December 13, 2012
| by Greg Robinson
Any contractor, electrician, or home integrator will tell you: The time to run wiring is when you’re building a new home and the walls are exposed. With the ability to see both sides of your wall and facing no hidden obstacles, you will never have a better, more hassle-free opportunity to run your network cable, coax, HDMI and speaker wires. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever want music in your bathroom, run wiring there anyway. It’ll cost you pennies to add the extra length. Deciding years later that you’d like speaker wiring in your bathroom could cost you. Or you can do what so many smart retrofitters are doing these days: go wireless.
New construction may be the best time to wire up a home audio system, but let’s face it: Most of us are not building new homes. For most home audio shoppers, the reality is that you’re either trying to add a music system to your existing home, or you’re buying a home with walls that were sealed up many ears ago. In other words, you’re attempting to retrofit an old space with new electronics. And that is precisely when a wireless or network-based music system can become your new best friend. NuVo Technologies president David Rodarte agrees: “The perk of a home filled with the music you love, without the pain of days of all-cutting or wire-pulling, makes wireless systems an alluring option.”
Before delving into the benefits of wireless audio systems and why they’re so popular right now, we should first clarify exactly what we mean when we say “wireless.” For the purposes of this article, a wireless audio system is one that relies on your home network and/or Wi-Fi router to distribute music. It could be IP-based (Internet Protocol), or RF-based (Radio Frequency), but the important thing is that it doesn’t require the installation of new wires to get your music from point A to point B. Granted, some IP-based systems do require a hard wire connection, so those systems will require a network jack at your target location. However, with numerous powerline and Wi-Fi “bridge” products now available, adding new wire behind the walls shouldn’t be necessary.
The appeal of a network-based audio system, especially one that’s wireless, is easy to understand. As our CDs and vinyl gather more dust and we turn instead to our iPods and MP3 music downloads, there is an increasing need for centralized storage and distributed playback.
More and more of us want to store our entire music collection in one place, and have access to it, coupled with access to Internet music services such as Pandora and Spotify, from anywhere in the house. “The most compelling reason to buy a modern music system is for the access to all the music on Earth,” says Tom Cullen, co-founder of and vice president of market development for Sonos. “One of the problems with all that abundance is the risk of complexity. Wireless is clean and simple, which makes it so alluring.” Beyond the installation simplicity of a wireless or network-based audio system, sometimes your home’s unique logistics or construction type makes a traditional wired system a nightmare to contemplate. Whether it’s plaster walls, intricate woodworking, or a frustrating lack of wire access, the plain truth is that sometimes wireless is your best and only option.
“Traditional wired systems, while equipped with many virtues, are often difficult to integrate into existing homes,” says Rodarte. “Wireless home audio options, however, deliver on the demands of “everywhere” and “easy” with their inherent convenience and flexibility, no matter the home’s construction. Quickly installed, and easily upgraded, wireless systems introduce the luxury of multiroom audio in substantially less time, and with minimal disruption to your daily life.”
It’s the Network
The first thing to tackle when planning a whole-house audio system is establishing a home network. With broadband Internet now commonplace, odds are you already have either a cable or DSL modem. However, you may not have a router if your computer is the only device in your home currently accessing the Internet. Whether your chosen music system communicates via IP, hard wire, RF or a proprietary solution such as Sonos’ “wireless mesh network,” a router is still required for device-to-device communication and for providing a gateway to Internet content such as music from Pandora.
If you’re buying a new router, be sure to get one with Wi-Fi capabilities. Although routers lacking integrated Wi-Fi are slightly less expensive, that’s not a corner you will want to cut. Even if you have network jacks in all of your target areas, you’re guaranteed to be glad you have Wi-Fi at some point down the road. These days, most Wi-Fi routers are “dual-band, Wireless-N” capable, meaning they can communicate with both newer 802.11n devices as well as older 802.11b/802.11g devices. That techno mumbo jumbo just means that whether it’s your old laptop, your new Blu-ray player, or your AirPlay-enabled iPod dock/radio, they’ll all be able to share your network.
Read Electronic House’s review of the Sonos wireless music system.
Follow Electronic House on Facebook and Twitter.
Greg Robinson is a freelance technology writer whose work has appeared in several national publications. When he's not evaluating Blu-ray Discs or calibrating televisions, you can usually find him thumping volleyballs at his local gym in rural northeast Connecticut.
• Sound Quality: When evaluating wireless and networked-based audio systems, you shouldn’t have to choose between convenience and sound quality; they should go hand in hand. “Systems that account for and address the common issues of wireless, like room-to-room synchronization or bandwidth for uncompressed music content, are the wireless options most worthy of your attention, and ultimately, your money,” says Rodarte.
• Content Galore: With the Internet at your fingertips, why limit your listening options to the music in your own collection? Ideally, your system should provide “all Internet radio, any major streaming service including jukebox services like Spotify or Rhapsody, Custom Radio like Pandora and Last.FM, and unique services like Wolfgang’s Vault, which has heaps of live concert recordings,” says Cullen.
• Control Flexibility: The traditional remote control is a dying breed. With so many systems now offering smartphone and tablet control apps, make sure you can master your music “with whatever device is handy,” says Cullen. “This list should include iPhone, iPod touch, Android Phone, PC, Mac, and anything else that comes along.”
• Easy Install/Upgrades. Let’s not beat around the bush: We want it easy, and we just want it to work. “A homeowner wants a simple-to-install system that doesn’t require them to have an IT degree,” says Aton’s Jim Koenig. “Those products with great technical support and some type of wizard/software to assist installation are a must for a DIY installation.”