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Multi-Room Audio

I've been tasked by the wife with setting up a multi-room audio system. We've broken the house down into the following zones:

  • Kitchen (Stereo)
  • Office (Stereo)
  • Master Bed/Bath (Stereo x2)
  • Son's Bedroom (Stereo)
  • Daughter's Bedroom (Stereo)
  • Guest Bedroom (Stereo)
  • Hall/Laundry (Mono x3)

For inputs we have the following:

  • Whatever the TV is on
  • Bluetooth from either of our phones
  • Radio
  • Computer

Bonus features would include:

  • Intercom between rooms
  • Touchscreen Control Panels
  • Central control
  • Input from the room (like for the kids' computers)
  • Other cool stuff

I've been trying to research everything and here are the options I've come up with:

Stack of Receivers

One receiver per zone, with all inputs split between all receivers. This seems to have a lot of ability without a horrible price, but it would be hard to get everything working from a central control, and the wife isn't a fan of a stack of 7 receivers somewhere. Also may not be very power-friendly

Multi-zone Receiver with Selectors

I'm not too familiar with selectors, but we could get a decent mix of features with a three zone receiver, and 3 selectors capable of 7 zones apiece. I'm not clear on how volume control would work, and it might be a pain to get everything controllable.

8x8 Matrix Switcher

Again, not too familiar, but not sure where the amplification goes. Also sort of difficult to find these with remote control and I don't want in-wall knobs or something.

Multi-Room Intercom System

I haven't found one that'll integrate with external speakers, extra inputs, or looks attractive.

Sonos

Pretty pricey (~$500/room just for the amps), kind of confusing about what I need and how it works. Also not sure if I can use IR remotes or I need phones everywhere to control everything.

Homebrew Tablets & Amps

This would be kind of fragile, but for less than a lot of the other alternatives I could get a Nexus 7 for each room, mount a cradle on the wall and wire that in with a fixed level amp, controlling volume from the tablet. Then I can stream anything to each room (including tons of online content) plus be able to set up things like video intercom (via skype) and other cool features. The downside is this is pretty homebrew and probably fragile. Also it's highly likely that audio in different rooms will not be synchronized, so rooms may be off by a second or two which would be irritating.

Am I missing any other options?

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There are many ways to do this, including several commercial systems that have many of the features you're asking for. Do you have a budget in mind? Sonos is actually fairly cheap per-room compared to some of the systems out there.. –  gregmac Jul 8 '12 at 5:35
    
The budget question is kind of open. The more whiz bang features it has and the more of our criteria it solves, the more we're willing to spend. From what I can tell, if we go Sonos we need 7 Connect:Amps and a few of the base Connects. Per-room input is out. But in the end, I could do a stack of receivers for less than half the cost of the Sonos system and it accomplishes most of the same goals, plus a couple extra. The tablets would be cheaper with some out of the park features. So expensive is a relative term. You mentioned some commercial systems. Any hard suggestions I can look at? –  Hounshell Jul 8 '12 at 6:05
    
Go get a quote from a professional home automation/av company - it will probably be outrageously priced for what you want it for and are willing to pay, but you will get some good ideas from the quote - how many receivers, switches, amps, etc. do they propose? Then you can build your own solution using this as guidance –  Steven Jul 15 '12 at 17:51
    
I like this idea. It's new construction and not quite finished yet, but once it is I'll probably do this. –  Hounshell Jul 16 '12 at 16:51
    
Unless you're seated and facing the correct direction, stereo audio is not necessary. For the kind of ambient whole-house system you're talking about you probably won't even notice. It might be simpler / cheaper to get a many channel mono amp then a bunch of individual stereo amps. –  Henry Jackson Aug 19 '13 at 22:33
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4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

There is an option that may work for you that you didn't list. If you're not using your home's phone lines, you can disconnect them from the utility and use them to carry the signal from a player (computer, mp3 player, etc) to each stereo. Then you can use apps like "Retune" or "Remote" to control the audio from your computer. I've done it in my house and I've never been happier.

If you can make the cables yourself, great. If not, you can purchase them at my Kickstarter site below.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/301091594/stereophone-a-multi-room-sound-system

Good Luck!

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Holy cow dude. Fantastic idea. I'm backing the kickstarter just for this. I don't even need/want the cables. The house was pre-wired with 2 CAT6e drops in every room. I've got one of those drops hooked up to the hub for high speed data, leaving another 8 wires in every room. Right now 4 of those are wired up for voice that we aren't using. I'll replace the wall jacks with custom ones that have a stereo input and wire the 4 unused wires directly into the jack. –  Hounshell Aug 19 '13 at 19:08
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There is a recent article in the New York Times that outlines various approaches to wireless distribution using Sonos and other systems:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/technology/personaltech/wireless-music-setups-at-home-toolkit.html?pagewanted=all

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If you can run wiring to the rooms easily, I'd recommend going with the centralized stack-of-amplifiers approach. It's very cheap, easy to set up, probably has the best sound quality, and is the most reliable.

IR repeaters

Start by placing all the stereo receivers in a centralized location (I picked the laundry room). Then, install an IR receiver everywhere you want to have control over volume and source. I like these ones since they're cheap and stick onto anything, however, you can get really nice units that have Decora plates that look very professional when installed. Don't worry about sticking with one brand -- all the systems are interchangeable. The only think you need to provide it is with 12V, ground, and a signal pin.

Routing the IR receivers

They usually have a 3.5mm stereo (i.e., headphone) jack used to carry these three signals -- so to run them back to your storage room you could either buy really long headphone extender cables, cut off the 3.5mm connector and splice in a cable, or build your own cable with a 3.5mm jack on the end.

Connecting everything together

Once you run all of these different IR receivers to your centralized location, you simply tie everything up into a parallel bus, i.e., connect all your 12V wires together, connect all your ground wires together, and connect all your signal wires together.

Usually, you use a connection block like the one in this kit to accomplish this goal. All it does is connect the IR receivers to a power source, and route their signals to the IR transmitters. The IR transmitters (termed "IR blaster" in the industry) get stuck onto all of your devices (amplifiers, signal sources, etc).

This may sound complicated, but it's very simple -- you can have a dozen or so IR receivers hooked up in parallel to one connection block, and you can tie multiple connection blocks together.

Understanding how the system works

The signal line is pulled up to 12V by pull-up resistors in each receiver. When you start pressing a key on your remote control, the IR receiver receives this digital code, and pulls the signal line down and releases it back and forth to generate digital 1s and 0s. This is what allows multiple IR receivers to be wired in parallel, but it also has some known limitations

One more thing

It's nice to have a centralized location, but remember that as long as everything is on the same IR bus, you can control anything wired at any point in the bus. For example, instead of just hooking up the IR receiver to a cable running all the way to your centralized location, you could put another connection block right there in the room with it, put some IR blasters on the DVD player or TV you may have in that room, and then continue to run the signals back to the centralized location. This allows you to control those appliances from anywhere in the house. This may be useful if you have kids that blast music too loud, too late. All of the sudden, you can turn down (or turn off!) their stereo from your room. It sends a message.

Known Limitations

Since everything is on one bus, the system doesn't "know" which room the command came from, which means if you have a stack of Sony receivers that are all the same brand, then any time you use your remote control, it will affect all of them.

If you want to be able to control multiple same-model receivers independently, instead of wiring all the signals to one connection block, wire them to separate connection blocks.

Audio Path

Alright, you have a stack of receivers -- and I assume a stack of signal sources. Obviously, if your stereo receivers each have multiple inputs, you simply route the output from each signal source to one of the inputs.

Most audio sources don't have multiple outputs, however. You may find that you can simply use Y-cables to split the output of each source to drive your different stereo receivers. However, you may notice poor audio quality when you do that, depending on how your sources and amplifiers handle output impedance and input impedance.

It's not really important to go into, but basically, if your amplifier "loads" the source down, then hooking multiple amplifiers up to the same source is going to load it down more. The source is "expecting" to only be loaded down so much, so if it's loaded down too much, your frequency response may get wacky. Don't worry! You won't damage anything. But it may not sound as good.

This is highly unlikely, given that most audio sources have MOSFET output stages that don't have any series resistance, i.e., they have no output impedance, and can drive dozens of amplifiers without any issue.

However, if you do have issues, buy an audio distribution amplifier, which is designed to take one signal source and drive it to multiple stereos.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

  • This also works great with video -- you can put TVs in multiple rooms, and run HDMI-over-ethernet back to a centralized location
  • Don't think you can't get a high-tech computer-based media center into this action; I use a Windows Media Center USB-based IR receiver that I've got an IR blaster stuck onto. I bought four Windows Media Center remotes and put them throughout the house. You can control the music or movie from any spot in the house
  • Obviously, you can use any remote control you want -- if you want some fancy touch-screen business, go get a fancy touch-screen remote control. As long as it can send IR signals, you're good to go.
  • I'm getting a PhD in Electrical Engineering, where I'm working on Wireless Mesh Networks and high-tech stuff like that -- but I still know wires are always better than wireless. Because of its simplicity, this system never crashes, and never needs to be taken care of. It just works.
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I am an Australian Based Home Automation and Systems Integrator, I recommend taking a look at the brand Russound and in particularly the MCA-C5 which is an 8x8 Audio Matrix with in built 8 Zone Amplifier (stereo), 8 IR Inputs and 8 IR Outputs, 8 Audio Input from Source Devices.

The MCA-C5 costs $2000

If you are unable to obtain a Russound (as they are dealer only items) contact me and I will put you intouch with Russound.

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