Building an Affordable Multi-room Audio System (Part 1)

5/8/2013 9:04:18 AM

Have you ever played air guitar to Guns ’n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”? Or perhaps air drummed Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” like that infamous Cadbury gorilla? Better still, maybe you’ve used the shampoo bottle in the shower as a microphone. My friend - I’m afraid you’ve got the bug. The music bug that is! But don’t worry, all this means is that you’ve got passion for music and we’ve got just the fix you need.

It wasn’t so long ago that multi-room audio systems were the dreams of music listeners but attainable only by those with deep pockets. Even today many audio companies demand a lot of your hard earned money for such systems. Luckily there is one company that believes that multi-room audio should be available to just about all music fans, even those with relatively small budgets. Which company am I referring to? I’m glad you asked. But first, let’s take a look at what’s involved in building a multi-room audio system.

It wasn’t so long ago that multi-room audio systems were the dreams of music listeners but attainable only by those with deep pockets

What is a Multi-room Audio System?

The term ‘multi-room audio system’ refers to a music system which allows you to listen to your entire music collection, stored in one or more locations, in different rooms in your home. The different rooms, also referred to as zones, can literally include every room in your home and even spaces like your patio, balcony or garage. Multi-room audio systems have been around for many years, in one form or another. So why haven’t they become more popular with consumers over the years? In the past, multi-channel audio components were expensive and required you to cut into the dry wall to run wires. Not to mention the expensive, large and awkward remotes that had to be programmed. Often times, setting up a multi-room audio system meant having to hire a custom installer which further increased the price. But all of this has been slowly changing over the last few years thanks to advancements in digital, wireless, touchscreen and smartphone technologies. Together these technologies have provided a backbone for the modem multi-room audio system, while at the same time bringing the price down to a level that’s affordable to the masses.

Introducing Sonos

Enter Sonos, a company that’s exclusively in the multi-room audio business. Since Sonos launched its first products in 2005, the company has continued to redesign and refine its products to keep them up to date with the latest market trends. The current Sonos family of products consists of six components. There is the CONNECT module ($399), which allows you to stream audio to any existing audio system; the CONNECT: AMP ($599), with built-in amplifiers, which lets you stream audio to any pair of speakers; and the BRIDGE ($59) which connects to your internet router and uses it to create a wireless Sonos network. There are also two all-in-one wireless music systems, the PLAY:5 ($329) and PLAY:3 ($499), which feature built-in amplifiers and speakers. Rounding out the line is the SUB, a wireless subwoofer that retails for $749.

Introducing Sonos

As you can see then, the Sonos components are priced very reasonably. The other beautiful thing, which further reduces the total cost of the system, is the fact that you can use any Apple or Andriod smartphone or tablet to control the system. Just download the free Sonos control app for your device. And who doesn’t already have one or two of these devices at home? Sonos does offer its own dedicated touchscreen remote ($399), although if you don’t already have an Apple or Android device you might as well get one because it offers much more functionality than the Sonos remote. In addition to all of this, the Sonos system can also be controlled by any PC or Mac computer. So in the simplest form, a three room Sonos system can be set up utilizing three PLAY: 3 all-in-one music systems plus the BRIDGE for just over $1,000. That’s remarkable!

Features of the Sonos System

The Sonos system can be used to build an incredibly flexible multi-room system, and you don’t have to decide how many zones you’ll be setting up right at the beginning. You can always add new components in the future - without affecting the rest of the system. Want to start with 2 audio zones, that’s fine. Budget allows you to start with 4 zones? That’s even better. The beauty of this system lies in the fact that you can mix and match any of the Sonos components to create a multiroom system that suits your specific needs. Take for example a two bedroom condo. You could set up two all-in-one PLAY: 3 systems in each bedroom, a CONNECT: AMP in the kitchen with two in-ceiling speakers, a CONNECT in the living room that connects to your home theatre system and another CONNECT: AMP to run your outdoor speakers on the balcony. Each of the components can play the same music or something completely different. You can also adjust the volume of all the components at once, or individually in each zone. Better still, all of the playback can be controlled by your smartphone or tablet. How neat is that?

The Sonos system can be set up as a wired or wireless system, or a mix of the two. Each of the components is capable of streaming CD quality audio, 44 kHz/16-bit. High resolution audio playback is not supported which is unfortunate but won’t impact most of the target audience. To unlock the world of Sonos, one of the components needs to be connected to your home network. Sonos says that its system will let you “stream all the music on Earth” and while that’s a grand claim, it’s actually not far from the truth. The Sonos system can play music from all the computers in your home, or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive, and stream it wirelessly from your smartphones and tablets. It can also play music from various online services such as Songza, Last, fm, Rdio, Slacker and many more. Like Internet radio? It does that too, offering access to over 100,000 free stations. It even plays downloaded Podcasts. It’s not a stretch to say that it can play more music than you can listen to in a lifetime. Check out the “Meet the Sonos Family” box on the previous page for detailed info about each of the Sonos components.

Setting Up the Sonos System - Is It Really This Easy?

Setting Up the Sonos System - Is It Really This Easy?

Setting Up the Sonos System - Is It Really This Easy?

For the purpose of this article, I set up a three zone Sonos system in my house, spanning my living/dining room, home office and outdoor patio. If your network router sits in the electrical room in the basement, like it does in my house, you’ll need to start by connecting the BRIDGE there with an Ethernet cable. The remainder of the system can be set up wired or wirelessly - I chose to go with the wireless option. Next, I set up the CONNECT with my reference 2-channel music system (ModWright Instruments amp and preamp, Bryston DAC, Focal speakers); the CONNECT: AMP in my home office connected to Totem speakers; and another CONNECT: AMP in my kitchen which feeds speakers on my patio. With all the components in place, I installed the free Sonos control app on my iPhone, iPad and iPad mini. Finally, I let the app know which and how many Sonos components are in my house -by pressing a button on each component and a few screen taps on the app. And voila - I had a wireless multi-room system set up and ready to play. It’s that simple.

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