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The Path To Whole House Audio: Part 6 – Whole House Audio

Some time ago I had installed a couple of in-ceiling speakers into our living room. I did it one Saturday while my wife was out. That was a mistake.

When she got home she was disappointed that I had done this without consulting her. I had mistakenly thought that built-in gear would be inconspicuous and so desirable from her perspective. She, on the other hand, felt that cutting holes in the ceiling of our vintage 1920s craftsman style house was a bad idea. She’d rather leave it as original as possible.

Wired audio control for whole house systemFurther, she had absolutely no interest in having the kinds of in-room audio controls commonplace in whole house audio systems. These systems typically add little keypads near the light switches for source selection and volume level control, often augmented by a cordless remote. She wanted none of that.

Given these design constraints my planned whole house music system was going to have to adopt a design strategy a little off the beaten path. None of the wired-in multi-channel systems would meet our design goals. I knew that the house audio system was going to be separate and distinct from any home theatre surround system. The surround system would wait. The music system was going to come first.

I also knew that I really liked my Squeezebox music player. These seem like ideal signal sources. The fact that they can be synchronized got me to thinking that perhaps they could be the basis of the whole house distributed audio system? I’d simply put a Squeezebox and a pair of smallish powered monitors in each room. The Squeezeboxes would all be on the wifi network. I could try also various models of monitors, which would be interesting in itself.

That plan sounded so intriguing that I ordered a second Squeezebox (and a 3rd since writing this!) Not long after when my wife asked me what I’d like for Christmas I pointed her to an inexpensive set of Alesis M1 520 powered monitors. I’ve already blogged about these here.

Since thinking about this I’ve short-listed the following powered monitors:

  • Behringer B2031A*
  • Alesis M1 520*
  • M-Audio BX-5A*
  • Alesis ProLinear 820 DSP* (no longer being made but available refurbished)
  • KRK Rokit 5*
  • Behringer B3031A (successor to the B2031As)
  • Behringer B3030A (a smaller model)
  • Alesis M1 620
  • Wharfedale Pro Active 8.1/8.2 (recommended from sursound mailing list)

* denotes models that I already have or can borrow for evaluation

As I travel for work I take every opportunity to listen to the systems that I encounter in various TV stations, at trade shows, and in shops. In April I’ll be at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention in Las Vegas. Hopefully I can take some time to audition some new models while there.

I’ve found that from a cost perspective my approach is possibly not necessarily more expensive than a traditional wired-in installation. The multi-zone, multi-channel amplifiers with attendant control systems are pricey.

Russound Multichannel Power Amplifier

A typical 12 channel / 6 zone (40 watts/channel) power amplifier recently listed at was for $400 on closeout sale, marked down from $1200 msrp (like the one pictured above, but not that exact make/model) That’s not including any control system. Good quality in-wall and in-ceiling speakers (think brand names like Sonance and Boston Acoustics, can be costly as well….think $150-250/pr easily…often more. Add the cost of the control panels, and wiring. It adds up fast.

A Squeezebox and a pair of powered monitors I expect to cost around $550-600/room. No control system is required as it’s all done either in the Squeezebox wireless remote control or via the web interface accessed on a PC. That makes installation easier as well. Also, I can move the gear from location to location when desired, although the aim is to have enough that this is not necessary.

Also, the powered monitors result in more available power than a traditional wired installation. Wired installs are typically not bi-amped, and only provide 20-40 watts/channel into each listening room. My smallest powered monitors (Alesis M1-520) provide 75 watt/channel. That’s extra juice for those unusual applications that might need to be louder, like a Halloween haunted house. Extra power just for the sake of being clean at useful volume levels.

Further, a typical wired installation is very centralized. All the signals flow through the switching/control mechanism. All the amplification is in one chassis. If either of those fails then you have silence. With a more distributed approach a failure is less likely to silence the entire house. One room maybe, but not the whole place.

The whole system should be fairly fault tolerant. The exception being the PC the serves the music to the Squeezeboxen. Although all the music on that system is stored on a pair of 400 GB hard drives a RAID1 configuration so it can survive a dead hard drive. Even so, if that PC dies then there will be quiet, in more ways than one.

One question remaining is how to provide low-end reinforcement. The small monitors I’m using are easy to place in a room inconspicuously but don’t provide much bottom-end. They may provide enough bottom-end for music over dinner conversation. A creative sub-woofer solution may be required. If we really want to have a loud party then they’ll definitely need to be supplemented. Perhaps the large, ugly Behringer subwoofers (seen left) could be brought into the house.

There’ll be a few weeks before I can further report on my progress on this project. The necessity of earning a living is going to impinge upon my time such that it’ll be Mid-May before we can undertake the next step. That next step will be to sit down with a couple of friends and listen to 6 pairs of monitors comparatively to see which ones we like better. That will take a full weekend, and more than one bottle of wine.

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