Submission by Mark Harrison – Welcome to the Automated Home guide to multi-room audio. This guide documents some options for spreading music throughout your house. Hopefully this will inspire you to listen to music more, and, if it helps you plan a system, then all the better. Let’s start with a couple of simple definitions.
- Whole House Audio is when you listen to the same music all over the house.
- Zoned Audio is when you listen to different music in different parts of the house.
The two different approaches for Whole House Audio are pretty much differentiated by the number of amplifiers you have – one for the house, or one for each room.
The first approach is the cheapest – You have a single amplifier, which drives speakers all over the house. The two problems are therefore “how do you get the sound from the amp to the speakers” and “how do I control the central source”.
Driving the speakers is, well, a question of running speaker cable. The old faithful 79 strand cable (picture, left), is pretty much the right balance in terms of quality. Anything less, and the sound quality will be unbearable – anything more, and you’re probably better off spending your money on a different type of solution (see below.)
If you’re running multiple cables, mark them with tape to distinguish between them (right.) Don’t run speaker cables parallel to mains cables. You’ll get inducted hum!
Make sure your amplifier is powerful enough to drive multiple sets of speakers! Ideally, you should use an amplifier intended for multi-zone use, but failing that, use a powerful amp.
The second problem, that of control, is discussed in the wiring guide section on Infrared
This method of control allows both control of the source, and of the amplifier (volume and source selection.) In practice, you’d also have an on/off switch in each room that simply cut out the speaker cable when you wanted some quiet. Unless you have a multi-zone amplifier, then every room currently switched in has to listen at the same volume setting… unless all the speakers have the same efficiency, this won’t be the same volume!
This method has one extra advantage – tonally matching the sound in each room is simply a matter of using the same type of speaker!
The second approach gives better quality, at a higher price! In this solution, you distribute the output of your source(s) at line level, and have a separate amplifier in each room. There are three separate types of cable you might use to distribute this sound:
- Traditional “phono” cables – this is an incredibly bad idea. If you manage to do this without unmanageable levels of inducted hum, please let me know, because I’d be interested to know your secret. If there’s 1v of inductive noise on speaker cables, which have a signal voltage of maybe 50v, then that’s 2% distortion. If there’s 1v of inductive noise on phono cables, which have a signal voltage of maybe 2v, the that’s 50% distortion!
- XLR cable, as used by professional studios. If you have (very) high-end hi-fi which comes equipped with XLR outputs and inputs, then this is probably a very good way to go. When I worked as a recording engineer, I used XLR successfully over runs of several hundred feet. XLR carries a “balanced signal” – the same signal on two wires wrapped round each other in such a way that any interference on one wire is cancelled out by an equal and opposite interference on the other!
- CAT5 cable has the same advantages as XLR, in that it also carries a balanced signal. It has two key advantages over XLR in domestic applications:#
Firstly, you already have your house wired with CAT5 cable, don’t you? If not, then read the wiring guide
Secondly, modules to take the phono out from your source, and modulate them onto CAT5 wire (transmitter modules), and the modules to take the signal back off CAT5 wire and put it onto phono for your amp (receiver modules) are very cheap compared to their XLR equivalents.
The best value modules we’ve see are those made by KAT5 They are similar in performance to the Linn Knekt system, at a fraction of the price.
Coming soon from KAT5, are modules that not only take your audio and send it down the cable, but are able to send your IR signals back over the same wire!
Tonally matching is harder, since to get the same sound, you need not only the same sort speakers in each room, but also the same sort of amplifier. Easy if you’re on a big shopping spree to outfit the house – harder if you’ve accumulated half a dozen different amps over the years, and have a different for each room already. Personally, I prefer the feel of a different system in each room, and don’t mind that the Meridian/Linn system sounds wildly different to the Quad/Rogers one!
Options for Zoned Audio – The first option for zoning is to use something like the KAT5 switcher (again – soon to be released, but probably less soon than the IR return!), or the Linn Knekt system.
Again, this gives the advantage of using the best source in multiple rooms at the same time, but allows different rooms to listen to different sources. (Obviously, if two different zones want to listen to two different CDs, you need two separate CD players!)
More excitingly, however, many HA’ers are using inexpensive MP3 players such as the Rio Receiver (below) from Sonic Blue
This player was also sold as the Dell Digital Audio Receiver with a Black fascia, but Dell have discontinued this. The DDAR and the Rio Receiver are identical apart from the case.
The Rio Receiver has no local hard disk, but instead plays music from a PC running supplied server software. The supplied software runs on Windows, but a Linux version is also available (but not supported by sonicblue). The receiver has, surprise, surprise, a CAT5 Ethernet interface.
The bad news about the Receiver, however, is that there are, at time of writing, no UK distributors which actually have stock (some claim to, but one UKHAer has had his order put back time after time over the last 4 months.) As such, most UK owners have imported them personally from US dealers.
If you do this, bear in mind that you’ll have to pay import duty (at time of writing, 2%), and VAT (at time of writing, 17.5%) on the cost when you bring it into the UK. The UK Customs and Excise helpline is very helpful if you need to talk to them about this.
While the standard software only allows the serving of audio to the device, third party versions allow remote control of the Receiver from a web browser.