Distributed audio systems, as the trade likes to call them, have been a fixture of the custom audio/video installation scene for more than two decades, and they continue to be popular - even more so than in the past due to the proliferation of wireless systems like Sonos and Apple's AirPlay.
If you still crank up the stereo system in the living room to serenade your culinary adventure in the kitchen, it's time to consider a modern alternative - a system that makes it easy to enjoy favorite tunes throughout the house.
The first step toward whole-house music is to consider where you want music. Do you need it in every room or only in a few areas/rooms and maybe out on the patio?
Next question: Do you envision a system for background music or one that can get the whole house rocking on a Saturday night? Or maybe you're an enthusiast who wants nothing less than rich, full-bodied sound in at least one or two of the rooms?
Answering these questions will help you determine whether you will be satisfied by one of the popular wireless systems or if you need something more sophisticated.
Although off-the-shelf wireless music systems are fairly easy to set up and produce decent sound quality, don't write off wires just yet. Most DIY setups rely on all-in-one tabletop units, which might be ideal for smaller, secondary spaces like a home office or bathroom but will leave you yearning for more in larger spaces such as the kitchen, family room or even out on the patio - especially if you have audiophile leanings.
Most custom A/V installers still favor hard-wired multi-room audio systems. "When we can put wires in the wall or utilize existing wiring, we still prefer to do so because you get better musical fidelity and performance is more reliable," explains Jason Spence, senior sales engineer at Audio Video Interiors (AVI) in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.
"The sound quality from wireless systems will be more than acceptable for most people, but if somebody is looking for an audiophile setup, wireless doesn't meet that criteria. Discriminating listeners want full fidelity."
AVI always recommends going the wired route in new construction when it's easiest and most effective to run cables throughout a home. In the case of retrofits, it becomes a question of cost and the effort involved in snaking wire through existing walls. "If it turns out that the cost of getting wire from point A to point B is the same as employing a wireless system, the choice becomes clear," Spence says.
Wireless Performance and Network Integrity
Streaming music, let alone video, places a burden on a Wi-Fi network, so the integrity of that network is a key factor in determining how well a wireless music setup will perform, Spence says.
"Surfing the Web on a laptop is a lot different than streaming music or movies. When we walk into a home, we look at the quality of the network gear and recommend an upgrade if it's not up to snuff," he says, noting that gigabit capability is a minimum requirement these days.
"If the network appears to have the capacity to support a wireless music system, at least specification-wise, we stipulate that reliability of the music system will depend on the network and move forward with the understanding that components might need to be upgraded if we encounter performance issues."
Best of Both Worlds
In addition to flexibility, hard-wired music distribution systems offer many practical and convenient possibilities, including the ability to stream music from a smartphone or tablet and use those devices as system controllers as you move around the house. Other common features include:
- In-wall keypads for controlling the system when you don't have your phone or tablet handy
- In-wall iPad docking/charging stations
- Ability to choose from a variety of speakers, including in-wall/ceiling models, and select proper audio components, including power amplifiers
To learn more about wireless music systems and whole-house audio options, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.