Russound A-BUS A-BK1 Four-Zone Music-Distribution System
Three computers and one broadband Internet connection in my house means that there's a computer network in my future. Right now, it's a hypothetical network, since my ISP (Prodigy) has only succeeded in providing hypothetical DSL service. I know it's coming, though, and I'm looking forward to installing the network about as much as one looks forward to shaking hands with his proctologist. My life is complicated enough without the added grief that a router, a switcher, numerous runs of CAT-5 cable, and unsavory terms like Ethernet and TCP/IP will bring into it. I want something elegant and simple that will provide me with the intended result—in this case, Web pages that load before I've finished typing in the URL and the ability to steal hard-drive space from my kids' computer—without requiring me to complete a doctoral thesis in connectivity and network administration.
What I really need for my silicon-challenged life is something akin to what Russound has come up with for creating a simple home-audio network. It's called the A-BK1 system. Although it comes in a single box not much bigger than a briefcase, this system contains most of the basics (sans speakers and wire) you'll need to extend audio from your main system to four additional areas in your home. The package's graphics and the simple but extremely helpful (lots of excellent illustrations) instruction manual make it clear that Russound intends for this system to be installed by normal consumers—those of us with two left thumbs and lots of priorities that come before learning arcane electronic intricacies. Why the computer industry can't come up with something like this is beyond me. I realize that a computer network might be a little more complicated than an audio system, but can't we use all that artificial intelligence to make things more human-friendly?
One of the two prepackaged systems that Russound offers, the A-BK1 combines a number of modular pieces from the company's A-BUS audio-distribution line. While the kit includes four amplified keypads, you can add a virtually unlimited number (plus one power supply and connecting block for every four additional keypads) to the basic system. All it needs is a line-level output (fixed is best, but variable will work) from any source component. That means that the A-BK1 is perfect for use with A/V receivers and pre/pros that have a second-zone output, but it'll also work quite handily with your receiver's tape-loop out. You use CAT-5 cable to connect the A-BK1, but that's where this system's similarity to a computer network ends. In the first place, it's very easy to install and operate. In the second place, it works—consistently and predictably.
Open the box, and you'll find four A-KP amplified keypads, the A-CB4 Decora in-wall connecting block, the IRB-5 Decora infrared connecting block, the A-PS power supply, and the A-KP RC remote control. Russound correctly leaves it up to you to provide your own speakers and wiring (both the CAT-5 and regular speaker wire), but I think they should've included the four single- and one dual-gang Decora wall plates you'll need. The folks at Russound tell me that they chose not to include the wall plates because there's no way for them to know which color wall plate will match a particular customer's decor. I see their point, but I think that most people would use white wall plates to match the white keypad. It's a small thing, but I would've preferred to have the wall plates in the box so that I could begin to install the system immediately without having to run to the hardware store for plates. To fully utilize the A-BK1's remote-control repeating and power-monitoring capabilities, you'll need to add several infrared emitters (around $10 to $20 each) and an 846C power supply.
The A-KP amplified keypad fits in a standard Decora wall plate; once you've installed the system, it will be the only visible component (other than the remote control). The stylish keypad's oval-shaped volume-up/-down and triangular on/off buttons have soft green backlighting. There's a curved row of seven green LEDs that arc upward across the face of the keypad and indicate the volume level of that particular zone. An oval infrared eye squats near the bottom of the keypad. Just above it is a red LED that lights up whenever it receives an IR command. If you plug an optional 846C power supply into a switched outlet on your A/V receiver, this LED turns green when your system's main components are turned on. Likewise, when you turn off your main equipment, all of the keypads will turn off, and the LEDs will go dark.
Behind the A-KP's pretty face is a densely packed block of preamp and power-amp circuitry. There are no additional amplifiers or power cords to worry about, which is why the system is so easy to set up. The CAT-5 wire's eight leads link this system together via a narrow terminal strip on the back of the keypad. If you've never worked with CAT-5 wire, you're in for a treat: The individual conductors of the twisted-wire pairs inside are about the size of an eyelash wrapped in insulation, and they're much less sturdy. Stripping those tiny wires and tightening the screws on the tiny connector block on the back of the A-KP are the least enjoyable parts of setting up the system. If you're doing it yourself, you'll need a flat-head screwdriver with a tip that's smaller than 3 millimeters wide. It's important to do this right, though, because those eight connections carry the left- and right-channel audio information to the keypad and send back IR commands and status information. Russound has very thoughtfully color-coded the terminal strip to match the CAT-5 wire's color scheme, so you don't have to put a lot of deep thought into the process. (Future versions of the system may incorporate a simpler-to-install connector; however, since this one is a tried-and-true standard favored by custom installers, it's hard to argue with the choice.)
At the top of the keypad is another bank of eight connections. Four of the connections (+/-L, +/-R) are for running the speakers off the keypad's internal 7.5-watt amp. The other four are line outputs, which you'll need to convert to RCA jacks. Once you do this, the A-BK1 demonstrates a flexibility not often found in systems in this price range. Since the keypad controls the output's level, you can use this set of outputs to run a powered subwoofer in a room with a sub/sat system. You could just as easily connect the outputs to an external amplifier driving a higher-end set of speakers. Near the CAT-5 input bank are two small, easily accessible volume-trim potentiometers that you can use to set the zone's maximum volume level (just before it starts to distort) or compensate for any sound balance problems that may result from installation location.