Multi-room Sound System Options

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It used to be that networks and the Internet were the lingo of nerds in computer labs. These days, terms like downloading and WiFi have become part of our daily vocabulary. Maybe I hang out in tech welcoming circles, but almost everyone I know has a wireless network in their home.

Network or not, downloading music has become commonplace, as has archiving music CDs in MP3 format on computer hard drives. Inevitably you’ll want to listen to your music or online radio stations somewhere other than in front of your computer. You could set up a network of computers in different rooms with a sole purpose to access music. But that’s the difficult, messy way. Or you could take a look at a multi-room audio solution. Multi-room audio products are becoming increasingly affordable and are generally easy to set up.

The idea behind multi-room audio is simple. The main piece of a multi-room audio system is a component that stores digital music or allows access to music sources such as a tuner or a CD player. This component can be a digital music server, a computer or an A/V receiver. One or more music stations called clients are placed in other rooms. The audio is streamed by a wire or wirelessly from the main component to each client. The client provides control of the main component, displays the song or station information and sometimes amplifies the audio signal. Stereo speakers may be built into the client, although some clients allow your choice of speakers. If an A/V receiver is used as the main component of a multi-room system, you will have to run wires from it to each room (in most cases).

The most affordable way to build a multi-room audio system is to utilize other components that are already likely in your home. If you own a stereo, a computer and have a wired or wireless home network, you’re only one step away from a basic multi-room audio system. What you need is a network music player such as the Roku SoundBridge M1001 ($249). Many home computers are filled with hundreds if not thousands of songs downloaded from the Internet. The M1001 will allow the music stored on the computer’s hard drive as well as Internet radio stations to be enjoyed in other rooms. The music from the computer is streamed through the home network to the network player. The digital audio output of the M1001 can be connected to a pair of powered speakers or a home stereo. The M1001’s display shows information about a currently playing song and a supplied remote allows the user to browse the music collection and control the volume. Up to ten SoundBridge M1001 network players can stream music from a single computer.

Another way to create a simple multi-room music system is to use an A/V receiver. Many modern A/V receivers offer amplified audio outputs for second and sometimes third zones. Some receivers can even send video to the additional zones. Any source component such as a tuner, CD player or DVD player that is connected to the receiver can be enjoyed in the other zones. A second zone remote, supplied with some receivers, allows full control of the receiver and the source. A multi-room system based on a typical A/V receiver does have some obvious limitations though – it can usually only add one or two additional zones and it is usually unable to stream digital music from a computer or a music server.

The Sonos Digital Music System offers a similar but slightly different approach to the Roku multi-room audio system. This system is based on multiple network players called ZonePlayers, that connect wirelessly with each other. The ZonePlayers use a wireless home network to stream Internet radio or music directly from music sites such as Rhapsody, without actually downloading the songs. A computer is not required, but can be connected to the Sonos system if you actually want to download the music. Two versions of the ZonePlayer are available, one with a built-in amplifier (ZP100, $599) and one without an amplifier (ZP80, $399). Matching speakers are available for the ZonePlayers but any speakers can be connected to them. The Sonos system is accessed using a beautiful remote (CR100, $499) that has a 3.5-inch colour LCD screen and an iPod-like navigation wheel. Music downloading sites can be browsed right on the screen of the remote.

Other similar network players are available from companies including Slim Devices, Logitech, D-Link, Creative, Philips and Netgear.

Not all multi-room audio systems require a computer or a home network however.

A recently introduced system from Marantz, called DAvED, uses a home’s existing electrical lines to stream music. The DAvED system consists of an A/V receiver (ZR6001SP, $1599) and one or more clients (ZC4001, $430 each). The ZR6001SP is a full featured 7.1-channel receiver that can be used as the hub of a home theatre, in addition to its multi-room capabilities. The ZC4001 client is a mini receiver in itself, with a built-in amplifier and stereo speakers. This DAvED multi-room audio system is remarkably easy to setup. Simply plug each component into the wall outlet and you’re ready to go. Any component connected to the ZR6001SP receiver (including its built-in radio tuner) can be enjoyed through each ZC4001 client.

Yamaha has offered their MusicCAST multi-room audio system for more than three years now. The MusicCAST system uses a digital music server that allows up to five clients to connect wirelessly to it (by creating its own wireless network). The MCX-2000 server ($2299) contains a 160 gigabyte hard drive capable of storing up to 3000 music CDs. The server’s CD player/recorder is used to transfer CDs to its hard drive. Once the music is on the hard drive, the CD recorder can be used to burn personal music compilation CDs. A computer can optionally be connected to the server, allowing an even larger choice of digital music. Each MCX-A10 client ($799) has built-in amplification and can be used with any speakers (matching Yamaha speakers are also available for $299). Song selection can be made on the client itself or by using a supplied remote. Each client has a backlit LCD that displays the contents of the music library or information about a currently playing song.

Philips’ solution to multi-room audio is called Streamium. The Streamium system creates its own wireless network to stream music from its digital music server to a maximum of five clients. Two models of the server are available; the WACS57 for $799 and the WACS700 for $999. A single client station (WAS700) is bundled with each sever and retails for $299 separately. The WACS57 contains an 80 gigabyte hard drive and has to be connected to an existing home stereo or a receiver because it does not have a built-in amplifier or speakers. The WACS700 has a 40 gigabyte hard drive but it does contain an amplifier and speakers. Each WAS700 client is a complete solution with built-in amplification and speakers. Music is transferred to the server’s hard drive by using its built-in CD player. Music can also be streamed from a computer connected to the server. The server remote has an LCD display which makes the system operation simple. Each client station has a multi-line display and comes with a remote. The Streamium system has an attractive “Music Follows Me” feature that allows music to follow the user from room to room, with the press of a single button.

A more sophisticated solution to multi-room audio is called a distributed audio system. These systems typically offer more flexibility and future expansion, but generally come with a higher price tag. They are also more difficult to install because they require you to run wiring throughout the house.

One such system comes from a company called NuVo Technologies. The main component of the NuVo system offers multiple audio source inputs and multiple amplifier zones. Three main components are available from $1495 to $4995, each with a different number of source inputs and amplifier zones. Also available are matching audio sources including a dual tuner for AM/FM and XM satellite ($1099), a 160 GB music server with source outputs for three zones ($2799) and an iPod dock ($399). Other audio sources, from any manufacturer, can be easily added to the system. NuVo also offers a good selection of in-wall, in-ceiling and outdoor speakers for each audio zone, although virtually any speakers can be used with the system. Finally, operating the system is made simple with a wide variety of touch control pads and remote controllers (most come supplied with the main components).

An even more advanced multi-zone system is available from a company called Xantech. In addition to distributing audio throughout the house, this system can also provide video to multiple zones. With a Xantech system, any DVD, digital cable, satellite and stereo systems can be enjoyed in every room in the house. At the heart of a multi-zone, multi-source Xantech system is an Audio Controller (for audio distribution only) or an A/V Entertainment System (for audio and video distribution). Five different main systems are available. Xantech offers an extensive selection of add-ons so that the system can be catered to your specific needs. These include amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, HD video switchers, button controllers, LCD controllers, IR receivers and other accessories. A couple of matching source components are also available from Xantech, including a dual AM/FM tuner ($999) and a 160 GB audio server capable of ripping music CDs ($6199). Prices for the main audio/video distribution units range from $1375 to $4999. The controllers range from $90 for an entry-level wall keypad, all the way up to $2599 for a large colour LCD touch panel keypad.

All of the above mentioned systems are designed specifically to deliver sound, and video in some cases, to multiple rooms in the house and generally provide a simple control of the entire system. The intention of this article is to present you with some of the options that are currently available out there. Of course, keep in mind that similar systems exist from other manufacturers. Before making a final decision on which system is most suitable for your needs, make sure to visit the manufacturer’s website and learn the complete details about their product lineup.

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