Music Around the House

For years, "whole-house" music meant either a pair of speakers in the living room blaring loud enough to be heard everywhere or bad-sounding radio playing through intercom panels. Most people confined their listening to a single room and used table radios and portable music systems in other rooms.

Thanks to the steady progress of technology and the diligent efforts of custom installers, you can now choose from a variety of convenient ways to spread good -sounding music throughout your home. In its most basic form, a whole-house music system today consists of one or more stereo source components, a preamp and one or more power amps (often miniaturized), plus a volume control and a pair of speakers in each room where you want to listen.

• Zoning InMost systems have only one "zone," meaning that the same music plays in every room. So if you're in your den rocking out to Bono on satellite radio and your daughter pops Christina Aguilera into the CD player, you'd better be in the mood to get "Dirrty." With independent volume controls in each room, you could just turn Aguilera off where she isn't wanted, but then you're back to having no music.

Happily, there's an alternative that lets you listen to different music in different rooms. With one of these multizone/multisource systems in your home, you can listen to U2, your daughter can have Christina, your wife can enjoy the Dixie Chicks, and your son can crank up the Strokes.

The key point to understand is that a "zone" isn't limited to one room. Depending on the system, a zone could be one room or any number of them. While all rooms within a zone hear the same source, each zone can select a different source for listening. For example, Zone 1 might have a CD playing in the master bed and bathrooms, while the office in Zone 2 is tuned in to the radio.

• Control Issues Besides multiple zones, another difference between an advanced system and a basic one is in how much remote control you have. In basic systems, you have to go to the source components to change the music - whether switching from the CD player to the radio or just from one CD to another.

Multizone systems replace simple remote volume controls with keypads that let you turn the system on, select and change sources, skip tracks or whole CDs (if you're using a changer), change stations or channels, and so on. The keypad functions as an in-room remote that relays commands from wherever you are to the main system. How the keypad looks and how easy it is to use are important since it's your main way of interacting with your music.

• Four Paths to Multizone Listening I set up and lived with four very different multizone/multisource systems, ranging from less than $400 to almost $1,200 per zone for the necessary gear: the A-Bus system, Elan's System6, Netstreams' Musica, and the Oxmoor Z?N system (click to see "fast facts" PDF).

Since all of these were on loan, cutting holes in my walls to install keypads or to string wire for speakers wasn't an option. Instead, I had three zones worth of audio gear strung across the floors. Zone 1 was our bedroom, Zone 2 our bathroom, and Zone 3 the living room. Each system cycled in and out of daily use, allowing me to live and play with each one for several days at a time and give all three listening areas a decent workout. For sources, I used my CD and DVD players and digital cable box. For speakers, I used three pairs of small on-wall and bookshelf speakers from De-finitive Technology, one in each zone. Now, turn the page for details on each system and how it performed.

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