How to Plan Your Whole Home or Multi-room Music System

Consider these when planning whole house or multi-room audio systems

An open living room and kitchen area with furnishings and audio/video equipment
Although it takes careful planning, creating your whole home or multi-room audio system can be very rewarding. Jacek Kadaj/Getty Images

Creating whole home or multi-room music systems can seem intimidating to those who don't do it everyday. But as with many other things in life, seemingly-difficult tasks can be easily accomplished if one thinks things through and creates a plan first. Just like following a kitchen recipe, it helps to be prepared with the necessary ingredients and tools set aside ahead of time.

Before you start measuring lengths of speaker wire or moving furniture around, decide the features and connections of audio that you want from a system. Compare your needs versus what your current equipment or set up provides. Doing so will help establish what (if any) purchases should be made or if hiring a contractor might be required. The following checklist will help you assess needs and determine the best way to plan your whole house or multi-room audio system.

How Many Rooms (or Zones) in the System?

An open living room and kitchen area with furnishings and audio/video equipment
Careful planning can result in a fantastic multi-room audio system. Jacek Kadaj/Getty Images

The first thing you should consider is how many rooms or zones to include in the system. This will quickly let you know what equipment you might need as well as give you an idea about the scope of installation. If you want to be able to enjoy music in five separate areas, yet own only one set of speakers, you'll need to get four more pairs. There are important factors to consider before buying speakers, so take the time to choose the best to complement each individual space.

You'll also want to take a look at the connections you have available. A simple two-room system can be installed using the Speaker B switch on your receiver. Many AV receivers have multi-zone features that can support extra sets of speakers and sources. If your receiver doesn't have enough connections, you can consider using a price-friendly speaker selector switch. But if the receiver can't supply enough power to all the speakers safely, then it might be time for an upgrade.

Buying new audio equipment doesn't have to be terribly expensive if you set and follow a budget. But just remember that this is something that you would want to have done beforehand and not while you're in the middle of running wires all through the house.

How Many Sources?

The number of audio sources is also a key question to answer. Do you want to listen to the same source in all zones? Or would you prefer the option to simultaneously stream different sources to separate zones? Most receivers offer multi-zone features, but not all receivers are designed support more than one source at a time. The capabilities of your receiver is very important when it comes to creating a whole house or multi-room audio system.

If you live in a household where multiple individuals may want to use speakers at the same time ((e.g. someone may want to enjoy music in a back bedroom while you watch a DVD in the living room), then a multi-source system will ease tensions over who gets control of the audio.

How many sources you need is all up to you. Make a list of what you would like to have included, such as cable TV, Blu-ray/DVD, turntable, streaming music services, CD player, AM/FM tuner, satellite radio, media player, and others. Remember that additional sources can add to the complexity and cost of a system. 

A Wired or Wireless System? Or Both?

Wireless multi-room music systems are quickly catching up to wired systems in terms of sound quality and control. One of the primary benefits of using wireless speakers and/or equipment is flexibility. If you decide you want to rearrange a room or relocate speakers, you don't have to worry about all the work involved with re-wiring everything.

There are a lot of wireless speakers available, and newer models are always being released. Keep in mind that there is more to wireless than just Sonos, Also, the type of wireless audio technology and overall home layout can be deciding factors in the kinds of wireless speakers you might use.

If you don't see yourself relocating speakers all too often, then a wired system can suit you perfectly well. You can almost always depend on the quality and consistency of wired audio, whereas wireless can experience some limitations (depending). But even though you have a wired system, you can still choose to have wireless control. IR trigger kits can connect and operate multiple components at the same time. And modern universal remotes are designed to offer full control over any IR-enabled device.

Do You Have a Computer Network Already Installed?

A computer network wired with CAT-5 cables can be used to distribute line-level (unamplified) signals to multiple zones in a home. This can potentially save a lot of time and effort connecting speakers – it can also cost more time and money, too.

Either way, this aspect is something to consider. If you choose to utilize CAT-5 cabling for audio, it requires that you have an amplifier (or amplified keypad) in each zone in order to control the system and a pair of speakers. This can be a powerful and flexible way to connect audio, except for one potential setback. A CAT-5 network can't be used for computer networking and audio at the same time. To do that, a separate network would be required for each, which can be a deal-breaker for some.

In-Wall, Bookshelf, or Floor-Standing Speakers?

If you're one to appreciate interior design, the type of speaker you choose makes a huge impact. Not everyone is interested in a monolithic eyesore that disrupts the flow of living spaces. Size, style, and location matters, especially since those aspects go hand-in-hand with output. Companies, such as Libratone and Thiel Audio, create fantastic-sounding hardware in a variety of colorways to complement personal tastes.

In-wall and in-ceiling speakers are often preferred because they virtually disappear into backgrounds, especially when grilles can be painted to match room decor. These types of speakers do require more effort for installation, so careful consideration should be given to placement and the running of speaker wires behind and through the walls.

Bookshelf and floor-standing speakers offer advantages of being easy to move, replace, and upgrade. However, they also take up space within rooms, so you'll want to figure out placement before you go measuring any speaker wire. And don't forget about the subwoofers! If you want the best performance out of your subwoofer, it's worth the time to do it right for the best bass reproduction.

Ready for DIY or Do You Need a Contractor?

Some tasks, such as speaker placement and running wires between separate rooms, can be done by homeowners. Others, such as customized in-wall/-ceiling speaker installation, programming a system for easy operation, or installing keypad controls in each room, are jobs probably best left to a professional with the right tools and experience.

By the time you understand the scope of the whole home or multi-room audio system you want, you should know if it's something you can or have the time to do yourself or not. But sometimes it's worth letting someone else do all the work, especially if your vision is unique and/or has complexity.

Some companies, like James Loudspeaker, are experts in custom-designing audio hardware to fit specific needs. If a speaker manufacturer doesn't provide installation services, you can always refer to CEDIA, the Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association. This industry trade group offers a referral service to help you find qualified installers and system integrators in your area.

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