RHT How To:
Whole House Audio How-To: A Homeowners Guide to Planning a Whole-House Audio Distribution System
By Joe Hageman
The dream: To own an affordable whole-house audio system that effortlessly pipes music throughout your home, where all the components talk harmoniously to one another as if they were one symbiotic unit. Reality: This stuff is expensive, can be down-right tricky to operate and even though we can beam back images from the Red Planet, we cant seem to figure out how to get audio/video components to talk to one another without a virtual argument ensuing. Welcome to the wonderful world of custom home audio distribution, where the homeowner is a slave to a bunch of temperamental black boxes often run by proprietary software that even the most ardent computer whiz would struggle to figure out.
Is this true? Could it really be all that bad? Well, I will admit Im being overly dramatic and painting a very bleak picture of an otherwise exciting industry. But let me tell you, it isnt as pretty as the manufacturers literature and advertisements make it out to be. A lot of them make it seem like you just buy their black boxes, install some touch screens and Presto!, instant whole-house audio. Nothing could be further from the truth, my friends. There is a lot of planning, installing, programming, more installing, even more programming and testing that goes into the professional installation of one of these systems. I will attempt here to demystify whole-house audio distribution and hopefully give you the necessary tools to plan one with your installer. Yes, I said installer. Unless you have a smallish house, and buy a true one-box solution that doesnt require hours of programming, please dont attempt to do this yourself. Trust me: youll only be calling an installer later to fix it.
Speaking of installers, a great resource for finding a qualified one in your area is the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, or CEDIA (www.Cedia.net). To quote their web site: The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) is a global trade association of companies that specialize in planning and installing electronic systems for the home. CEDIA members are established, insured businesses with bona fide qualifications and experience in this specialized field. Member classifications include designer/installers, manufacturers, sales representatives, distributors, consultants and affiliates. Also, go view a recent installation that your prospective installer has completed. You can get an idea of his/her craftsmanship, as well as how an actual custom install works, before making any financial commitment. Or visit their showroom. Chances are, theyll have a demo version of a distribution system set-up in their shop.
Whole-house or multi-room audio is simply a way to easily get one or more music sources (radio, CD, music server, etc.) from one room to another. Imagine youre hosting a small get-together. In the main areas of the house, including the outside porches and decks, you have lovely music playing through strategically-placed in-wall speakers. Much better than a strategically-placed boom box blaring at full volume, right? Now imagine that at your fingertips, whether in the living room, kitchen or dining room, you have access to your music collection and can easily switch tracks, adjust volume or change sources completely. Thats whole-house audio at its finest and most simple. Depending on the size of your home and your needs, this musical bliss can be achieved in many different ways and price points. At the very basic level, many surround sound receivers offer a multi-room output. This output allows for the hook-up of a separate amp to amplify your multi-room speakers and is often tantamount to a glorified A/B speaker switch. The same effect could be achieved just by hooking up another pair of speakers to an already occupied speaker channel, although you run the risk of overheating your receiver. Higher-end receivers and preamplifiers offer more robust multi-room capabilities by allowing for independent sources to be played in the second zone, and sometimes even feature dual tuners. In this case, it would be possible to listen to one radio station in the bedroom and another in the living room at the same time. Of course, without the support of keypads and/or touch panels, one would always have to aim the remote at the receiver or preamp to do anything.