How to Buy Home Audio Equipment
The user interfacePerhaps the most important step in selecting home audio equipment is listening closely to each customerâ€™s wishes. â€œFind out how they live their life,â€ advises John Fazio, owner of Easton, Pa.-based installation company Audio Video Systems. â€œWhen they walk into the kitchen, where do they walk in and where would they put their hand to the wall? Thatâ€™s where the volume control should go. Have speakers where they can hear them. Where do they prepare food? Make sure they donâ€™t have to walk back into the kitchen to adjust the volume," he suggests.
Although the stereotypical audiophile is someone obsessed with sound quality and performance specifications, installing companies say such buyers represent only a minority of the whole-house audio market. â€œThe bulk of the market just wants to get music playing easily,â€ notes Jeff Kussard, vice president of strategic development for equipment supplier Russound, Newmarket, N.H.
Walt Zerbe, audio product manager for OnQ/Legrand, Harrisburg, Pa., another equipment supplier, agrees. â€œToday itâ€™s all about content and control of content,â€ he says. â€œHow many sources a system can support and how those sources can be controlled carries more weight than things like frequency response.â€
Because consumer control is so important, the user interface is one of the most important choices that must be made about a system. As with anything, price is also a factor. User interface options â€“ in ascending order by cost â€“ include remote controls (which may be infrared or radio frequency-controlled) and wall-mounted keypads or touch screens. Some systems may use a mix of options from one room to another.
Remote controls may be infrared, which requires line-of-sight between the control and a wall-mounted pickup device, or radio frequency-controlled. The advantage of the latter technology is that it does not require line-of-sight, eliminating the need for a pickup in each room. That approach also adds a level of convenience, notes Bill Schafer, national sales manager for home automation system manufacturer Crestron, Rockleigh, N.J. â€œEverything we manufacture works on a radio frequency because we realized years ago that people donâ€™t aim,â€ he says. â€œIt makes up for a lot of human error.â€
One way to minimize potential problems with using infrared is to select a system with discrete controls, Sherman explains. Discrete controls have separate buttons for â€œonâ€ and â€œoff,â€ rather than using a single button to do both. This eliminates the possibility of someone repeatedly hitting the button and losing track of whether the system should be on or off. Alternatively, a remote control can be used in combination with a keypad, eliminating the need to go to the keypad to change settings, but using the keypad to provide feedback about the state of the system.
Some remote controls and wall-mounted buttons are limited to providing volume control or simply turning music on and off. The next step up would be a keypad or remote control that provides what is known as â€œshuttle controlâ€ â€“ the ability to advance to the next of several selections, enabling the user to, for example, skip to the next song on a CD. Another nice feature to look for in a keypad is â€œparty mode,â€ notes Chris Coltharp, system designer for Mesa Home Systems, an Austin, Texas-based installing company. That feature enables users to press and hold the â€œonâ€ button to turn on every zone in the home â€“ and when they go to bed, they can turn everything off by pressing and holding the â€œoffâ€ button.
Touch screens offer the greatest level of control and include a display which, when interfaced with an appropriate source (such as a digital audio server) can display the title and artist being played. Touch screens also can be used to make an alternative selection from the userâ€™s music library. They are a comparatively expensive option, however, running in the range of $800 retail without installation, compared with $300 to $400 for keypads.
A less expensive alternative for customers who want to see and control the specific song being played on a digital audio server or similar device is to use the screen on a customerâ€™s television for display. Several manufacturers support that capability, which can be controlled by a remote control that interfaces with the television. At least one manufacturer â€“ Sonos, Santa Barbara, Calif. â€“ also has begun to support advanced song selection through a stand-alone remote control device that resembles a portable MP3 player. Jack Schultz, president of Metronet Safe & Sound, a Chicago-based systems integrator, prefers that alternative because it eliminates the possibility of inadvertently burning an image of the audio system control onto a customerâ€™s television screen through prolonged use. And unlike with touch screens or television screens, he says, â€œI can walk out on the deck or out into the backyard.â€
Wiring choicesA customerâ€™s choice of user interfaces also impacts decisions about the two types of wires â€“ two-pair jacketed copper speaker wire and four-pair jacketed copper Category 5 cable â€“ that are used in audio systems. Unless a customer is using an impedance-matched system, the system will need more than just speaker wire, notes Zerbe, who recently chaired the Consumer Electronics Association committee that created a new standard â€“ CEA 2030 for multi-room audio wiring. â€œImpedance matching is the lowest form of multi-room audio,â€ he says, explaining that the impedance-matching approach basically entails â€œfooling a system into thinking it only has one pair of speakers on it,â€ even though it may be feeding several sets.
â€œThe next step up is Cat 5,â€ Zerbe says. Because Cat 5 wiring can carry audio signals and control information, some installations may not need speaker wire. But the CEA 2030 standard recommends running both types of wire to most locations to prepare for future needs.
Ironically, Zerbe says, â€œSpeaker wire is generally not being used for audio any more, but for power. Cat 5 is limited in the amount of voltage it can deliver.â€ So if a system requires extra power to support touch screens or other power-hungry devices, installers may opt to use Cat 5 for audio and control, and speaker wire for power. Alternatively, some vendors, such as Crestron, recommend installing plug-in power supplies if additional power is required for a device.
The control signals carried on the Cat 5 wiring may be in a serial data format, such as RS-232 or RS-485, or some systems may use Ethernet/Internet protocol (IP) or a proprietary networking format. One advantage of using a network-based approach is that it provides greater data bandwidth, which can be important for large systems, particularly when a home audio system is integrated with a complete home automation system that also may include security, temperature control, and other features.
Some manufacturers also support the A-bus format, an economical approach that relies completely on Cat 5 wire to carry audio, control and power. Such systems typically use keypads with built-in amplifiers that can power speakers in the same room.
Digital Audio Storage FormatsAlthough many audio devices today (including CD players and digital audio tape players) use music that is stored in digital form, often the music is converted to traditional analog form for transmission to speakers and other devices. However, two new media â€“ digital audio servers (which are essentially an enhanced form of MP3 player technology) and satellite radio â€“ are beginning to change that. Both of these media are completely digital, both storing and outputting music in digital form.
As with MP3 players, many early adopters welcome the flexibility that digital audio servers provide. These servers are essentially computer hard drives which, when sized properly, can store a customerâ€™s entire music library. This eliminates the need to manage multiple CDs and enables a wide range of programming options, such as the ability to play a group of songs from a variety of artists in a specific order or to randomly play only jazz music.
The downside to a purely digital approach is that, depending on the compression format used, sound quality can suffer. â€œIn-wall speakers are getting better and more efficient, but things are going the other way with the source,â€ Fazio notes.
For customers who want the convenience of an all-digital approach with the best sound quality, music can be store in uncompressed formats such as wav, or low-loss formats such as org and vorbis. In comparison with more highly compressed formats such as MP3, however, such formats will require more storage space. â€œItâ€™s not uncommon for those who are most concerned about quality and have large libraries to use 300 to 400 gigabytes of storage,â€ Kussard says.
Ensuring that customers have sufficient storage space on their audio servers is critical because such servers typically are not expandable. Recognizing that, Schultz recommends using network-attached storage drives with stand-alone players as an alternative to audio servers, which are really players as well as storage devices. The advantage of this approach, he says, is that the storage drives also can provide backup for other applications and have greater storage capacity. â€œThe typical audio server is 80 gigabytes,â€ he says. His approach, in contrast, can provide as much as 1 terabyte of capacity.
A third digital audio storage option is to use an actual computer hard drive, but installing companies advise anyone choosing that option to dedicate a computer to that purpose to avoid any conflicts with other software. That approach also can cut down on inappropriate service calls, notes David Kroll, national sales manager for equipment manufacturer Boston Acoustics, Peabody, Mass. â€œOnce you touch someoneâ€™s computer and integrate it with audio, they will call you for every computer-related problem,â€ he says.
For computer-based systems, Microsoft offers audio management through its Media Center Edition software, which is basically an overlay to the companyâ€™s XP Pro platform. â€œMicrosoft wants to be the hub to a multi-room entertainment system,â€ Schultz notes. Today, however, Schultz believes Linux-based software is a better choice because it can be tweaked to fit the requirements of an audio system. That could change, he says, depending on the success of Microsoftâ€™s Longhorn software. The Longhorn software, which at press time was targeted for general release this year, is being developed from the ground up for media management.
Schultz sees digital music as the way of the future. â€œAnyone looking at multi-room audio whoâ€™s not looking at support for digital is looking in the wrong place,â€ he says. A cutting-edge development in this area, Schultz notes, is the advent of subscription-based on-demand streaming audio services. These services resemble satellite radio in that users do not actually have a copy of the music to which they are listening. But unlike with satellite radio, which is a broadcast medium, streaming audio services function more like a jukebox, letting users listen to titles from a vast library at any time they want. â€œMy belief is that for most people, streaming music services are the most efficient way they can entertain themselves,â€ Schultz claims. â€œIf I have broadband, I can stream music for under $10 a month and have access to a huge library of music. You canâ€™t buy many CDs for $120 or less per year.â€
Sonos, which is a key supplier for Metronet, has begun to offer equipment that interfaces with one on-demand service, dubbed Rhapsody â€“ and Schultz anticipates that other on-demand services will be added. â€œRhapsody has 85,000 albums and on the system we provide, their library shows up just like mine,â€ Schultz says.
Whatever equipment choices a systems integrator makes, staying on top of new developments in audio â€“ such as on-demand services â€“ is critical, Schultz says. â€œYou need to not only look at whatâ€™s happening today but also whatâ€™s going to happen,â€ he advises. â€œBeing a visionary about whatâ€™s going to happen is critical because technology is changing rapidly.â€
Sidebar: 9 Tips for Selecting the Right Home Audio System1. Before selecting a system, be sure to listen to a range of music in a range of conditions. One thing manufacturers agree on is that conventional specifications are not really a good performance indicator. â€œThe specifications game is not necessarily a good game to play,â€ notes Walt Zerbe of OnQ/Legrand. â€œThe specs for two systems can be identical and you can put them side by side and they will sound completely different.â€
2. Customers can be skeptical about installers who use equipment thatâ€™s sold through retail outlets. To avoid this, consider a manufacturer that offers a separate line for professional installers â€“ even if itâ€™s identical to that vendorâ€™s retail line but has separate part numbers, advises David Sherman of Audio Video Alternatives.
3. Be sure to comply with local building and fire codes. â€œPeople who write codes are starting to pay more attention to speakers that are designed to go into walls or ceilings,â€ notes Jeff Kussard at Russound. â€œSome will require enclosures in back boxes to provide a vapor barrier when installing speakers in ceiling openings into attics or into exterior walls.â€
4. Donâ€™t overlook manufacturer specifications about airflow requirements, advises John Fazio of Audio Video Systems. In some cases, technicians may need to install equipment in a properly sized cabinet to ensure that sufficient airflow is maintained.
5. Consider in-wall and in-ceiling speakers for customers who are particularly concerned about aesthetics. â€œIn-wall and in-ceiling speakers should be as unobtrusive in the environment as possible,â€ notes Timothy J. Dickson, director of sales and marketing for speaker manufacturer Speco Technologies, Amityville, N.Y. Such speakers, he says, â€œare ideal for a project where a customer only wants their home theater to be heard, not seen.â€
6. But donâ€™t assume in-wall or in-ceiling speakers are always the best choice, advises David Kroll of Boston Acoustics. In a room with bookshelves, for example, a compact box speaker actually may blend in better, Kroll notes. â€œIf customers say they donâ€™t want to see speakers, determine what will give that result with the simplest installation,â€ he advises.
7. Look for features that enable speakers to be easily installed, says Timothy J. Dickson of Speco Technologies. â€œThings to look for are easy-mount tabs, quick-connect wire terminals, templates and pre-cut brackets,â€ he says.
8. Settle on a â€œcookie cutterâ€ or basic equipment design that you can build on from one installation to the next, advises David Kroll of Boston Acoustics. Installers who repeatedly change vendors waste a lot of time on the learning curve, he says.
9. Recognize that some vendors â€“ such as Sonos and Crestron Electronics â€“ use controlled distribution and are selective about to whom they sell. â€œWeâ€™re looking for dealers that are committed to the industry,â€ says Bill Schafer at Crestron. Before buying equipment from Crestron or other manufacturers that have controlled distribution, installing companies must be prepared to demonstrate that they have the â€œtraining and technical and financial ability to manage projects,â€ Schafer adds. Installing companies also may be required to handle products from a vendorâ€™s partner manufacturers.