Sound Advice from the Pros

While the teenagers marvel at the sound effects of The Matrix playing in the home theater, Dad's in the kitchen doing dishes to Dizzy Gillespie, and Mom hums to Neil Diamond crooning in the home office. It's a sweet family scene, but it belies the chaos often associated with home audio systems.

Equipping a home for audio can be an expensive and complex endeavor, particularly if you do it yourself and fail to plan ahead. To understand what goes into the planning, I asked three home systems professionals to recommend systems for a 2,000-square-foot home owned by a finicky, cheapskate client-that would be me. The budget for this mock installation: $9,000.

Two of the systems integrators-Darryl SooHoo of Paradyme (Sacramento, CA) and Stuart Preston of Preston Home Technologies (Tempe, AZ)-proposed two complete audio systems for my typical American home. The third, Keith Kennedy of Home Entertainment Design (Bonita Springs, FL), provided additional insights for planning, pricing and installing a house full of audio.

All three of the professionals suggested different system configurations, specified different products, and sometimes offered conflicting advice; nevertheless, they provided a wealth of information that should be useful to anyone who wants to build a music system into their new home.

In addition, my experience with three audio/video integrators illustrates why skilled professionals specify different products for what looks like one simple job. In some cases, installers find certain products truly superior; other product decisions are based simply on the fact that particular dealers happen to carry certain product lines and not others, or they may be more experienced at programming one type of system than another. Finally, different installers make different tradeoffs to fit a particular budget-economizing in one place to splurge in another.

In my case, SooHoo delegated more of the budget to the home theater, while Preston preferred high-performance keypads for controlling a whole-house audio system. The home theater and a whole-house audio system are different beasts; however, there are overlaps in the products and installation of these two audio entities. Consumers can save time and money if they plan ahead, understand the fundamentals of sound...and hire a pro.

Surround Sound in the Media Room


First, the home theater. The purpose of a surround-sound audio system is to bring cinema-quality sound to the home viewing experience. The effect of a jet zooming across the sky or a monster lumbering through New York City can be achieved with the proper audio gear in your media room-five speakers (six if you include a subwoofer), a surround-sound processor, cables and connectors, and a souped-up remote to control it all...

When the Steven Spielbergs of the world film their movies, they record the audio on separate channels for delivering different types of sounds to different areas of the cinema, putting theater-goers in the middle of the action. You can replicate this effect in your own home theater by using a decoding device called a surround-sound processor/receiver. DVDs, digital-television signals and other digital streams are encoded so that the processor understands which channel of audio should be directed to which speaker.

Today's popular surround-sound encoding formats are Dolby Digital (AC-3) and Digital Theater Systems (DTS), each of which divides the movie soundtrack into five distinct channels. Each channel is assigned to a specific speaker, meaning you'll need five speakers in the home theater: left and right front speakers for music and special effects, a center speaker to deliver the dialog, and two rear surround speakers for ambient noises and audio effects like bullets whizzing by.

An optional sixth channel, the subwoofer, adds extra boom to low-bass audio like the thump of dinosaurs running through Jurassic Park. The subwoofer can sit anywhere in the home theater.

All five or six speakers, as the case may be, connect to the processor with speaker cables, usually 16-gauge, 2-conductor (16/2) wires. The processor connects to the audio/video sources (the satellite receiver, cable box, and DVD player, for instance) using audio interconnects.

Once everything is connected, you'll need a remote control to operate the surround-sound system. This will be the same remote used to control the video components. Typically, the remote control that comes with one of your home theater components-the big-screen TV or the surround-sound processor, for instance-can be programmed to control your entire home theater setup. Or, your installer may suggest a brand-new remote control. On the high end, dealers often recommend the wireless ViewPoint from Panja, the SmartTouch from Crestron or the 700T from Lexicon ($2,000 and up). These remotes use a touchscreen rather than tactile buttons to initiate control. Both Paradyme and Preston like the affordable pushbutton SL9000 remote from Universal Remote Controls ($129), which suits my budget.

Audio for the Rest of the House


A home theater with a surround-sound system is nice for the media room, but what about the other rooms of the home? We would like to hear news and music wherever and whenever the mood strikes-NPR at wakeup in the master bedroom, soft rock in the kitchen when dinner is served. Those functions call for whole-house audio, also known as audio distribution.

An audio distribution system allows different users in different areas of the house to share music sources (like the CD player) and control them independently. To do this, you'll need everything from the sources themselves to the speakers for each listening area, to the keypads that let you select and operate the music sources from different rooms of the house.

Setting up a whole-house audio system can be tricky-dozens of different configurations can yield similar results.

For starters, you'll need to select the audio sources. I figured on three: a radio, a CD player, and a cassette deck. All three of my installers, however, suggested a fourth source: satellite. Even the most basic satellite service plans offer a few commercial-free music channels, and the most comprehensive plans give you dozens of them. An installer can configure your audio system to play these tunes through multiple speakers located throughout the house. You select the satellite channel like you're selecting a disc from your CD player.

Naturally, wherever you want to hear music you'll need speakers. In most cases, you'll want a pair of speakers-left and right-for playing stereo sound. In other areas like hallways or the laundry room, you can use single speakers that combine the left and right channels into one. The speakers may be in-walls that mount flush into walls or ceilings, or box speakers that plug into speaker jacks installed in the wall.

In all or some of the speaker-equipped rooms, you'll want volume controls or keypads to control the music sources. These control mechanisms range from simple knobs for adjusting the volume, to expensive color touchscreens that invite you to select specific songs and artists. Another control option is a tiny infrared eye that simply shuttles commands from a regular handheld remote control to the audio sources tucked away in a distant closet. An infrared eye lets you operate the CD player, for example, just as if you were sitting directly in front of the CD player. Although my dealers suggested complete systems with keypads to match the processing equipment, it is acceptable to mix and match third-party keypads with your equipment. Xantech and Niles, for instance, are popular keypad choices of systems integrators.

Often considered the brain of a whole-house audio system, the preamplifier (also called a zone controller or switcher) switches the audio sources on and off for each listening zone. When you're in the master bedroom and you press the button on the keypad that says CD, it's the preamp that flips the magic switch to CD Player and sends Frank Sinatra on his merry way to the bedroom speakers.

Typically, the preamp is selected based on the number of sources you want to distribute throughout the home, and the number of zones from which they'll be controlled-which is why the preamp is often called a multisource/multizone controller.

A word of caution about zones, which should not be confused with listening areas. A listening area (or room) has one pair of speakers that may or may not have its own volume control. A zone, on the other hand, is a group of one or more listening areas that share the same audio source. All speakers in the zone must listen to the same source, although each area within the zone may have separate volume controls. Often, a zone is made up of a single listening area (one pair of speakers); other times, a zone might comprise several listening areas-the master bedroom and bathroom, for instance.

For my home, I wanted six listening areas-family room/home theater, kitchen, home office, master bedroom, master bath and patio. For this arrangement, the professionals recommended anything from two to four zones.

Getting audio to all of these zones takes more than a switching and control device: The Sinatra song you summoned from the preamp needs a boost to make it to the speakers in the master bedroom. The power amplifier (or just plain amp) provides that boost. Each set of speakers needs adequate amplification, so you'll need a product designed to handle the number of speakers you've selected-in my case six pairs. Sometimes preamplifiers come with built-in amplification, the combination of which is often called a receiver.

Paradyme went with the Russound CA4.4PI preamplifier, which has power amplifiers built in for a complete package that allows four sources, four zones, and eight areas (pairs of speakers). Preston went the two-piece route, using a separate preamplifier and amplifier from Elan. His configuration handles as many as six sources, three zones and 24 pairs of speakers.

Finally, you'll need cables and connectors to hook up all of these components. Most installers recommend running Category 5 (telephone/data) or enhanced 5e cable from keypad locations to the audio processor. This wire may exceed the requirements for many types of keypads and volume controls, but it's a safe, flexible bet, and costs less than 25 cents per foot (uninstalled).

Speakers are wired from the individual listening areas to the preamplifier using 16-gauge 2-conductor or 4-conductor (16/2 or 16/4) wire, the same kind of wire used to connect speakers to the surround-sound processor in the home theater. (Heavier 14- or 12-gauge wire is often recommended for wire runs exceeding 100 feet.) And, as with the connections among home-theater components, use high-quality shielded interconnects between the audio components.

Putting It All Together


As discussed earlier, there are several areas of overlap between the audio in the home theater and the audio in the rest of the house. (The same goes for video, but that's another story-in fact, the same professionals who install these audio systems should also be doing the whole-house video, not to mention security, lighting, and other home systems.)

First, there will be shared sources, in my case the satellite receiver, which will be used for both the home theater and music through the audio distribution system. In addition, the media room, as a zone to itself, will utilize its surround-sound speakers to play CD, radio or satellite music when the TV is off.

Another potential overlap is the remote-control system. The most effective touchscreen-based systems-like those from Crestron, Panja, Lexicon and Elan, at $2,000 and up-were out of my budget for now; however, they could easily be added to the system later. Unlike a conventional handheld remote control, these products can be customized to operate not only the home theater and whole-house audio system, but other subsystems like a lighting control system and a security system.

Finally, the home theater and whole-house audio systems share the same equipment space, whether it's a closet underneath the stairway or a cabinet in the basement or utility room. Many of the source components, and certainly the processors and switchers, can be located in one place to minimize clutter in the home theater and other rooms. However, keep the VCR and DVD player in the media room. You certainly don't want to walk downstairs or to a closet every time you want to load a tape. If a friend comes over with a new jazz CD, you can slip it into the DVD player rather than loading it into your 300-disc CD changer hidden in a closet.

Wherever you plan to locate audio sources and processors, make sure the electrician installs at least one dedicated 15-amp (15A) circuit-more if you plan also to have video and other home systems stored in these locations.

The Client Asks... Together


Q: Do I really need a processor that does both DTS and AC-3. How much does this dual capability add to the cost of a processor?

Preston: The most prevalent standard is Dolby Digital (AC-3), but DTS is absolutely being used, particularly since it has the full backing of Sony, which owns movie studios and production companies, and offers DTS-capable surround-sound products. Having a system that can present those DTS films in surround will be a benefit. And, you're not paying a high premium to have the DTS capability. The NAD 760 I recommend can process both DTS and AC-3, which will accommodate your DVD player and any upgrades such as digital satellite. NAD has a great reputation for performance and durability.

Q: You specified a THX receiver for the home theater. What's the benefit of THX, and how much more does a THX processor cost over a non-THX product?

Paradyme: THX is an audio specification developed by George Lucas to help bring more faithful representations of cinema audio to a variety of settings, including home theaters. A variety of audio devices can bear the THX logo, but that typically gives them a premium over their non-THX counterparts. The Pioneer Elite VSX-26TX Dolby Digital THX receiver we specified in this installation is one of the more versatile in terms of being able to integrate digital componentry, and has plenty of expandability for digital satellite, digital audio, CD recorders and other devices through its digital inputs. Coupled with the Sonance THX in-ceiling speakers, you will have great sound in your home theater.

Preston: I generally use THX equipment in dedicated theaters, but not in multi-use rooms, such as your family room. In a dedicated theater the cost of the THX products really disappears because of other high-dollar items like projectors, screens, furniture and cabinetry.

Q: Explain your choice of speakers-you've specified in-walls, towers, bookshelves.

Preston: There are three styles of speakers for the home theater. First are flush-mounted in-wall or in-ceiling speakers. While these speakers are easily integrated into the room's architecture, they do not provide the quality of sound that a box speaker does. The best sound comes from box speakers, which have enclosures designed to reflect the sound for the best effect. Among the box speakers are bookshelf varieties, which sit on bookshelves or speaker stands, and tower speakers which have their own stands. Tower varieties have multiple speakers within the enclosure for a wider range of sound, which gives the room a fuller, more complete sound.

In your case, we recommended PSB Image Series box speakers and a subwoofer. They are very efficient speakers that will provide a rich, full sound. The front speakers will be shelf-mounted. The rear speakers will be either wall-mounted with brackets or mounted on a stand behind the sitting area.

Paradyme: We chose the Paradigm 70P tower speakers because they offer high performance at a reasonable price. The front speakers have subwoofers built in, so you don't need a separate subwoofer in the home theater. Since your media room area is fairly modest in size, this reduces the amount of real estate required for speakers.

Q: You're charging me $600 for a Pioneer Elite PDF19 300-disc CD changer, but I saw a Pioneer PD-F1007 300-disc changer advertised online for only $250. Can we just use that?

Paradyme: Suffice it to say that the Elite product is better-you'll get better sound from it. Besides that, though, it's cosmetically matched to the Pioneer Elite THX receiver I specified. In addition, when you buy it from us as part of a complete audio package, we integrate it with your whole-house system and we warranty it for a year.

Q: I already have a 50-inch HDTV from Mitsubishi that takes up quite a bit of room. Can't the speakers in this giant TV be used as the front speakers for the surround-sound system?

Preston: Some TVs have speaker inputs or center-channel inputs to enable the use of the internal speakers for surround-sound systems. However, you are going to get higher-quality sound out of external box speakers. In general, manufacturers of big-screen TVs-including Mitsubishi-expect consumers to connect an external surround-sound system to the television. In fact, Mitsubishi offers a surround-sound audio package; we just happen not to carry that line. In homes where I have to install in-wall speakers, I look to see if the client's TV will handle at least the center channel as an alternative. In that case, we don't lose audio quality and we gain aesthetic quality.

Q: Audio distribution is a new concept to me, so I'm not sure how many zones I'll want. For six rooms, should I have six zones? Can I start out with a minimal system, then build from there?

Hed: Remember, several rooms can be combined into a single zone. In your case, since there are usually just two people in the home, it will be rare that you would want more than two sources playing at any given time (although there are other reasons to opt for more zones).

Even with six rooms you could get away with a two-zone system. This means that zone one, the media room, would be able to use a different source than zone two, the background music areas. The individual rooms within zone two, however, will have independent room on/off and volume control.

This way, if you have an old remote-controlled stereo receiver that we can use, you can start with the two-zone system now, and spend the budget on bells and whistles in other places to start. Then once you move into the house and see how you are going to use the system, you can upgrade the multiroom portion of the electronics. The wiring will remain the same.

Q: Explain your selection of zone controllers. The Russound one-box solution retails for about the same price as the Elan two-piece solution ($1,800). What's the difference?

Paradyme: Russound sells the complete system preconfigured for four zones. It's an inexpensive, integrated approach to a multizone system. In addition to the preamp and amplifier, the CA4.4PI comes packaged with four keypads. The fact that the whole system comes in a neat package means that system installation costs can be minimized, and service more reliable.

Preston: I just happen to prefer Elan's products over the others. The Z660 is the best amp I've ever used.

Q: You specify ceiling-mounted speakers in all of my audio zones except the master bedroom, where you suggest wall-mounted speakers instead. Why?

Preston: When speakers are placed on the left and right of your TV, you'll be able to enjoy true stereo sound.

Q: I don't need it now, but what if I eventually want to use the audio system to distribute digital audio like MP3 throughout the house?

Hed: There are four options we recommend for distributing PC audio throughout the house. The first is simply adding an MP3 player as a source to an audio distribution system. The other options involve inserting a PC into the entertainment network. This way you can play MP3 files straight from the Internet as you normally would, then route the music through the housewide speakers. We often integrate computers into a complete home system as a music source and for other reasons. This can be done in three ways: 1) installing a standalone computer at the equipment rack, which may also be useful for other purposes such as a home automation system; 2) adding a remote keyboard and mouse to the computer in your home office, so you can use that computer as the MP3 source, and access it remotely; and 3) simply establishing an audio connection with the computer in your office.

Q: Explain how the keypads you specify work with the audio system. How do I select and control music sources?

Paradyme: The KP keypads that come packaged with the Russound system provide fairly basic functions. A round dial on the keypad is used to adjust the speaker volume and to select the audio source. An infrared eye on the keypad lets you use a handheld remote to control the source, but you still have to use the manual dial on the keypad to turn on the audio and select the source. For an additional cost, Russound offers upgraded keypads with LCD screens that provide useful feedback and presets. For instance, one button press could take you right to your favorite preset jazz station on the satellite system.

Preston: Elan's Zpad offers quite a bit of functionality-simply press the labeled button to select a source. It offers additional features such as mute and favorite-a single button that takes you automatically to your favorite satellite channel or CD. Additionally, there is an infrared receiver integrated into the keypad so that any handheld remote from your source equipment will work from the audio zones.

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