Audio specifications: Specifications used to differentiate whole-house audio systems, such as the ones described below, provide a baseline to compare the sound quality of the various products on the market. These specs only tell part of the story, however. It is the system in its entirety—the sound quality, as well as convenience, ease of use, and reliability—that will ultimately determine the level of your satisfaction. Still, these specs provide a good starting point when shopping:
POWER OUTPUT (Watts) Measured in watts, this is the amount of power an audio component’s amplifier will output. This may be one of the most important yet most misunderstood of the specifications to consider. Although the power output of a component is important, more power does not mean higher quality, even though in many cases you will pay more for that extra power. There are certainly high-quality components that output only 20 watts; conversely there are low-quality products that output 120 watts. Therefore, it may be less expensive to have a system that has lower power in most rooms, but the flexibility to add an amplifier in rooms that need it, such as the great room or outdoor area.
EASE OF USE The flexibility provided by open-platform engineering is a big separation factor for multi-zone audio systems, as they can be integrated with and operated from a professionally installed home control system. You can control every aspect of their environment—from audio and video, to lighting, heating and cooling, security, and more from one control device.
INTEGRATION While an all-in-one or wireless audio system provides some conveniences, a professionally installed multi-zone audio system offers the ability to choose the components that best suit the needs of each installation. In fact, many home systems integrators are finding great success blending the streaming audio capabilities of popular wireless audio systems with professionally installed hard-wired distributed audio systems.
AMPLIFICATION In addition to powered outputs for speaker connections, does the system have “preamp outputs” for a connection to an external amplifier? Again, your expectations and the scope of the project will determine how much sound needs to be delivered to each zone. Having a system that allows for additional amplification where needed is beneficial.
FREQUENCY RESPONSE This measures how uniformly a device reproduces sounds, typically across the range of frequencies that most humans can hear (20Hz to 20KHz). A lower decibel (dB) is better, indicating a smaller variation in the volume level from the lowest tone to the highest.
CROSSTALK Measured in dB (decibels), this is the amount of audio signal that is leaked across the left and right channels of an amplifier. The larger the negative number (further from 0) the better.
TRIGGER OUTPUTS AND INPUTS This allows the integration of external audio devices and can help keep the control system aware of the status of the audio devices at all times.
SIGNAL-TO-NOISE RATIO Measured in dB (decibels), this is the amount of background noise generated by the component compared to the level of audio output. Most audio components will produce some background noise due to power supplies, electrical fluctuations, heat, and wiring. Look for a higher number.
SPEAKERS Room types and sizes, such as bathrooms, great rooms, playrooms, and outdoor areas, determine the speaker requirements. A traditional hard-wired multi-zone audio system has the advantage by offering a tremendous amount of flexibility in speaker types, placement, and quantity in each zone.
QUANTITY OF INPUTS Consider not only how many inputs are needed today but also in the future to determine the number of inputs your system needs. The ability to add music sources essentially futureproofs the system.
STREAMING SERVICES While sound quality (via a higher bitrate) may be a selling point for some streaming services, you may be willing to compromise some quality for greater selection of songs.
DOORBELL/PAGING INPUT Separate inputs for the integration of paging systems, doorbells, and phones allow external systems to mute the audio system. This lets the listener know when other events in the home may require their attention.
AUDIO SOURCES The type of components you use to listen to music will determine the type of whole-house audio system that’ll work best for you. It is important to factor in both current and future needs when determining the ideal system.
TOTAL HARMONIC DISTORTION Measured as a percentage, this is the amount of sound degradation or distortion caused by a component. Look for lower percentages (usually less than 1%).
EQUALIZER ADJUSTMENTS This gives a home systems integrator the ability to customize the sound to fit the acoustic space. These settings will be different for every room.
QUANTITY OF OUTPUTS For hard-wired multi-zone audio systems, the number of zones/rooms determines the number of outputs needed in the system.
THE “SAVVY FACTOR” How tech-savvy are you? Most networked/wireless systems require users to set up devices within their home network.
CONVENIENCE Will an app suffice or would you benefit from having a control system that also provides dedicated control using in-wall touchpanels, keypads, and wireless remote controls in one cohesive system?
“PARTY MODE”/SCENE CONTROL If using the system for entertaining is key, distribution of music to different areas needs to be easy, intuitive, and on-the-fly, especially during a party.
— BY BRETT STOKKE, Director of Communications, RTI