Home Theater Receivers and the Multi-Zone Feature

How to use one home theater receiver in more than one room

A home theater receiver performs several important functions in a home entertainment system. It is used as a tuner for AM/FM, satellite, or internet radio. It works as a preamp to control which audio/video (AV) source is selected, such as a Blu-ray Disc player, DVD player, VCR, CD player, or media streamer. It also functions as a multi-channel amplifier that processes and sends sound signals and power to the speakers or subwoofers. Video from source components can also be routed through the receiver to a TV if desired. In addition, many home theater receivers serve as a multi-zone audio distribution system.

What Is a Multi-Zone Audio Receiver?

Multi-zone is a function that allows a home theater receiver to send a second, third, or fourth source signal to speakers or separate audio systems in different locations.

This is not the same as connecting additional speakers and placing those speakers in another room, nor is it the same as wireless multi-room audio. Multi-zone home theater receivers can control either the same or a separate source than the one being listened to in the main room, in another location.

Multi-Zone Analog Powered, Preamp, and HDMI Output Example
Onkyo / D&M Holdings / Marantz

For example, you can watch a Blu-ray Disc or DVD movie with surround sound in the main room, while someone else can listen to a CD player in another room at the same time. Both the Blu-ray or DVD player and CD player connect to the same home theater receiver but are accessed and controlled separately by additional onboard or remote control options on the receiver.

How Does Multi-Zone Work?

Multi-zone capability in home theater receivers is implemented in three ways:

  • On many 7.1 channel receivers, you can run the unit in the 5.1 channel mode for the main room and use the two spare channels (normally devoted to the surround back speakers) to run speakers in a second zone. Also, some receivers can run a full 7.1 channel system in the main room, provided you aren't using the second zone set up at the same time.
  • Many 7.1 channel receivers are configured to allow a full 7.1 channel mode for the main room but provide an additional preamp line output. This output supplies a signal to an additional amplifier in another room that powers an additional set of speakers. It allows the same multi-zone capability but doesn't require sacrificing the full 7.1 channel experience in the main room to get the advantages of running a system in a second zone.
  • Some high-end home theater receivers incorporate the ability to run both a Zone 2, Zone 3, or a Zone 4. On these receivers, preamp outputs are provided for all additional zones, which require separate amplifiers and speakers for each zone. However, some receivers can run either Zone 2 or Zone 3 using the built-in amplifiers of the receiver. In this type of setup, you can run the second zone with the internal amplifiers of the receiver and a third or fourth zone using a separate amplifier. If you use the receiver to power the second zone, you won't get the full 7.1 channel capability of the receiver in the main room. Instead, you get 5.1 channel use. In rare cases, a high-end receiver may provide 9, 11, or 13 channels to work with for both the main and other zones. This decreases the number of external amplifiers you might need for other zones.

Additional Multi-Zone Features

Multi-zone receivers may include interesting features, such as:

  • Analog audio: While the receiver can use its full audio and video features in the main room, analog audio-only or analog+internet radio functions may be accessible for multi-zone use.
  • Multiple HDMI outputs: If video functions are accessible for multi-zone use, those functions may be limited to composite video signals. While you may be able to access a full high-definition video and surround sound audio source in the main room, only components connected to the receiver using analog stereo or analog video connections may be accessible for use in a second or third zone. However, in some higher-end receivers, a component video or HDMI output may be provided for Zone 2 use. If these options are important to you, check before you buy.
  • Zone-switching function: Additional speaker connections may be on the receiver that allow you to connect a full 7.1 channel as well as a second or third zone to be powered by the receiver's internal amplifier. However, in this type of setup, when you listen to the main zone in full 7.1 channel surround sound, you can't use Zone 2 and Zone 3 at the same time. To access Zone 2 or Zone 3, use the receiver's operating menu to switch from a 7.1 channel main zone to 5.1 channels. This setup enables the extra two channels to power either Zone 2 or Zone 3 speakers. Some home theater receivers perform this switching function automatically when the second zone feature is activated.

Use Two Zones in the Same Room

Another interesting way to use the multi-zone capable home theater receiver is to use the second zone option in the same room as a 5.1/7.1 channel setup. In other words, you can have a dedicated two-channel, controllable listening option in addition to a dedicated 5.1/7.1 listening option in the same room.

This setup works on a home theater receiver with a 5.1 or 7.1 channel configuration with five or seven speakers and a subwoofer that you use primarily for home theater listening. You would then have an additional external power amplifier connected to the receiver's Zone 2 preamp outputs, if the receiver provides this option. The external amplifier would be further connected to a set of left and right front speakers that you specifically use for two-channel audio-only listening.

Use this setup option if you want a higher-end two-channel stereo power amplifier and speakers for audio-only listening, rather than using the front left and right main speakers as part of the 5.1/7.1 channel setup. However, in a multi-zone capable home theater receiver, both systems can be controlled by the same receiver's preamp stage.

You don't have to have both the main and second zone features running at the same time. You can lock in your two-channel source (such as a CD player or turntable) as your designated source for Zone 2.

Many think that Zone 2 can only be used in another room, but that isn't the case. Using the second zone in your main room can allow you to have an independently dedicated (and controllable) two-channel audio system in the same room.

This setup adds more speaker clutter to your room, as you would have two physical sets of front left and right speakers. Also, you wouldn't use both systems at the same time since the systems are intended to be used with different sources.

Other Factors to Consider Using a Home Theater Receiver in Multi-Zone Setups

The concept of plugging into and controlling all your components with one home theater receiver is a convenience. However, when it comes to multi-zone capability, there are other factors to consider:

  • Unless the receiver comes with a secondary remote control for use in a second or third zone, you must go to the receiver in the main room to switch sources.
  • Even if a secondary remote control is supplied for second or third zone use, you must install remote control extenders in the second or third zone rooms to use the remote in those rooms to control the source you want to access from the main receiver.
  • Whether you use the home theater receiver to power the second or third zone speakers or use the preamp outputs of the receiver to supply an additional amplifier in the second or third zone, you'll need to run either speaker wires or audio/video cables from the main receiver to the second or third zone locations.

The Wireless Multi-Room Audio Option

Another option is wireless multi-room audio. This type of system uses a properly equipped home theater receiver that can transmit audio wirelessly from designated sources to compatible wireless speakers placed around the house.

These types of systems are closed, meaning that only specific brands of wireless speakers work with specific branded home theater receivers and sources. Some of these systems include Sonos, Yamaha MusicCast, DTS Play-Fi, FireConnect (Onkyo), and HEOS (Denon/Marantz).

Some home theater receivers include both multi-zone and wireless multi-room audio features.

The Bottom Line

For full details on how a specific home theater or stereo receiver implements its multi-zone capabilities, consult the user manual for that receiver. You can download most user manuals from the manufacturer's website.

Home theater or stereo receivers that have multi-zone capability are intended to be used when you need a second or third location for music listening or video viewing. If you want to install a whole-house wired audio or AV system using your home theater receiver as the control point, consult a professional home theater or multi-room system installer to assess your needs and provide specific equipment suggestions.

For examples of home theater receivers that provide various levels of multi-zone possibilities, check out our lists of the best mid-range and high-end home theater receivers.

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