New technology offers many options in high-quality home audio systems
By Robert Brice
I remember a time when ‘distributed home audio’ meant turning up the stereo located in my living room until I could hear it, well, everywhere in the house. And in the yard. And in the neighbor’s yard. In fact, I realize now that that I was “distributing” my audio to all my neighbors and they, like my children, didn’t always share my taste in music.
Oh, how the times have changed.
There is so much focus these days on the video aspect of our entertainment that it’s easy to forget the simple joy of really good sound. Whether it’s your favorite music, talk radio, or news, great sound just melts into the background. It’s funny, however, that we almost immediately recognize really bad sound. Old crackly speakers, poor sound quality, buzzing, hissing, or sound distortion makes us cringe.
Audio is making a comeback. Whether it’s the resurgence of vinyl records, new 3D sound technologies like Dolby Atmos, or the success of Beats by Dre headphones, it’s hard to deny that we love our sound.
Distributed home audio, also known as “whole home” or “multi room” audio now means many different things, and technology is making it easier for everyone to enjoy what they want, when they want, and where they want. I personally love my music in three locations: car, kitchen, and shower.
Local sound, defined as audio confined to your personal space or a single room, is pretty easy to accomplish. Bluetooth audio is the most ubiquitous, as most smart phones and devices now have that capability. Conduct an internet search for Bluetooth speakers and wade into the thousands of results you’ll find. The speakers are generally very easy to set up and enjoy, but be aware that Bluetooth has inherent distance limitations and the audio is “lossy,” meaning that it might not provide the high-fidelity sound you desire.
For our purposes here we’re going to focus more on the complexities of whole-house audio.
For extended spaces, there are really only two types of distribution: wired and wireless. But within those two types are a myriad of options that you can mix, match, and tailor to your budget and desires.
If you are building a new home or doing extensive remodeling, running high quality audio cables will always be the best option and yield the best results. For this option you will need to “home run” wires from each audio area back to a central location, using the proper gauge wire for the distance. Add high-quality volume controls and speakers in the walls, ceiling, or even standing cabinet speakers and you have music for the discerning audiophile.
A-Bus is an audio technology that runs sound and power over data cables, usually one or two Cat5 cables. The technology has been around awhile, and has its limitations in power and fidelity, although recent improvements have remedied some of those problems.
Both of these wired options allow for the use of a local input to override the whole-house audio in a particular room. Remember that proper planning is the key here because once the drywall goes up it becomes very expensive to change.
Here is where most people will find their high fidelity sweet spot. So many technologies and brands have come out lately that it’s hard to keep track, and even harder to figure out which manufacturers will last and which will fall by the wayside.
One of the great things about wireless distribution is that you can add speakers when you want, move them where you want (Wi-Fi signal permitting), and expand your system as much as you want. Most of the wireless systems have apps that allow you to stream music directly from music apps that you might already use: Spotify, Pandora, Google, Apple, and Amazon, just to name a few. The apps also allow you to arrange separate speakers into groups so you can enjoy seamless music as you walk from the kitchen into the dining room and then to the den. These systems will still allow someone in the house to use an individual speaker for local listening. This allows kids to listen to their own music in their own room.
Some new home theater receivers also double as the hub of a music streaming system, but beware that they are generally proprietary technologies, which means you can’t really mix and match speakers from different manufacturers.
A few things to think about before you purchase: make sure the wireless speakers support the music apps and operating system that you use, check that the Wi-Fi signal in your home reaches all the areas you want music played, and check that your Wi-Fi network is robust enough to support streaming music and all the wireless devices on your network. There are Wi-Fi extenders and boosters available, but they add to the bottom line cost.
So whether you’re focused on every note of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E Minor while cooking dinner, multitasking your homework with Bruno Mars, or just enjoying talk radio as the soundtrack to your day, there is an acoustic option for you.
Systems to Consider
Sonos: Since 2002, Sonos has been producing wireless speakers that are relatively small with great sound. They’re still the best-selling player in the wireless speaker arena. Sonos has three different speaker sizes as well as a soundbar for under the tv and a subwoofer. sonos.com
Bose: Coming up fast on the heels of Sonos, the Bose SoundTouch series is a serious contender in the multi-room market. The Sound Touch comes in three sizes like the Sonos, but has some additional features that help it to stand out, like built-in Bluetooth for each speaker and a small remote. They have that definitive Bose look about them, so if you’re already a Bose fan, you’ll love these speakers. www.bose.com
Google Chromecast Audio: Google has made a major push into multi-room audio with their Google Home smart speaker with voice assistant that pairs with the Google Chromecast Audio device. It’s meant to connect to already existing stereo equipment and really does a great job of distributing audio. If you’re an Android user and/or already have a Google Chromecast device, you’ll understand how easy it is to “cast” your music to a specific Chromecast Audio puck or group several of the pucks via the Google Home app, something Amazon’s Alexa and Dot combo has yet to perfect. google.com/chromecast/audio
LG Music Flow: Consumer Electronics giant LG has come out with their version of wireless speakers. The LG Music Flow series has four sizes of speakers as well as home theater sound bars that have the same functionality as Sonos and Bose. The series also adds the unique capability of using the speakers to create a mesh network, allowing you to extend your music past the range of your wifi.
Several A/V manufacturers have jumped into the multi-room audio space. They all do pretty much the same thing and all use your Wi-Fi signal to broadcast audio to their speakers. A few to check out are Denon (Heos, usa.denon.com), Yamaha (MusicCast, yamaha.com/US/MusicCast), and Onkyo/Pioneer (Blackfire/Fireconnect, onkyousa.com).
Finally, Play-Fi is worth a mention, not because they produce speakers but because they developed the technology that a large number of audio companies have adopted to support wireless, lossless audio. Play-Fi states that any Play-Fi certified device will work with the rest, giving you a much wider range of speaker and audio component options. Want to feed your inner aesthetic? Check out the gorgeous looking and sounding speakers from Sonus Faber and Wren: play-fi.com, Sonusfaber.com, and wrensound.com.