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Plugging into a Whole-Home Network

For most folks, the installation of whole-home wiring isn't something that they want to do as a casual project. If you don't have a whole home wiring system in place and can't put one in, don't freak out! You have some solutions that use wireless networks or existing wires in your wall to expand the reach of your home theater components.

A lot of people consider the relatively simple whole-home audio when moving out of the home theater and into the other parts of the house. After all, for the first step, you can simply string another set of speaker wires from your multizone-capable A/V receiver in your home theater to, say, remote speakers located in the dining room. Keep in mind, however, that the limitations of a whole-home audio network are based on your A/V receiver. Most A/V receivers that have multizone capabilities can only support audio in one or two other rooms — not zones in every room in the house.

So if you want a true whole-home audio system, you probably need to consider installing additional equipment in the media hub (or nearby). With this equipment in place (and the appropriate wires in the wall), you can share the audio source devices in your home theater with any room in the house. In almost all cases, this system is used to provide stereo (2-channel) audio, not surround sound (multichannel) audio, in rooms outside your home theater.

You can get audio from your home theater to other rooms in the house in four primary ways:

  • Use your receiver: Many receivers include multizone functionality that lets you run speaker wires or a long audio interconnect. You can really only run these into an adjacent room, not the entire length of the house because of signal loss. You can get audio elsewhere in the home most simply with this method.
  • Buy a whole-home audio distribution system: These systems come in both multizone and single-zone versions, and they use their own amplifiers and control systems to send audio to any room in the house. You can buy whole-home audio systems that support up to eight or more rooms.
  • Use a CAT-5e audio distribution system: These systems can distribute line-level stereo audio signals over standard CAT-5e computer network cabling. Many of these systems are designed to carry both audio and video. Some can even carry the higher-quality S-video signals and digital audio signals (such as Dolby Digital) over this network cabling. Most of these systems, however, can carry only composite video and stereo audio.
  • Use a wireless audio distribution system: These typically simple systems are designed to go from point to point (rather than cover the whole home). Many people use them to send audio from their PC to their home theater, but you can also use them to get audio from a source in the home theater to other parts of the house.

Zoning out: Single-zone versus multizone systems

After you start sending audio to a whole-home audio network, you have some decisions to make. The biggest decision is what you want to listen to in different parts of your house. No, not what CDs you're going to play, but rather what kind of flexibility your system has to play different audio sources in different parts of the house simultaneously.

In a single-zone audio system, you have only one audio source distributed to every endpoint across the network at any given time. You can turn various sets of speakers on or off, but you don't have the ability to listen to different audio sources in different parts of your house at the same time. A multizone audio system, on the other hand, lets one family member listen to, say, a CD in the family room, while another person listens to the audio channel of a DVD in his or her bedroom.

You can build single-zone systems more easily and cheaply, but they're obviously less flexible to use than multizone systems. But the basic architecture (the wires that you put in your walls) is usually the same for both types of systems, so you can install an inexpensive single zone system and then upgrade your equipment to multizone later on.

Using speaker wires to build an audio network

The traditional way to expand an audio network is to simply extend in-the-wall speaker wires from your home theater or media center to remote locations in your house (anywhere that you want to have audio).

If your A/V receiver has multiroom capability, you can connect these speaker wires directly to your receiver, using a device called an impedance matching system. You need this device when you connect more than one pair of speakers to a single pair of speaker terminals on a receiver or amplifier.

A better way to use those speaker wire connections to remote rooms is to use a special-purpose, multiroom integrated amplifier. These devices contain individual pairs of amplifiers for each remote pair of speakers; so you don't need an impedance matching system, and you get plenty of power (and volume) in remote rooms. You can get multiroom integrated amplifiers in both single zone and multizone configurations.

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