The system that we are working with is the Elan Z-Series. We have 6 zones (rooms) and can select from up to 6 music sources. Five of the zones have keypads for control and the 6th has a VIA! TouchPanel. Initially the sources we are using are an Imerge Soundserver, a Parasound Tuner and an old RCA VCR.

Part 4 - Multi-Room Audio System

Bob Hetherington | HomeToys.com

Home Technology Demonstration Project

Part 4: Multi-Room Audio System

by Bob Hetherington, Editor, HomeToys

Home Technologies Home Demo Project Part 4 - Installing and Programming the Multi-Room Audio System

The system that we are working with is the Elan Z-Series. We have 6 zones (rooms) and can select from up to 6 music sources. Five of the zones have keypads for control and the 6th has a VIA! TouchPanel. Initially the sources we are using are an Imerge Soundserver, a Parasound Tuner and an old RCA VCR.

One of the most popular home technology product lines these days is multi-room audio. In the last few years the product offerings have exploded ... and with good reason. Us old hippies love our music ... and now that the kids have moved out we have a few extra bucks to spend :-) In part two of this series we described the wiring end of the multi-room audio system. Do not underestimate the amount of wire that it takes to install the system ... and also the mess that is made if you are working in an existing home. But believe me it's worth every bit of it once you have your favorite music playing all over the house.

Multi Room audio can come in many forms and these days there are many options available.

  • A basic system would involve wiring to speakers in multiple locations and controlling them from the source (amplifier). All volume and source control occurs at the source so all zones play the same music at the same volume.This is not a great solution for obvious reasons.
  • The next level would be to add local volume control to this basic system. This is the minimum configuration that gives local control and it works for many simple applications and is relatively inexpensive ... but you are still limited to one source of music in all of the rooms ... and you can't change anything but the volume without a walk to the source.
  • Add an IR (InfraRed) receiver and to the volume control and you have rudimentary control of the source. This will allow you to use a remote control to switch sources etc. and basically control the source equipment from your location. All rooms must still listen to the same source however.
  • Multi Zone / Multi Source systems offer much more flexibility. These systems have a separate amplifier for each zone and a keypad in each room allows control of not only the volume etc. but also the sources. Now you can have different music playing in different rooms.
  • Of course the choices don't end here. There are many ways to achieve Multi Zone / Multi Source control and the costs rise as the flexibility of the system and user interfaces improve.

The System

Elan Systems z-Series

The system that we are working with is the Elan Z-Series. We have 6 zones (rooms) and can select from up to 6 music sources. Five of the zones have keypads for control and the 6th has a VIA! TouchPanel. Initially the sources we are using are an Imerge Soundserver, a Parasound Tuner and an old RCA VCR that is all that's left after the kids moved away and took whatever they thought would be useful :-( The Elan equipment, tuner and VCR are stacked up in the lab while the Soundserver is located in the Home Theater room (so we need to get one of it's outputs wired down to the lab ... about 75 feet away). As you can see ... this is a good test bed with lots of different products and some unique applications.

PZ6 Z·SERIES PRECISION PANEL

The Elan audio equipment consists of 2 preamplifiers and 2 power amplifiers (3 zones each). Elan supplied us with a PZ6 wiring panel to keep track and keep the wiring tidy. The front of this innovative panel provides you with jacks for the instant connection of all Z-Series components, while the back of the panel is fitted with an array of clearly marked punchdown connectors for all your house wire runs including keypads, door stations, relays, telephone and volume controls with override. This is especially handy for our project as we are continually testing different configurations and components in the lab.

Lab Shot

Basically the way a system like this works is that each source device is plugged into the preamplifier ... just like your stereo system. The preamp outputs (6 of them) are connected to the the amplifier unit (which has 6 separate amps). The speaker wires are connected to the amps as well (6 zones). CAT5 control wire from the keypads connects to the preamps and IR emitters are attached to the source components. Control is achieved via IR codes ... just like your remote control. When you are in zone 1 and push a button ... an IR code is sent to the preamp which does the task that you requested. For example if you press the CD button ... the IR code tells the system to route the output from the CD player to Zone 1. Same goes for volume control etc. The keypads are programmed with all of the IR codes of the source equipment as well as the system commands (volume etc.). In the case of Elan this requires a special piece of hardware (Learner) and software that runs on a PC. Hence you can control the source equipment with the push of a button on any keypad if it's programmed with the correct IR code. Not magic by any stretch ... but with 6 zones and 6 sources there is a lot of interconnecting of wire behind the stack of gear ... so be ready for that.

The good thing about using IR is that any component with a remote control can function as a source for your multi-room system. You just teach the system the codes from the remote and away you go.

A typical keypad can control many of the functions of your source equipment and depending on the sophistication of the system you may be able to program sequences (macros) of commands into one button.

VIA!® Color In-Wall Touch Panel

In one of our zones we installed a VIA! touch panel instead of a simple keypad. These little beauties add full video to your control panel. VIA! is a full-color LCD touch panel that can be used to control all of your Audio/Video components and other house-wide electronic systems such as Lighting, Security and Thermostats.

Video distribution is handled with the Z-880 composite video switcher. The Z-880 can be used to access any A/V source from any zone. It allows you to view up to eight video sources on each VIA! panel! With the Z-880, each one of eight outputs can independently select any one of the eight video sources.&

Using the same software as used to program the keypads, you can set up multiple control screens and menus for each source component and customize the graphics and motifs to suit your fancy. All of the buttons can be programmed with sequences (macros).

The multi-room audio system has taken the most time and energy to install of any other systems in our project ... and it's not something you want to tackle without assistance unless you are very familiar with wiring and programming systems.

ECAV unit from Pragmatic Communications

Now ... let's discuss some of the other interesting things we can do with our installation. Remember I noted that the Imerge Soundserver is located in the Home Theater Room? How then to get the outputs from that unit into the multi-room preamp 75 feet away? And ... there is also a video output that shows the Imerge menu for selecting music etc. The photo to the right shows the solution that we are using. It's an ECAV unit from Pragmatic Communications. We use one of these units at each end of the run. One of the Soundserver outputs plugs into this unit (you can see the RCA jacks) as well as a CAT5 Ethernet plug (remember all the CAT5 we ran between the home theater and the lab ... just in case :-). In the lab we connect the other end of the CAT5 and use the RCAs for the source inputs to the multi-room preamp and video input to the Z-880. Voila ... Soundserver music in every room and the menu shows up on the VIA! touch panel. And ... since the Soundserver has 2 discrete output channels we can still listen to different music in the home theater room if we want to.

Now ... while it's nice to see the Soundserver menu on the VIA! panel it would be better if we could use it to control the unit as well. No problem ... since we have an IR receiver beside the VIA! panel ... all we needed to do was tie the Elan system IR to our Xantech IR network (a simple emitter from the Elan IR output) and we can use the Soundserver remote to scroll through the menus and select any music we want to play over the multi-room system. This setup took a bit of imagination since there was no such thing as a Soundserver when Elan designed their system.

Here's another little trick we had to do to select more Soundserver functions with the Elan keypads. Remember ... these two were never intended to work together ... so we have to be a bit creative. The Soundserver remote is used to scroll through menu options to select music playlists etc. But that doesn't help if we are using a keypad since we can't see the menu. But I did notice that the Sounserver remote uses the number buttons as letters ... just like a telephone ... for menu shortcuts. For example ... if you select the playlist menu (one button on the Soundserver remote) and then push 3(DEF) ... the cursor jumps down to the playlist name that begins with D... push 5(JKL) and down you go to a listing that starts with J and so on. Therefore ... buttons 2 through 9 will each go to a different letter in the alphabet giving us 8 known menu selections. All I did was go into the Soundserver and rename the playlists ... AAJazz, DARock, GABlues etc. These correspond to buttons 2(ABC), 3(DEF) and 4(GHI) etc. Program the keypads with the IR codes for these numbers on the remote and we can now select playlists from the keypads with a few button presses.

Yes ... we have to remember which playlist corresponds to which number ... but then again ... we have made our existing equipment work together and don't need to buy another device to replace an older one. The technologies are changing fast these days and it's important to be able to use imaginative solutions to get devices to work together. To do that you need to keep an open mind and learn the capabilities of your equipment. My next project for example will be to program some lighting control into the VIA! panel. I will do that by using IR codes from an old remote to activate macros via the HomeVision controller. In fact I will be able to control most everything in the system from the one panel ... including the Home Theater if I want to.

That's it for this installment. If you have any ideas to for this project please let me know. That way we can all learn from each other.

Stay tuned!

Part 5: The Lab


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