How to Choose a Multiroom Audio System

Consider these features when choosing a whole-house entertainment system.


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.

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.

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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.

High Definition
It’s no secret we live in an HD world. With the right disc, Blu-ray can make DVD look like VHS—it’s that impressive. But we’re not just talking about Blu-ray, here. HD cable and satellite services, HD camcorders, Internet-based HD video streams, you name it: HD content is everywhere.

While HD is the best way to take full advantage of your shiny flat-panel displays by delivering higher-quality pictures (and often better sound), it also means higher bandwidth requirements and larger file sizes. Make sure the system you buy can handle both. “You have to be able to distribute full 1080p video and HD audio,” says Jeff Singer, marketing communications director at Crestron. “You should also be able to access and distribute personal media such as photos and family videos.”

“Streaming media is the current must-have, because it pretty much means having anything and everything you could want,” says NuVo president David Rodarte. “Tapping nto the abundance of content available online fills your home with limitless entertainment. There are so many sources online that it increases your options a hundred-fold and negates the need for hard disk storage.”

Open Architecture
In a complex multiroom system, where you have so many devices talking to one another and sending and receiving audio, video, and a myriad of control commands, communication is key. Remote Technologies Inc. (RTI) vice president of sales and marketing Pete Baker agrees: “An open architecture that allows control from third-party devices through IP, RS-232 or IR is absolutely critical.”

Common Myths Debunked

MYTH: Multiroom A/V systems are too expensive. They’re only for owners of mansions.
FACT: Like everything in this world, there are solutions available for virtually every budget. “Saying whole-house audio systems are too expensive is like saying cars are too expensive,” says Russound’s Walt Zerbe. “Which car is too expensive, and why? And what do you need that car to do for you? Providing a standalone sound system in every room where music is desired can in many cases become more expensive than a planned system. Systems can range from simple and cost effective to expensive and complex. There are quality levels and there are feature levels, all of which contribute to the price and user experience of the system.”

MYTH: With iPod docks built into everything these days, a whole-house system is unnecessary.
FACT: “Some would say that a professionally installed system is expensive and unnecessary in today’s world of inexpensive portable music players,” says Autonomic’s Michael de Nigris. “Most homeowners who have installed and experienced a multiroom A/V system will tell you that they would no sooner go without one again than they would go without light dimmers.”

MYTH: Multiroom systems are way too complicated.
FACT: Although the ability to properly operate consumer electronics equipment has long been an acquired skill, whole-house audio and video system manufacturers recognize that simplicity equals satisfaction. “No matter how sophisticated the system becomes, that doesn’t mean it can’t be intuitive and easy for anyone in the home to operate it comfortably,” says RTI’s Pete Baker.

MYTH: Distributed A/V systems are finicky and don’t always behave.
FACT: No piece of gear is completely immune to the occasional hiccup. That said, HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) and its infamous “digital handshake” can present issues when wire runs are too long or improper switching equipment is used. And with so much content now originating on the web, a fast, secure and properly-configured data network is more important than ever. For these reasons, selecting a capable, experienced professional installer who fully supports his or her work is perhaps the most important decision you’ll make when planning for a multiroom audio/video system.


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