Purchasing a whole-house: audio system is a great way to enhance your living space. Not long ago these systems were expensive and difficult to install. No longer is this the case. With an increasing number of options available, there’s a system for nearly every type of home, budget and homeowner need. But finding the right system is only part of the process. You’ll want to install your system in a way that allows it to perform to its full music-playing potential. The following tips will help ensure that you get the most bang for your audio buck.
1. The Component Selection
To get the most enjoyment out of your multi-room audio system you must start with the right components. The first component you’ll need to consider is the source. Source material, be it music from your iTunes library, streaming services like Pandora, or a good old-fashioned CD, must be converted from a digital signal to an analog signal before it hits your eardrums. This conversion is the job of a DAC (digital-to-analog converter). The quality of this converter will have an impact on the sound reproduction.
In an effort to minimize costs, most manufacturers design their equipment using relatively inexpensive DACs. For the majority of listeners these DACs produce audio of a perfectly acceptable quality. In this case, you can simply utilize the analog outputs (either 3.5mm or RCA) of your source component. Some source players even have a built-in amplifier, in which case the device will have speaker terminal outputs. Some listeners, however, may desire the improved quality of an outboard DAC. If you fall into this category, be sure to buy source components with a digital output. Either coaxial or optical will work.
Now for the amplifier: When it comes to optimizing your multi-room audio system, amplifier selection boils down to a choice between analog and digital. There are several classes of analog amps (A, B, and A/B), each with their own performance and efficiency traits. Class D digital amplifiers have several advantages over their analog counterparts, namely greater efficiency (less heat) and increased immunity to signal distortion. While many audiophiles still espouse the benefits of high-end analog circuitry, for most music enthusiats a digital amp will afford a better listening experience.
With sources and amplifiers selected, the last major component to choose is the speakers. Fundamentally, any given speaker is a very simple mechanism, the design of which is equal parts art and science. Trying to quantitatively measure what makes one speaker better than another can be an exercise in futility. Given two speakers of comparable build quality, the difference is by and large one of personal preference. Consequently, if you have the option, either through a local dealer or retailer, auditioning speakers in person is by far the best way to make an informed purchase.
If you are forced to shop on specifications alone, many people will look first at a speaker’s power rating, which is in fact a rather meaningless specification. A much more telling measurement is the speaker’s sensitivity rating, which reflects its ability to convert an amplifier’s energy into sound. This rating represents the output level of a speaker given 1 watt (or 2.83 volts) of input power from an amplifier. Measurements are taken at a fixed distance of 1 meter from the speaker. The rating will typically look something like this: “89dB SPL (2.83V/1 Meter)”. The higher the rating the more efficient the speaker, and greater efficiency generally equates to better sound.
2. The Physical Installation
Once all of your components are selected it is time to move on to the physical installation. The placement of speakers relative to one another, as well as to other objects in the room, can make a substantial difference in the speaker’s performance. One of the first places to start when determining speaker placement is the installation manual provided with your speakers. This manual should contain information on the speaker’s dispersion pattern. Often, the manual will also contain general guidelines for placement based on such factors as room size and ceiling height.
No matter the type of speaker you’ve selected, there are some general guidelines you can follow. When using in-ceiling speakers it is important to keep them at least 2 feet away from adjacent walls. In-wall speakers should generally be placed at ear-level or higher. Although in some rooms, such as a dining area, where music is likely only to be played at very low volumes, speakers can be placed down low without great compromise to the system’s performance.
In terms of speaker placement relative to one another, the idea is to create even audio dispersion throughout the space. This is accomplished by spreading the speakers out. Bear in mind that in larger rooms a single pair of speakers may not be enough to create the desired effect. Conversely, in smaller rooms, such as bathrooms, a pair may be overkill due to space constraints. In these situations a “stereo input” speaker may be utilized. This is a single speaker that utilizes two inputs (left and right) to create the desired stereo imaging effect in a smaller space.
3. The Calibration
If you desire further optimization after the physical installation is complete, a room-by-room calibration is the next step. The most basic type of calibration can be performed by using an SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter and a series of calibration test tones, available on numerous CDs or as free downloads from various websites. Utilizing these test tones and referencing the readings on an SPL meter, the respective levels of each speaker can be adjusted to match. These levels must be checked from a fixed position in the space; typically this is performed from the ideal listening position. Depending on the components you have selected, the adjustments will be made either through software, or on the physical trim knobs typically located on the back of the amplifier.
Although it seems simple, there is a catch to this basic type of calibration. Some zones in a multi-room audio setup may have more than one commonly used listening position, like standing in front of the kitchen sink and sitting at the kitchen table, for instance. Other rooms may not have a dedicated listening position at all, as in a hallway. In such instances a detailed level calibration using an SPL meter may not make much sense.
A second step in the calibration process could include making adjustments to the frequency response of the system using equalizer settings. Depending on the components you have selected, you will likely have rather limited options, however. Sonos, one of the most popular multi-room audio systems on the market, for instance, gives you a 2-band equalizer: bass and treble. Use your ears when making adjustments to these systems, and always do so sparingly. Also be sure to use the same source material in every room as different songs will be affected differently by the same adjustments.
4. The Source Material
Beyond the physical installation and calibration there is one final consideration to make: the selection of source material. After all, the best system in the world can only do so much with highly compressed, low-quality source material. As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” This is primarily a consideration when it comes to digital music files, whether they are downloaded or streamed.
Online music stores, such as iTunes, and streaming services, such as Pandora and Spotify, use various forms of compression technology to shrink audio files down to manageable sizes. This type of compression is called “lossy.” Over time, these compression algorithms have become highly sophisticated. Consequently, the effects of lossy compression are inaudible to the vast majority of listeners. There are some people, however, who prefer audio that has been compressed using what are called lossless compression algorithms. New streaming services such as Tidal and Deezer Elite cater to this hi-fi crowd. Both services offer some form of free trial. It may be worth a shot to see if you can hear the difference. Or better yet, do a blind comparison with a spouse or friend.
Purchasing and installing a multi-room audio system is easier now than ever before. While the upfront costs and setup time have been minimized, it’s still critical to ensure that you get the maximum possible performance for your money. By following a few simple guidelines throughout the purchasing and installation phases, you can feel confident that you are maximizing your multi-room audio investment.