This is the fifth installment of a multi-part series covering all aspects of low voltage wiring in the home: entertainment, security, automation, and future planning. A new section will be published every few weeks.

Pre-Wire Your New Home - Chapter 6: Whole-Home Audio

David Feller | BOCS Company

Home Technology eMagazine Article

June 2010

Pre-Wire Your New Home: Plan For The Future
Chapter 6: Whole-Home Audio

Author: David Feller, BOCS Company
This is the fifth installment of a multi-part series covering all aspects of low voltage wiring in the home: entertainment, security, automation, and future planning. A new section will be published every few weeks.

Pre-Wire Your New Home - Chapter 6 - Whole Home AudioTable Of Contents:

Chapter 6: Whole-Home Audio

Take a step back:
Having your tunes in every room is the most requested and usually one of the first things people aspire to add to their home. The problem is there is a wide range of systems available to deliver audio throughout your home, and each one can require a unique wiring setup. It is definitely advisable to decide what you want and spend some time researching. Your research should absolutely include consulting a professional in the field. Even the smallest of towns seem to have a CEDIA dealer with a showroom.

I’ll leave this section open for continual addition, but some of the more popular systems you should at least take a look at include:

Sonos
Nuvo
AMX
Russound
Crestron (Generally Dealer only)
Abus (a style and product too)

Keep in mind that solutions can run from just a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands depending on the options, how you control it, name brand or do-it yourself, and whether it is part of a whole-home system that includes video, home automation etc.

For the purposes of this very basic introduction, let’s categorize the world into four basic system types (yes there are more, and a HUGE number of options within each one but we have to start somewhere): Single Zone with passive room control, Multi Zone Switched matrix with central amplifier (Russound C-series), Multi Zone Switched matrix with distributed amplifier (A-Bus like), and fully integrated home systems. (Don’t make too much of the titles, I made them up for simplicity to be able to organize the material). One last point, each has unique features and many options can be added to each type.

There is a completely different system type out there that distributes the audio at a higher voltage level, 70V, specifically to allow a lot more speakers to be driven over a much longer distance, but as these systems are typically used in larger installations like hotels or huge homes (where you really shouldn’t be considering DIY pre-wiring anyway) we will not cover those here.

Again, consultation with a professional will give you the best introduction; but be sure to shop around a little as each dealer tends to specialize and therefore push a particular brand or system type. Do not consider this text the bible of home audio as things change almost daily in this area.

But, let’s cut this short – any the systems described below can be installed in a typical home if you pre-wire the following: (details on control, speaker, and keypad placement within each section below)

  • From Media Cabinet to each room – 16-4 speaker wire to the volume control location
  • From Media Cabinet to each room – Cat5e to the volume control location with 3’ spare left at the volume control (for possible keypad 1’ above)
  • From volume control to each speaker – 16-2 speaker wire in wall rated
  • Note lots of options to consider that will add more wiring to an individual room particularly A/B switches and alternate IR receiver locations – see sections below.

Planning :
Before you can jump into Pre-Wiring, getting a solid plan in place is critical for sizing components and deciding how and where to pre-wire.

You need a set of home blueprints – the set drawn from above that the electricians use is usually the best.
Begin by marking each room where you intend to have speakers and label the zones:

  • Labels zones for volume control even if all the zones play the same thing all over the home. This will help you size amps later.
  • Note that a zone is typically a room – however adjacent rooms separated only by an open doorway might be the same “zone” in a multizone system as it does not normally make sense to have those rooms playing different things.
  • A complete installation will include every possible room – even the home theater, bathrooms, kitchen, backyard, hallways, basement even if not finished up front, dining room etc.
  • Smaller rooms like bathrooms typically only use a single stereo speaker centered in the room
  • Rooms up to about 25’x25’ are typically a single pair of speakers adding pairs every multiple of this size as required.
  • Mark locations of volume controls
  • Mark estimated locations of speakers in each room.
    • In-wall speakers tend to provide a better and more even sound throughout a room if placed at “head” heights (whether a typically sitting or standing room). Note that in-wall speakers are typically more visible and have to be carefully planned as pictures cannot be hung over them. Because of this, they are typically only used in home theater rooms, main TV viewing locations and very select areas. I typically place them ¼ to 1/3  the way in from the ends of longer rooms at head height.
    • In-ceiling speakers are more “generic” and can provide a very balanced sound field if planned properly.  There is a lot of debate on proper speaker placement, but I typically place them roughly 1/3 in from each end of rectangular rooms along the longer centerline. If the room is wider than 15’ they are balanced in thirds.
    • For dining rooms, consider placing speakers lower on the walls – at “knee” height to provide a balanced sound field that is unobtrusive.
    • For rooms where you want really high quality audio you might want to consider “bookshelf” type speakers instead of built-ins. The only difference is that speaker wires to that room will terminate in two boxes with binding posts so you can plug the speakers in later.

As you are marking up the home plans, a consistent methodology will make things easier during pre-wire and installation. Some standard markings that I use is as follows:

 

Marking

Description

Output

Input

V(z)

Volume control (zone)

S(mod,z)

Speaker (draw circle or rectangle), model #/size, zone

SJ(z,L/R)

Sin

Speaker jack for bookshelf speakers, Left and Right marked
Sin marked for local speaker level input for a/b switch

K(z)

Keypad (zone)

AB(z)

AB switch in wall (mark AB near Sin for auto switches)

IRO(z)

IRI(z)

Infrared jack (zone) to associate with specific zone – not necessary for single source systems (i.e. if using shelf or stick on IR receiver). Circle this and V together for combo volume control/ir receiver (single gang). Add an R (IRIR) for single gang IR receiver stand alone. Circle with K if built into keypad.

Note than any scheme will work as long as you are consistent and you carefully record what your markings mean.

System Types:

Single Zone with passive room control:
(Single-Zone system)

A single source connecting block with only volume controls 

Although this type of system is considered entry level, it can provide everything you need for basic whole-home background music. By adding a few extra options, you can provide a lot of functionality and be overjoyed with its performance.

A Single source audio system from Crutchfield.com

The basic concept, as shown in the master diagram above, is that you use a single set of sources, amplify it with a stereo amplifier, run it through a load balancing switch, and distribute that at speaker level to each room in the home. At each room, you place a volume control for individual adjustability. For a moderately sized home of 3500sq ft, including the amplifier ($150), the load balancing switch ($200), the volume controls ($30 per room), the speakers ($50-$300 per room), and the wire ($.40/foot), you can easily get away with a $1000-$1500 system if you do it yourself. 

A quick note on switches and volume controls (each of which we will cover shortly). You can certainly skip the speaker selector and just use a connecting block which will result in the amplifier always being “fully loaded” and you will have to run around the house to each room to turn it on or off even the backyard. Or you could just put in a speaker switch at the headend – some even have volume controls there but then if you are in the basement and want to turn the music off you have to run upstairs. There are plenty of descriptions elsewhere that will show you how to hook either of these systems up, but I’m just going to cover a system that uses both a central switch and remote volume controls. This way you can switch off unused zones and get more volume in the others AND also have individual volume control in each room.

Lets start with the pieces of the system, then address options:

The Sources:
Anything from an ipod, a CD player, a computer running iTunes, satellite radio or a combination thereof can be used. Obviously if you get a home theater style amplifier they have multiple inputs and can accommodate switching between inputs fairly easily. Note that if you are using a computer, the audio out might not be sufficient to drive a stand alone amplifier and you might need to add a pre-amp. Nearly every amplifier you could buy will come with a free AM/FM tuner so you get at least one for free. Note that with this most basic system, you will not have meta data available in the remote rooms on keypads. I got around this on one installation by running the music source as a windows media center that was also routed through a whole-home video system. The owner could bring that up on any TV, see what was playing, change play lists etc. then turn the TV off and enjoy the music home wide.

The Amplifier:
All you really need is a stereo home theater style amp. They tend to run $100-$200 at your local electronics store. Look for these features to make it fit seamlessly into your single zone system:

  • Stereo is all you need, 5.1, 6.1, 7.1 are all wastes for this application so don’t pay more for surround features.
  • Can be controlled with an Infrared remote control
  • Inputs (Tape, CD, TV, etc) can be chosen from the remote – preferably both with direct inputs (press a single button to go right to the DVD input) or with a scroll up/down.
  • Has some kind of preamp or “tape out” RCA outputs (for ganging a second amp later if you want to expand.
  • Preset radio stations can be accessed directly with a number button – usually by pressing 0-9.  Must be able to change from AM/FM on the remote, Would be nice to be able to scan through stations with an up/down button but most people only use the presets.
  • Power on and off from the remote works – preferably will recognize on separate from off but not required – just makes things easier.
  • Buy one with enough power to handle all your zones. A decent estimation can made by taking the average power rating of a each speaker (choose just one channel left or right to do the calculation), add them all up, divide by 2, then buy an amp with enough continuous power to meet that number. Normally that works out to about 40W per zone. A typical 5 or 6 zone system, then can be handled with a 250W/channel amp (fairly standard).

Some people use the “zone 2” output from your main home theater amp to drive whole-home audio, and if you are going for “on the cheap” you can make that work but I don’t recommend it. You would have to have your main theater amp on all the time, and input switching normally becomes more complicated. For the extra $100 it is worth grabbing a separate amp.

The Load Balancing Switch:
If you haven’t done distributed audio before, this is a new piece for your system. The basic concept is that the amplifier really needs to see a consistent load. It was really made for a single pair of speakers and depending on the particular hookup method you could get a much lower impedance than it expects when you try to drive multiple speakers. The good ones are powered devices that intelligently flip a bank of relays inside to use different taps on a big transformer (making them usually very heavy) to make sure that no matter how many speakers you have on at any given time, the load stays consistent as far as the amplifier is concerned. Many manufacturers have them available – just search for speaker selectors on the internet – look for ones that either say “load balancing” or have a “protection circuit”

The Wire:
Generally, the easiest method is to run 16-4 speaker wire (carries both left and right channels) to each room from the wiring room. Prices change, but the price of 16-4 is about $.50 a foot compared to 16-2 at $.30 a foot so it is also more economical. 16Ga wire is usually good up to about 125 feet and 14 Ga wire to 250 feet. While do-it-yourselfers tend to use a wide variety of different kinds of wires for speakers, it is advisable to use in-wall rated speaker wire that has the CL-2 or CL-3 UL designation stamped on the outer sleeve. It has a fire rating, and it has a nice twist on the wires which helps to avoid EMI noise interference from nearby noise sources like electrical wires, it is color coded so hookup and maintaining polarity is easier, and the single wire per signal is theoretically better to reduce strange electrical transients and results in better sound quality. Plus it looks more professional and your friends will not make fun of you.

Generally, you will want the first stop in each room to be at a convenient volume control location where a mud ring has been installed preferably 18” from the nearest light switch.  This is typically at switch height but separated from the electrical switches by a foot for isolation purposes. Note that if you have future upgrade plans for more sophisticated keypads, they are generally placed 10-12” above switch height so you should leave enough speaker wire in the wall to feed up to that height as well. Go ahead and run a cat5e for IR receiver to the volume control location and enough slack that it can be drawn up to a keypad location just above for future upgrade. From the volume control location, you will run 16-2 to each speaker in the room (typically 2 for stereo) or 16-4 to a single dual cone speaker for smaller rooms.

 

 

 

The extra loop on the red and blue wires is just a reminder to leave an extra 3 feet in the wall for future upgrades. For this system, the volume control connects the speaker wires at the volume control location. For A-bus type systems the 16-4 from the wiring closet is not used as the amplifier is in the keypad, and for switched matrix systems, the amplifier in the wiring closet feeds the speakers directly so the speaker wires are simply spliced together behind the volume control location and a keypad is installed to control the remote amplifier via the cat5e wire.

The Volume Control:
DO NOT try to build one yourself or adapt a simple “Pot” from radio shack. You must buy stepped transformer volume controls to maintain the impedance balance of the system. Niles and about 10 other manufacturers make these but you are looking for ones that say “load balancing”. The concept is that no matter what volume is chosen, the same impedance or load is presented to the amplifier. That means that if you change the volume in one room it will not go up or down in another. Each one will have four screw terminals for the input and four for the output as they are stereo. Keep in mind they tend to be large and need either extra large electrical boxes or ones with the backs cut off. Sonance, Xsntech, and Niles all make good volume controls.

The Speakers:
I almost hate to touch this one as there is little that stirs more controversy than which speakers are the best. Luckily I can avoid that by giving you links to a few sources and saying that you really need to go listen to quite a few to determine what is best for you. Again many CEDIA dealers have showrooms, and even many electronics stores now have home theater listening rooms where you can switch between multitudes of options.

Some of the more popular brands to watch for include:

Bose, JBL, Polk, Yamaha, Pyle,

And for a low cost but very reasonable option check out http://www.monoprice.com There are reasonable speakers there in the $50 per pair range.
There is a nice thread on avsforum HERE where literally hundreds of people have given their own reviews of those speakers in everything from simple in-ceiling for music to using them for the main home theater speakers.
The one warning would be never to buy speakers off a shelf in a box without either having a recommendation from a professional or having the opportunity to listen to them yourself.
Also keep in mind that a speaker can and will sound completely different in a demo room than in your home. The acoustics of the room, the sound box behind it, and the quality of the electronics driving it all have a huge impact.

At the highest level, though, you need to decide up front the power level you need, the size and shape of the speaker mount, and the best location for the speakers to accomplish a good pre-wire. One more consideration is whether the speaker needs a box built around it as that should be done now, as part of the pre-wire if you can.

Most installations use 6 or 8 inch speakers for general background music and can be had in round or the traditional rectangular frames that allow a high and low range speaker to be mounted side by side.

Boxes are required any place a speaker might be buried in insulation – most speakers are “open” on the back and loose insulation clogging them up will definitely result in bad sound. Personally, I recommend building a box all the time – it gives the speaker a solid sound cabinet and almost always results in improved and consistent sound. A good example can be found in this thread from AVSforum by MikeC and the boxes are shown below. Notice the solid construction (low rattle) Caulked seams (prevent airflow and rattle) and the solid top with many screws.


 

As for power, most distributed systems are 40W per zone and that is sufficient to meet most needs. Getting a speaker that can easily handle this – a 60W or 80W model is a good choice.

We covered the basics of speaker placement above in the planning section, but one note about master bath. You might consider placing a stereo input speaker above the sink area and another very near the shower area so the news can easily be heard even in a noisy environment.

Dual cone speakers should be used to deliver both the left and right channels to a single speaker for smaller rooms. This will provide the full audio spectrum to that room and keep the system impedance balanced.


*** Namegoeshere***Stereo input speaker

 

Subwoofers? Probably not for general background music, but they are available from most of the same sources and easily installed if bass is missing.

Outdoors:
Your backyard is probably the most difficult to get right. It usually takes twice as much power and significantly more bass to get the same kind of sound field outdoors. Do not use the same speakers you use indoors even under the eaves. You need moisture resistant even in protected areas. Ground speakers and even those disguised as rocks can fill in an area nicely. You should use direct burial wire for outdoors. Many people choose to use 14 guage landscape lighting wire fed under the weedblock around the edges of a yard. Consider mounting the controller just inside the back door and placing one speaker just above the door inside for both proper adjustment and to make sure you don’t leave Metallica playing all night long outside for your neighbors.

Keep in mind that no matter how much research you do or how many speakers you listen to in a showroom, unless you are trained in this or hire a professional to get it right the first time it is more or less pot luck.  If it is just simple background music you are looking for, you stand a good chance at a pleasing sound quality that your wife likes.

Extras: This could potentially be a huge list, so I’ll only cover the most popular.

A/B switch in a room:

 

Wall A/B Switch System | Auto A/B Switch System

Installing an “input selector” would allow you to have control in a room whether you are listening to the whole-home feed or to a locally generated source. The most common is in the master bedroom to have a switch that allows you to run your TV/Stereo to the good speakers you put in your ceiling. There are two basic types to consider, passive and active. The passive switches are basically just a “lightswitch” for speakers located next to your volume control. Flip it up and you are listening to the whole-home feed, flip it down and you listen to your in room feed. The in room source needs to be amplified and a wire run from that source to the A/B switch. The A./B switch output then goes to your volume control. Active switches like THIS ONE from Speakercraft actually watches for when you turn on your in-room source and automatically switches over to it so you don’t have to get out of bed. It needs power so it needs to be placed near your in room source and wired in like the passive switch – note the speaker wires from the volume control location need to loop down to this active switch before returning to the volume control and then to the speakers. Some installations put the volume control in line with the wires coming from the whole-home source and bypass the in wall volume control for local sources. In home theaters, the rear surround speakers are typically put on an auto A/B switch so they are whole-home audio unless the main theater amp is on and playing something.

IR pass-back:

 In general, an IR system is almost mandatory. Installation is simple and low cost. The basic idea is to create a simple way to control your audio sources without having to go down to the basement. In each room, you put either a wall plate with a 3.5mm jack so an external IR receiver can be put in the room, mount an IR receiver right in a wall plate, or there are volume controls with an IR receiver built in as well. The combo devices are more expensive, but allow you to only use a single gang box for both functions and are a bit nicer looking. Generally, they use that Cat5e cable back to the wiring closet and then transform the signal back to an IR bug that sticks on the front of your source. See the diagram on the right, simply connect each IR receiver to a home run wire, then in the wiring cabinet, connect all the wires together either with a telephone punch block or a connecting block provided by the IR manufacturer. You will need a powered connecting block to provide power to the IR receivers and connect the combined receiver wires from the remote rooms to IR bugs that stick on the front of your sources and the amplifier.

For the home run wires coming back from the rooms, If it is a 3 wire system, connect all the white stripe wires together to provide a common ground and hook to the G terminal on each end. Twist the orange and green wires together and connect that to Pwr or the V terminal on each end and twist together the brown and blue wires together and connect that to the IR terminal on each end.

Keep in mind that this capability is built in to most of the switched matrix systems. If you are doing a stand alone system like the one above there are a variety of manufacturers, but the example above is from Xantech.

A note on IR receivers: For each of the styles shown above there are generally three different receiver types – standard, plasma friendly, and fluorescent friendly. The standard receivers work at the best angles around the room and are the longest range but interference form LCD TVs, Plasma TVs, Flourescent lights, and even sunlight can interfere with proper operation. Consider what is going to be in the room and purchase an IR receiver compatible with your equipment. Note that with a single zone system like this, if there is interference in any room, it will take the entire system down.

How is it controlled?
Get yourself a good universal remote (UEI, Harmony, Monster…) and program each source into a separate device on the remote. Don’t forget the amplifier so you can choose which source you want. Volume can be added as well, but I normally do not suggest this as it is best to balance the volume of the overall system and allow individual room control of volume. Mute, however, is handy to silence the whole home at the same time for phone calls.

Multi-Zone systems:
Multi-zone capability means that each zone (typically a room) can listen to a different source. Keep in mind that each source, however is shared meaning that if you fire up a CD in one room you obviously cannot listen to a different CD in another room if you only have one CD player.

A good and very popular example of this type of system is the Russound CAA or C series audio distribution systems so we will use that as the basic example of this class of systems. There are 20 or so good name brand systems to choose from, each with their own pros and cons. My only caution is to investigate carefully, and while you most definitely should visit a dealer showroom or two, most dealers focus on one or maybe two systems as their specialty so in that showroom, at least, that system will be “better than all the rest”.

Some of the most popular include: Sonos, Russound, Nuvo, Xantech, [others??]

The basic idea here is that each room now has its own independent amplifier and that amplifier is fed with a switched matrix so any room can listen to any source. Note that there are two basic types of systems in this class – those where all the amplifiers are located in the main wiring cabinet area and those there the room amplifier is in the room itself – in the volume control. The latter is typically referred to as A-bus. The A-bus folks say that results in better sound as the signal is amplified much closer to the speakers. The non A-bus folks say theirs results in better sound since running line levels all over the house results in more EMI interference and hum. The good news is if you follow the same wiring scheme as described in the basics of whole-home audio above, you can install either type of system. The main advantage of going with this type of system is that  each room now has individual control of which source it listens to. We will focus on the centralized amplifier approach for this example, but as you might imagine the similarities are great.

This type of system requires a special controller in the audio source location that replaces the amplifier and load balancing switch and replaces the load balancing volume control with a custom keypad or touch screen. Generally these systems come as kits – the Russound C5 shown above comes with 6 keypads, the controller, and a remote control. Note that the keypads have an IR receiver built in and the controller has the equivalent of the Xantech connecting block built in – IR Bugs are plugged directly into the Russound controller.

This diagram is from a Niles system (very similar to Russound – all the basic connections are the same, but you can see how all the pieces fit together. The “switched power” in the top left corner shows how the system can get positive control of the power of a bank of sources so they can be shared with the home entertainment center.

The other mentioned system, Nuvo, has an identical pre-wire scheme, but the termination point near the media cabinet is admittedly better thought through (for some of their systems). They have you put RJ45 ends on the cat5 coming from the rooms and that plus the 16-4 speaker wires all terminate in the back of a dual gang plate that hides everything in the wall. A “parallel port like” cable then connects the controller to this wallplate giving you only a single wire from controller to wallplate for all the speaker and keypad connections. If you have just a little OCD, this might be the solution for you. Like the others, they have tuners, connections to ipods and other sources that connect right up to the controller.

Selection of a system generally involves determining what level of control and interaction you need in each room, what level of metadata you need, and the expandability of the system. Any of the name brands provide good, proven systems that you should consider. If you intend to also do whole-home video or automation, you need to plan that out now so you can make sure all of those systems interact well with the audio system you choose. Some full automation systems would completely replace this stand alone whole-home audio solution.

Keypads can be as basic as a simple “choose the source, control the volume” pad like the CAA series from Russound, or an interactive keypad like the C series from Russound.  (For full programmable touch pads see the section on integrated whole-home systems)


 

The potential drawbacks to this type of system include having to purchase sources from the same manufacturer for metadata (song, artist etc) to be properly passed to the keypads. The good news is that each manufacturer has a large selection of sources often including media-center like devices, CD jukeboxes, and ipod docks. Russound has a nice bridge that will let you connect your Mac running itunes into most of their systems.


For this type of system, note that the same pre-wire plan still applies (which also means you can upgrade anytime to a multizone system). The difference is that the cat5e goes up to the keypad location approx 12” above switch height and the 16-4 is spliced to the 16-2 wires at the volume control location. If you like, you can put in an A/B switch here to feed  a local source to the in-wall speakers.

Appendix A: Links to sources, references, and products:

Other good how-to and pre-wire guides:

Products referenced in this guide:

 

With 20 years in the Consumer Electronics space, David pioneered wireless LAN for home use in partnership with Linksys, rotating storage for portable electronics at Cornice, and is most recently a founder and chief marketing officer of BOCS Inc, the manufacturer of a new whole home A/V distribution system for retrofit applications

 


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