Overview of Whole House Audio & Multi-room Music Systems

Wired and Wireless Music Systems for the House

Three vintage receivers photographed at an angle
Brent Butterworth

Whole house music and multi-room systems are very popular in homes and living spaces of all shapes and sizes. There are many ways to send music throughout a home, including wired and/or wireless connections that enable control from anywhere. You can use an existing receiver as the center hub, or you can install a completely dedicated whole house music system. The amount of effort involved can range from adding a speaker switch to a receiver, do-it-yourself wired/wireless networking, or something more sophisticated that would require professional installation. However, there are pros and cons to the different methods available, so here's what you need to know.

01
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Build a Simple Multi-room Music System Using a Receiver

Denon AVR-S710W 7.2 Channel Full 4K Ultra HD AV Receiver
Most receivers/amplifiers have a Speaker B switch to send audio to another pair of speakers. Courtesy of Amazon.com

The simplest multi-room music system uses the Speaker B switch built into a stereo or home theater receiver. The Speaker B output is capable of powering an additional pair of speakers, even if they're located in another room.

All one needs to do is run lengths of speaker wire to connect it all together. Those who might want to add more sets of speakers can do with with a separate speaker selector switch. And if you want easy access to volume/adjustment, control plates can be added in conjunction with the switches.

Pros:

Cons:

02
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Multi-room & Multi-source Systems Using a Receiver

The rear side of a stereo receiver, showing all of the various audio connections
Many receivers are capable of multiple zones/sources.

Many home theater receivers have built-in multi-zone and multi-source features, which means each room or zone can listen to a different audio source (CD, DVD, streaming, turntable, etc.) at the same time.

Some receivers have powered multi-room outputs for stereo music (and sometimes video) in as many as three zones, and some models have line level (non-powered) outputs which require a separate stereo amp in each zone.

Pros:

  • Multi-source can send separate audio sources to different rooms
  • Independent control within each zone

Cons:

  • Must run additional wires between rooms
  • May want to install IR control to adjust audio from anywhere in the house
03
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Music Over a Wired Home Network

Standard connector tips for CAT-5e Ethernet cables
A wired home network is powerful, but often requires a professional contractor. Courtesy of Amazon.com

If you own a home with computer network wiring already installed, you have a huge advantage. Running wires through existing walls is one of the most difficult and expensive parts of installing whole house music systems.

Network wiring with CAT-5e or CAT-6 cable used to interconnect a computer network can distribute line level analog and digital audio to remote zones via multi-zone audio systems available from several manufacturers.

Pros:

  • Uses existing network wiring
  • Many system options available

Cons:

  • Requires dedicated CAT-5 or CAT-6 wiring
  • May require professional installation
04
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Music Over a Wireless Home Network

Linksys Wi-Fi Wireless-G Broadband Router
The solution to whole home audio may be solved by your wireless network. Courtesy of Amazon.com

If you don't have a pre-wired home network, and if retrofit wiring is too much to consider, there is another solution – go wireless. As wireless technology has improved, so have the options for wireless audio distribution. It's a great way to enjoy your personal music library and/or other audio sources throughout your home.

The most common wireless technology is Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity). No doubt you have heard the term used for wireless networking of computers. That same technology has been finding its way into multi-room audio systems.

Pros:

  • Good sound quality
  • No room-to-room wiring

Cons:

  • Generally simple setup, but may require some computer networking skills and/or additional hardware
05
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Simple and Affordable Wireless Audio Solutions

A basic media adapter made by Apple
Some media adapters can also send video signals in addition to audio. Mike Panhu/Wikimedia CC 2.0

The simplest and most affordable way to send audio content wirelessly from one room to another is with a digital media or wireless adapter, which are available from a number of manufacturers. These adapters send audio signals wirelessly between two or more components, such as between a PC and a stereo receiver (or even a subwoofer), or a receiver and a tabletop system.

You can enjoy wireless music almost anywhere, so long as there is a steady connection. One could also use Bluetooth to connect speakers (or even headphones) to audio sources, although it requires a few more steps to set up. But the good news is that additional adapters are relatively inexpensive and can quickly expand a system to include more rooms.

Pros:

  • Simple setup
  • Inexpensive and expandable

Cons:

  • Adapter required for each zone
  • Single source
  • Reception quality depends on distance
06
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Music Over Existing Home Wiring: Powerline Carrier Technology

Powerline Audio System from IO Gear
Powerline technology can make retrofitting a home a breeze. IOGear

Powerline Carrier Technology, also known by the name HomePlug, sends stereo music and control signals throughout your home via your home's existing electrical wiring. PLC products are a great choice for retrofitting a whole house music system since no new wiring is required. Full systems and components are available or in development in a wide range of prices and features.

Pros:

  • No new wiring needed, uses existing electrical wires
  • Great choice for retrofit installations
  • Some systems are DIY, others require installation

Cons:

  • AC line noise might affect radio reception, usually cured with a line filter
  • Some systems require installation of in-wall control keypads
07
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Whole House Music Distribution Systems

The front panel of a stereo receiver showing knobs for volume and input
Many receivers are fully capable of delivering multi-room audio, sometimes from multiple sources. kyoshino/Getty Images

Whole house music systems have a central component that sends music from selected sources (CD, turntable, radio, etc.) to each zone. It can send either line-level signals to amplifiers in each room, or have built-in amplifiers and tuners. All of these systems allow you to listen to any source in any zone and can be expanded from four to eight or more zones.

Pros:

  • Best choice for performance and flexibility
  • Built-in stereo amps for each zone
  • Multisource - listen to any source in any room
  • Expandable for more zones

Cons:

  • Requires professional installation and wiring of system and speakers
  • Most costly option, depending on size of system and installation costs
08
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In-Wall & In-Ceiling Speakers for Whole House Systems

The Polk Audio RC85i 2-Way In-Wall Speaker (White)
In-Wall speakers typically have grilles that can be painted to match walls. Courtesy of Amazon.com

In-wall speakers are a great idea for whole house music systems. They offer good to excellent sound quality, don't take up any floor/shelf space like standard speakers, and can be painted to blend in with room decor and virtually disappear.

However, installing in-wall speakers involves more work. Walls must be carefully cut, and wires have to run through the walls to connect to components. Depending on the difficulty of the job, the number of speakers, and your skills, installing in-wall speakers can be a do-it-yourself project or you may want to hire a custom installer or electrician.

Pros:

  • Excellent sound quality
  • Saves floor/shelf space
  • Can be made to visually blend with walls or living areas

Cons:

  • Involves more work and/or may require professional installation/wiring
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