Imagine having hi-fi music and DVD-quality video piped into every room of your home, including patios and decks, with nothing visible but elegant wall-mounted keypads and speakers. Not only is such a design neat and tidy, but it may also be easier to operate than a regular audio/video setup. Make no mistake: It’s still best to have a high-quality whole house audio and video system installed by a trained professional. The good news is that with today’s gear, you won’t feel as if you’ve adopted a new member of the family because an installer has to spend days at your home setting up the system.
A whole house audio/video system is usually controlled by handheld remotes or wall-mounted control panels, with all of the source equipment and amplifiers hidden in one closet. The best systems accommodate extra sources such as satellite tuners, DVD players, CD changers, media servers, iPods and digital video recorders (DVRs), all of which can be located in various rooms. When correctly configured, these sources can be experienced in any room.
Manufacturers of these types of multiroom audio and video systems include ADA, Audioaccess, Crestron, Elan Home Systems, McIntosh and Russound, to name a few. Most of these systems are hardwired, meaning speaker wire and video cable is routed from a central processor and multiroom amplifier to each speaker and TV in the house. Many newer systems, however, use the same Ethernet cabling that carries computer data in a home network.
Many whole house audio/video systems are called multiroom/multizone. A zone is one room or a group of rooms where you can control one or more components in the system. This allows you to adjust the volume and select the source (tuner, CD or video, for example) that you want for that zone. You can have one amplifier for each zone or a multichannel amplifier that contains several amplifiers for each zone in one chassis.
To save money, it is possible to share CD players, TiVo receivers, VCRs, DVD players and other equipment among different zones. Someone can listen to a CD in one area while someone else listens to a radio station off the receiver in another zone. However, shared components can be controlled from any zone, so if you are listening to a CD in the living room and someone in the bedroom wants to change tracks, you will hear the change. The more source components like CD and DVD players you have, the more independent each zone can be.
Subzones may have a separate volume control but are still tied to whatever source is being played in the master zone. For example, master baths are often subzones of the master suite zone. In this scenario, you can hear the same music in each space, but you can also turn the volume up or down in the bath. If you and your spouse can’t agree on the music while you’re in the bedroom and he or she is in the bath, you might want each space to be its own zone. Then you can both listen to your favorite tunes without bothering each other.
This is the fun part of a whole house audio/video system. If your custom electronics contractor is really good, he’ll ask you all kinds of seemingly personal questions in order to design a system that is customized to your needs and tastes.
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Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business and co-founder of St. John Group, Inc.