Russound MCA-88X Whole-House Audio Streamer Review


Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $3,499 ($4,477 as reviewed)

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Fast setup/programming
Supports modern and legacy sources
Integrates with many third-party systems
AirPlay gives virtually unlimited access
Minus
NAS streaming has quirks
Native app support is fairly limited

THE VERDICT
Russound delivers whole-home audio entertainment in a single, massively expandable chassis, allowing you to enjoy legacy analog/digital sources or modern streaming.

Streaming and app-based control may be all the rage for music listening, but they ignore the fact that many people still have older, legacy gear they want to enjoy around their homes. Sometimes, whether it’s a CD player, turntable, or cable/satellite set-top box, “stream it from the cloud” isn’t a workable solution. Also, most modern wireless streaming music systems, such as Sonos and Play-Fi, eschew any type of wall-based control, relying solely on a smartphone or tablet interface.

If you want to fill your home with music from virtually any source— and you like the idea of being able to have a go-to, always-ready, inwall controller—then Russound’s MCA-88X might be the perfect solution

A Legacy in Audio
If you’ve looked at audio distribution gear in the last, like, ever, then Russound is probably a name you’re familiar with. Founded in New England in 1967, the company has been a constant fixture in audio distribution, serving both the entry-level DIY market and the high-end custom installation market.

Russound is known for volume controls and A-Bus products, along with stereo and multichannel amplifiers, unique ComPoint intercoms, and architectural speakers. With the new X series of products, Russound is integrating streaming as well as AirPlay into the mix, taking full advantage of modern music needs without abandoning the past.

The MCA-88X leads Russound’s distributed-audio lineup, delivering as many as eight sources to eight zones, with one onboard XStream source. It has 12 x 40 watts of onboard digital amplification for driving six zones; an external amp is required to power zones 7 and 8. If eight zones aren’t enough for your home, rest assured that you can link together as many as six of these bad boys, resulting in a whopping 48-zone system that would be suitable for even the most Vanderbilt of residences.

Certified Installer Required
Today, Russound is based in Newmarket, New Hampshire, where the company has a close relationship with the custom installation market. So close, in fact, that they have developed the “Russound Certified Installer (RCI) Program,” of which the MCA-88X is a part.

According to Russound, “The RCI Program is designed to provide the best possible product and installation experience to our consumers while maximizing the value that the thousands of Russound installers in the U.S. and around the world offer to their customers throughout the sale and installation process.”

RCI products ship in a “locked” state and will function only after they’ve been enabled by a certified installer. Fortunately, this is a simple authentication process that merely requires the installer to key in his e-mail address and password while the unit is connected to the internet.

This not only aims to cut down on unauthorized internet sales but also guarantees that a trained installer will be involved in the installation, (ideally) ensuring it is done correctly. Russound also feels that the “aftersales support of a Russound Certified Installer provides enormous benefits to the end-user and is the principal way that Russound can provide a consistent product experience.” As a professional installer myself, I couldn’t agree more. (And, for the record: Yes, I did get certified by Russound, too.)

Packed in the Back
The MCA-88X’s rear panel is all business, with virtually every inch of real estate packed with a connector of some kind. Fortunately, Russound’s engineers laid out the panel with great thought, and setup for the installer is actually quite straightforward once you find your bearings.

317russ.bac.jpg Along the bottom left are eight sets of analog RCA source inputs/outputs for connecting up to eight components. To the right are eight fixed or variable line outputs for connecting external amplifiers. A killer feature is the MCA-88X’s ability to handle three digital audio sources—terrific for integrating modern devices that have eschewed analog audio, such as a Blu-ray player or an Apple TV. There’s also a dedicated RJ45 connection for Russound’s BTC-1X Bluetooth module.

The rear panel uses tool-less, Phoenix-type speaker connectors for directly linking speakers to zones 1 through 6, and it has RJ45 ports for connecting Russound’s MDK-C6 or SLK-1 keypad controller to a zone. (The XTS touchscreen I received connects directly to the network, not physically to the MCA-88X.)

On the control side, Russound offers a slew of options to make the MCA-88X as setup friendly and agnostic as possible. Virtually every component made today can be controlled via infrared (IR), and the MCA-88X includes seven routed IR minijack connections, one of which is an always-active common output. (Sources 1 and 7 share a connection, as do sources 2 and 8.) This is where an audio controller differs from a streaming system like Sonos or Play-Fi, in that it can actually control other equipment—say, powering on/off devices, skipping tracks on a CD, or changing channels on your cable tuner. An RS-232 interface enables bidirectional communication between the MCA-88X and an automation system; however, most modern systems will instead opt for IP-based control using the Ethernet connection. (Russound integrates with Control4, RTI, URC, Key Digital, Fibaro, and Pro Control. Unfortunately, the Control4 driver was going through final testing and certification at the time of my review period, so I didn’t get a chance to experience it.)

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There are also several trigger inputs and outputs that can perform some handy functions. For example, one can be used to trigger external amplifiers. Another one, a paging trigger input, can be used to interface with a telephone or doorbell system to mute music in all zones and play the chime or page. Lastly, a trigger that’s labeled Home Theater can be used to make sure the MCA-88X doesn’t power down sources that might be shared with another (i.e., home theater) system based on the AVR’s status.

Setup
Configuring the MCA-88X is performed using either Russound’s SCS-C5 software or a Web Config browser. Logging into the MCA-88X’s IP address prompts you to enter a password to access the configuration settings; that done, setup is simple and fast. You can choose which zones are active and name them, set whether the analog outputs are fixed or variable, name sources, choose which sources are available in each zone, configure network settings, etc. Additional customizable options include things like loudness, bass, treble, and balance, as well as source and level trim, zone turn-on volume, grouping zones together, and whether a zone participates in Party mode. Many of these settings are also available within the MyRussound iOS and Android app, which lets end users personalize and tweak performance without involving the installer. All told, basic setup configuration took me about 15 minutes.