Choosing a Whole-Home Audio System

Follow these guidelines when looking to purchase a whole-home audio system.

By Bob Vila | Updated Jun 17, 2019 2:27 PM

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Home Audio Systems

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Whole-home audio, or distributed audio, is an increasingly popular way for homeowners in new and existing houses to enjoy music and radio broadcasts in any room. Separate zones can be created so multiple musical selections can be played simultaneously — soothing classical in the den, talk show radio in the kitchen, and downloaded hits for the kids in the entertainment room. Control devices exist to easily manipulate volume, skip songs, and select specific rooms from any number of locations.

When planning a whole-home audio system, homeowners must decide on the system size, controls, and whether the system is to be single-zone or multiple-zone. First decide how many rooms will contain speakers, and how many speakers will be installed per room. Homeowners can install speakers in just one room, or in every room, depending on the budget. For proper stereo sound, two speakers are recommended per room, although it is common to see one speaker in a hallway or small bathroom. Larger rooms may need more than two speakers for the best sound quality. Speakers included in a home-theater system can also be tied into the whole-home audio system.

It is increasingly common to see home audio in outdoor locations, as well. Poolside, decks, patios, and lawn areas are frequent gathering spots for family and guests, where outdoor speakers bring the benefits of an outdoor room. Outdoor speakers often require more power to generate adequate sound and will require weatherproofing. Homeowners may also consider in-ground or hidden landscape speakers that look like rocks and other yard features.

Room speakers can be in-wall (also called built-in or flush-mount speakers) or freestanding. In-wall speakers are installed to be flush with the rest of the wall. They can be painted to match the décor and blend with the rest of the room. Freestanding speakers include cabinet speakers that rest on furniture or bookshelves, and floor speakers that can be placed anywhere in the room for ideal sound. Budget will also dictate the size, quality, and shape of your speakers. In-wall speakers can be round or rectangular, and will vary in size (measured in inches) and capacity (measured in watts). “Camouflaged” speakers are made to look like other home décor items, such as sconces or light fixtures.

“The size and types of speakers can depend on a homeowner’s taste and perception of ‘good’ sound,” says Mike Brunner, Senior Technical Support Specialist for NuVo Technologies in Nubrin, KY. “Also, the type of music to be played can impact speaker selection,” he says. Some speakers don’t carry the total frequency range, so critical listening is out of the question. A speaker that will deliver full-range is more expensive, and will have tweeter, mid-range, and woofer drivers. A cheap tweeter speaker won’t give rich, low notes, so a quality listening experience when playing music is out of the question. Cheaper speakers will be fine for talk radio and lower-quality recordings. What a consumer should look for when selecting speakers is the frequency response range of the speaker. The greater the range, the richer the sound.

Speaker volume, room selection, and audio output can be controlled from the source equipment, from a remote, and/or from individual wall-mounted controls installed in any room with speakers. Wall-mounted keypads or dials can adjust volume, skip tracks, control other audio source equipment, or do all the above. High-end wall-mounted keypads include colored digital displays that replicate an iPod screen so users can scroll through a music collection by artist, album, or song, with album art displayed during play.

Single-Zone or Multiple-Zone Audio Systems
A “zone” can be one or more rooms. Less-expensive whole-home audio systems are typically single zone and play the same music from the designated audio source. A multiple-zone system gives more listening options and audio sources, requires more equipment than a single-zone system, and costs more to purchase and install. Single- and multiple-zone systems require a distribution box (also called the “headend”), one or more amplifiers, additional source equipment like CD and mp3 players, or “docking stations” for iPods. Some installation methods and manufacturers will require additional equipment as well.

Other Considerations
Homeowners looking to retrofit an existing home with a whole-home audio system might not want to open walls and run new wire. Fortunately, wireless systems are available and, though more expensive, allow for multiple-zone capacity and impressive expandability.

The placement of the headend should allow for easy access because it is the origination point for all wiring and audio sources. “Depending on the homeowner’s preference, it is common to see headend and source equipment located in the basement, where it is hidden, or in an entertainment center, like in the family room,” says Brunner. Environmental considerations are equally important since this equipment can generate significant heat. Adequate ventilation is a must — a separate cooling system or fans may be best for larger systems.