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Whole House Audio Buyers Guide
Whole House Audio Buyers Guide
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Whole House Audio Buyers Guide

In wall and ceiling speakers are perfect for home theaters, media rooms and of course whole house audio, sometimes referred to as distributed audio. Distributed audio can range from a couple of speakers in the hallway and living room or speakers in every room of the house, including the patio and garage. Let's explore the types of whole house audio setups and find the right system for your particular needs.

Types of Whole House Audio Systems

Single Source-Single Zone

A single source, single zone set-up typically involves one amp/receiver and two speakers located in one room. Not a common option these days, this type of system can be used for bedrooms and home entertainment rooms where the system is used separately from the rest of the house. This type of system is simple, and there's no need for volume controls or speaker selectors. A single source, single zone set-up requires minimal wiring from in ceiling/wall speakers to the location of the audio system in the room. The downside is limited coverage; it's one system in one room.

Single Source-Multi Zone

With a single source, multi zone system, one amp powers speakers in multiple rooms. Great for entertaining or creating musical ambiance throughout the home, these systems are relatively easy to install and can usually be expanded with separate volume controls for each pair of speakers as long as the amp provides enough power. Keep in mind that with this type of system, you can only play one source at a time and you need to go back to the central source to make changes such as switching from your iPod to the radio. However, most systems will allow you to add individual volume controls in each room and you can also add infrared transmitters to gain more access to the system from remote locations.

 

Multi Source-Multi Zone



Here's where whole house audio gets exciting. There are two types of multi source-multi zone systems. One type uses a multi-channel amplifier that typically includes 6 zones (12-channels or speakers). Think of it as having 6 small amps in one device. Each pair of speakers can have their own input or draw from the main input. The second type of multi-source, multi-zone system is a whole-house audio system that includes a complete kit. The kit typically comes with the amp and keypads for each zone to control the system.  

A multi-channel amp is convenient when you are playing all the speakers from one source and occasionally connect to a different source. This type of system is a relatively inexpensive lacks the accessibility of a whole-house audio system. Since the system does not have keypads, you must return to the main system to switch sources.  

A whole-house audio system is more accessible and more flexible when it allows you to switch between different sources from the keypads in each zone or room. However, this type of system requires more wiring; usually speaker wire from the main unit to the speakers and Cat-5 wire from the main unit to the keypads. These systems are also usually harder to expand and cannot be manipulated as easily. Additional speakers and zones are usually not an option unless you add an additional system.  

Multi-source, multi-zone audio systems are great when you have a big house and only a few people accessing the system. However, it can get complicated when you have many people trying to access the system since most systems only have one one iPod input, one satellite radio input, etc. With these systems you can play multiple zones from the same input but you'll need to listen to the same radio station, iTunes library, etc., on that input. If many people will be accessing the system at one time, you may want to consider adding more than one of the most popular inputs. Some devices will also allow you to connect a local input which would be ideal if you like to change music sources often or want to connect a personal computer or iPod player.


Speaker Placement Tips for Whole-house Audio

In rooms where people will be moving around or areas where you frequently entertain, speaker placement for critical listening, such as in home theaters, won’t work. The music will be too loud in one area and too soft in another, a flaw that will be more obvious at low volumes. Typically these rooms are larger than 300 square feet and should use at least two pair of speakers. For rooms less than 300 square feet, speakers should be placed near opposite corners For hallways, walk-in closets and bathrooms where space will only allow a single speaker, think about using a stereo input speaker. One stereo input speaker plays both channels of stereo music with a single woofer and two angled tweeters. They are great for small areas or large awkwardly shaped rooms.

  Before setting up a whole house audio system there are a few things you should consider.

1. How many rooms will have audio?  

One of the most important decisions you need to make before setting up a whole house audio system is deciding how many rooms will have access to the system and what type of features you would like in each room.  

In a whole house audio system, each area of sound is considered a zone; however, for most whole house audio systems each zone is also defined as a pair of speakers.  

Consider how many rooms will be equipped with speakers, keeping in mind that sound is usually distributed in stereo which means you will need 2 channels (left and right) for each room. Therefore, each room will have a minimum of 2 speakers or 1 single stereo speaker (which is one physical speaker but it takes 2 channels, both left and right using 4-conductor wire or 2 x 2-conductor wire).  

If you would like to play multiple speakers in one zone, for example 6 outdoor speakers all playing from the same source, you may want to consider setting up a separate receiver/amplifier for that zone.  

Remember speakers require power as well as an audio signal so each additional pair of speakers on a system is also an additional drain on power. Connecting all your speakers to one system may seem convenient but it may also limit the amount of power and flexibility to the system.  

2. Will these rooms be playing from the same source, different sources or both?  

CD/DVD players, Satellite Radio, MP3 Players, are all considered audio sources. They provide the audio signal to the amp/receiver and the amp powers that signal and sends it to the speakers.  

The simplest whole house audio system plays the same source throughout the house. So, although it often allows for multiple sources to connect to the system and multiple speaker zones, it can only play from one source at a time. This type of system uses an amplifier/receiver with a speaker selector to split the signal to the different pairs of speakers.  

The next step up is a multi-channel amp system. This system allows each pair of speakers to be connected to a different source and usually also allows for a master source. These systems are best for when each room has an assigned source since they do not offer control options away from the main unit.  

A whole house audio kit on the other hand, provides a multi-channel amp and keypads for the individual rooms so you can switch between inputs and control volume from the listening area instead of returning to the main unit.  

Each device has its benefits, limitations, and costs so you should consider which functions are most important to you before choosing a system.  

3. Will any of these rooms be used for Home Theater?  

Nowadays most sound runs in stereo, which is a left and right signal. However, home theater systems are becoming increasingly popular. Home theater systems simulate a movie theater style sound experience by creating a virtual sound stage using separate sound signals to each channel (speaker). There are 3 main types of home theater systems, a 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 system. Since these systems run on different signals than a regular left/right stereo system, it is best to keep the devices separate. Even though all home theater systems can play in stereo, and some even allow you to play both stereo and home theater at the same time, trying to use it to play a whole house audio system can be complex, limiting, and expensive.

 

Setting up a Whole House Audio System

  Once you’ve asked yourself the questions above it’s time to start planning the system.  

Map out which rooms will have home theatre, how many speakers will be in each room, do the rooms need volume controls, keypads, or wall plates, will they be connected to a whole house system or ran independently.  

These plans will help you decide what wire needs to be run in each room and if the rooms need any boxes or brackets.  

Running Wire
Generally speaking, speaker wire is always run from the main unit to the speakers or from the main unit to the volume controls and from the volume controls to the speakers. Speaker wires should never increase or decrease unless they are run into a speaker selector. So if you have 8 speakers, you should have 8 speaker wires running back to the main unit or speaker selector, regardless of volume controls, etc.  

Cat-5 wire is often used for the keypads in whole house audio kits. This wire runs the ‘control’ signals, such as volume control, IR signals, and input selections. This wire needs to be run from the keypad location back to the main unit.  

Boxes and Brackets
All volume controls, keypads, and wall-plates require a gang box. The size of the gang box will depend on the size of the device you’re putting in it. Most keypads and volume controls require a single-gang box, where as some wall-plates may require a double or triple gang box.  

Some in-ceiling speakers also offer a back box. This is an optional addition and may add to sound quality of high-end speakers but should be installed in the pre-construction stage.  

Mounting brackets are also available for pre-construction installation. These brackets are optional for most home installations; however, they may be necessary if the ceiling or wall material is not strong enough to support the weight of the speaker. Some drop ceiling applications may consider using pre-construction brackets. Brackets can also be used as pre-construction place holders on large projects to mark speaker position.  

Installing In-Ceiling/In-Wall Speakers
All in-ceiling and in-wall speakers come with dog-ears that clamp onto the dry wall for easy installation. Simply use the template provided to cut the cut-out size, remove the grill on the speakers, connect the speaker wires to the speaker, place the speaker in the cut-out with dog-ears facing out, screw in the screws on the front side, and replace grill on the speaker.  

Connecting Wires
Speaker wires, themselves, actually have no designation to them. The key is to match the connection on one end to the other. So if you connect the left positive to red on one end then you want to connect the left positive to red on the other end. This is usually very straight forward when looking at red/black wire connections. However, 4-conductor wire, which is used for 2 positive, 2 negative connections, can be a bit trickier since there is no standard designation for white or green wires. The safest bet is to just check the connection on one end and match it to the other.  

Usually you want to strip the wire about a ¼ of an inch, exposing just enough wire to fit in the connection without leaving any bare wire exposed outside the connection to prevent shorting


Choose Speakers
Setting multi-room whole house audio system is not as difficult as you thought. We highly recommend you design and layout the wires during the construction of your house. If you want to add music system to your current house, it is very easy to consult local audio/video installer or at least you can contract the electrician to run the speaker wire for you. Buy the equipment yourself so you have better control of the quality and price. The following is a general guideline that can help you design the multi-room whose house audio system.

Which rooms do you want music in?
The first step in designing your own multi-room audio system is to take a close look at how you live in each room of your home. Make a list of the rooms where you spend the most time. Then try to classify the type of listening you'll do in each room.


Critical Listening — In which rooms will you (at least occasionally) sit in one spot, facing the speakers, and really concentrate on the music? The family room? The home theater room? In critical listening rooms, you orient the speakers toward the prime listening seats.


Entertainment Listening — Think of all the rooms in which you and your family or guests gather to read, talk, work, cook or play. In most of these situations, you play music at low volumes, but you may want to turn it up occasionally. You don't sit in one spot, nor do your guests. The speakers go where they can best spread the stereo sound throughout the room.


Background Listening — Classify rooms you just pass through or spend small amounts of time in — such as hallways, bathrooms and the laundry room — as background listening rooms.


What type of speakers should you use?
As you read about the different types of speakers, keep in mind that there's no reason you need to stick with the same speaker design throughout your home. You can select speakers for each room or area individually, to best match the layout, décor, and type of listening you'll be doing there.


Adding a power subwoofer is a great idea to achieve deep bass in rooms where you're installing small flush-mount, bracket-mount, or bookshelf speakers — particularly in areas where you'll be doing critical listening. As part of a multi-room system, a powered subwoofer should have speaker-level inputs. These simplify volume control, since the same wall-mount knob controls the volume of the speakers and the subwoofer.


Speaker placement for critical listening Place the left and right speakers an equal distance from your prime listening seat, so that the tweeters are at ear level while seated or adjust the tweeter toward to your listening position. If you're installing speakers in a wall that's 10 feet from your chair, place them no more than 10 feet apart from each other and no less than 5 feet apart. If the speakers are placed too close together or too far apart from one another, you will not hear a proper stereo effect.


Sometimes the layout of a room (or the positioning of artwork or furniture within it) makes it impossible to place in-wall, on-wall or floor-standing speakers for critical listening. In such cases, choose a high-grade set of in-ceiling speakers including the LCR critical home theatre design, Ideally, these speakers should have pivoting tweeters, which allow you to direct the relatively unidirectional high frequencies toward your prime listening seats for optimal sound.


Another consideration: When a speaker is placed in a corner, its bass output is reinforced by your room acoustics. You hear more bass, but not necessarily good, tight bass. This so-called "boundary effect" can make the bass sound "loose" or "boomy." Always place your speakers at least one foot away from a corner or a wall/ceiling boundary.


Speaker placement for entertainment listening
In rooms you move around in or frequently entertain in, speaker placement designed for critical listening won't work well. The music will be too loud in one area and too soft in another. By employing three or four speakers in a room, or by judiciously using a combination of direct and reflected sound, you create a sound field that is relatively even. You'll hear some degree of stereo effect regardless of where you are in the room.


Ceiling speakers are a great choice for entertainment listening, because they provide the most even dispersion of sound throughout a room. However, should the wall offer an easier installation or a better match with your décor, place the speakers at least 6 feet off the floor. Both in-wall and in-ceiling speakers should also be placed at least 2 feet away from corners to keep the reflected sound in balance with the direct sound.


When a room is long and narrow, L-shaped, or larger than 300 square feet, consider using more than two speakers. They should be wired in alternating channels, to provide a decent stereo effect in as many areas as possible.


When your décor or budget will not allow more than two speakers in a large or irregular room, try to place left and right stereo speakers near opposite corners of the room. Another option, particularly suitable for long, narrow rooms, is to place two dual voice coil single stereo ceiling speakers in the middle of the room's opposite ends. Each stereo-input speaker plays both the left and right channels of stereo music via one woofer and two angled tweeters, conveying some of the spaciousness of true stereo sound.


Ceiling speaker placement:
Diagonal placement, gives good coverage in a typical rectangular room of 300 square feet or less. Use of three or more speakers in a large or L-shaped room. In a narrow room, place the speakers in the middle at either end. In this example, stereo-input speakers would be a good choice. Speaker placement for outdoor entertainment listening To bring music to your patio or deck, a wide range of weather-resistant speakers are available. Because the sound from such speakers is not bottled up like it is indoors, more power is needed to adequately fill an outdoor space with music. Placing speakers way out in the yard, and expecting them to blanket an acre with sound, is asking too much from a typical receiver or amplifier.


Try to place outdoor speakers within 15 feet of the listening area. The practical way to cover your patio or deck is from the side of the house. The speakers can be tucked into the eaves, which puts the sound behind you as you face the yard.


Speaker placement for background listening
Are you tired of having to crank up your sound system to ear-splitting levels in your main listening room just so you can hear your music while you're in the laundry or the bathroom? Background speakers make your entire house play music for you, and at appropriate volume levels for each listening area.



Typically, the most effective way to bring background music to small rooms is to utilize dual voice coil single stereo in-ceiling speaker. In a bathroom, laundry room or dressing room, a single stereo-input speaker can provide good background sound inexpensively and effectively from the center of the room. In large rooms, the more speakers you use, the more pervasive the sound field will be. Since the volume will never be high in your background-listening areas, you don't have to worry about the negative effects of too much reflected sound.


By creatively placing speakers to reflect their sound off of furniture, walls and ceilings, you can provide pervasive sound without any visible speakers. For example, you might try placing a set of bookshelf speakers out of sight on top of your kitchen cabinets, pointed at the ceiling. The sound reflects off the ceiling, and down into the kitchen, providing good background music coverage throughout the room.


Powering your speakers
After you've decided which rooms you'd like to put speakers in, and what type(s) of speakers you'll be using, the next decision you'll need to make is how to power them all. While in-wall and in-ceiling speakers have been used for decades in commercial applications, in recent years a handful of manufacturers have developed models which can accurately reproduce music and soundtracks at home.


In-wall and in-ceiling speakers work in the same way as regular speakers, but they are mounted in a frame and set into the wall (or ceiling). Instead of a separate speaker cabinet, they use the wall itself as the cabinet. (Though most in-wall speakers are full-range, you may want to add a powered subwoofer to your system for bass reinforcement, especially for home theater.)


With proper installation, these speakers sound great and can blend seamlessly into your room's decor (they even have paintable grilles!). Plus, you don't fill up your floor space with speakers. But keep in mind, installation is more involved than setting up traditional speakers. And you will, of course, need to run your speaker wires behind the walls


Start with is an existing Stereo System. If it has at least 50 watts per channel of output power, and provisions for 2 pair or more of speakers (outputs on the back for "A" and "B" speakers) it should be suitable as the heart of an entire residential or small scale business music system. Speaker cabinets already exist everywhere in your building. Of course, you have probably been thinking of them as Walls and Ceilings, but due to the nature of their construction, they are ideal speaker cabinets. A typical 8 foot tall wall with 16" stud centers has nearly 3 cubic feet of interior space. That is equivalent to a speaker cabinet 1 foot wide, 1 foot deep and 3 feet tall. You know speakers need cabinets to develop bass response, that is why speakers in big cabinets are capable of great bass.

When you buy and install In-Wall Mounted speaker systems you are only paying for the Woofers, Tweeter & Frames. It's the cabinets that make up the bulk of the expense, not only in materials and labor to construct the enclosures but in the excess packing materials, added freight, handling and warehousing (space) expenses that large - heavy items dictate. The walls & ceilings which make up the building serve as terrific speaker enclosures, at no additional expense and furthermore allow you to place the sound sources unobtrusively almost anywhere you wish.

Step 1
Determine which rooms or areas you wish to provide sound, keeping any outdoor areas in mind. This will determine whether you select a 4, 6, or pair speaker selector.
Visualize where the furniture and fixtures will be placed in order to identify optimum speaker and decorator jack plate locations. Generally, in areas where there isn't a centralized seating or listening/viewing position, ceiling speakers are best.
If there is a defined listening/viewing position such as a sofa, the speakers should be wall mounted facing the defined listening/viewing position. In Home Theater applications you can incorporate 4, 6, even as many as 8 speakers for ultimate surround sound systems.

Step 2 Decide in which room the Stereo System (Receiver/Amp, CD, Cassette, etc.), will be located. This will be the Home Run location to which all of the remote speaker wiring will be run. 


In the wall area here (behind the stereo equipment), you can optionally mount the Banana Jack Plates or Binding Post Plates. These terminate the wiring from the in wall/ceiling speakers to one main location.

Step 3
In each room determine where to position the volume control . It is necessary to install one volume control for each pair of speakers. The maximum volume for the entire building will be set from your centralized receiver/amplifier. Each room's relative volume level is controlled by its own localized volume control. 

Step 4 While doing your wire runs, remember, to meet Building Codes in most municipalities, you must use CLASS 2 or CLASS 3 rated Plenum wire. While there are many types of wire that are of a heavy enough gauge to carry the audio signal, if they are not CLASS 2 or CLASS 3 Rated they will likely not be approved in the electrical inspection process.

The common practice is to run 4 conductor wire from the location of the speaker switcher to each volume control. Then, from each volume control to each of the two associated speakers, a 2 conductor wire should be run. Each speaker requires a "+" and a "-" wire. Use at least 16 gauge wire, and if the "runs" exceed 100 feet, use 14 gauge wire. Wire of 18 or smaller gauge can cause overheating of your amplifier or in extreme conditions may even damage the amplifier.