. While wireless systems are more accessible at first, they don’t have the reliability and performance of wired systems,” says Michael de Nigris, cofounder of Autonomic Controls. “Wireless systems have improved greatly, but there’s nothing worse than having the music stop to buffer the audio stream in the middle of a song,” adds Gilligan.

Ease of Use
When you consider the complexity of some multiroom A/V systems, ease of use may seem like a tall order, but it’s critical for long-term satisfaction.  “At the end of a long work day, a homeowner should be able to confidently go up to a keypad, and with the press of one button, music or video should play and relax the senses,” says Mike Detmer, president of Niles Audio.

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