Elan System 8.6AV multiroom audio/video controller

The Short Form
$2,000 (as tested) / ELANHOMESYSTEMS.COM / 859-269-7760
A highly flexible house-wide system offering a mix of performance and options to satisfy virtually anyone's A/V distribution needs
• Options, options, and more options! • Can watch full-motion video on Via! touchpanel controllers • OléXL touchpads are sexy-cool
• N800 controller is pricey • Built-in amp might not have enough gas for large rooms
Key Features
• 8-source, 6-zone A/V system expandable to 24 zones • Vast array of control and system configuration options • Two-way feedback when using SS1 System Station • VIA!migo features latest Apple authentication chip • Via 7.0EM touchpanel controller displays full-motion video • OleXL touchpad controller fits in two-gang wallbox • Web browser on N800 4-inch wireless controller
System as Tested
Elan S8.6AV controller ($2,000) Elan DTNR dual AM/FM tuner ($799) Elan N800 wireless touch screen controller ($1,200) Elan Via 7.0EM 7-inch touch panel controller ($1,400) Elan OleXL film touchpad ($580) (2) Elan SS1 System Station ($750 each) Elan VIA!migo iPod integration dock ($599) Elan SPP system connection panel ($330) Elan PWR4 4-amp, 16-volt power supply ($120)

Three years ago, I rounded up four different audio-distribution systems and compared them ("Music Around the House"). Of the four, my favorite was Elan's System 6. Beyond its 12-channel amplifier, which was the standout of the bunch, I was most impressed by the various options the system offered.

Since that review, Elan has done anything but rest on its laurels, launching 20 new products at the 2007 CEDIA Expo alone. Of this batch, one of the most exciting was the System 8.6AV, an evolution of the System 6 that I loved so much. The S8.6AV features 8 sources and 6 zones with 12 channels of amplification, adds video distribution and RS-232 communication, and can be stacked to handle even more zones in large homes.

But an audio distribution system is more than just a single component; it also comprises source components and touchscreen or keypad user interfaces. For this reason, I told Elan that I wanted to review the S8.6AV as a system, complete with much of the other stuff that it launched at CEDIA. My goal: to see if the company's newest offerings would deliver performance on par with the first Elan system I tested.

As the heart of Elan's system, the S8.6AV controller can route stereo audio and composite-video signals from up to 8 sources to 6 separate zones. As with any house-wide A/V distribution system, an extensive amount of wiring is needed to fully support everything the S8.6AV has to offer. Beyond the wiring, this system also requires professional programming and system configuration, so user installation isn't possible.

Quite a bit of flexibility can be programmed into the S8.6AV, including zone turn-on and maximum volume, bass, treble, and loudness settings, paging and doorbell levels, "do no disturb" settings, and source input-level adjustment. Generally, each zone gets a controller that both "tells" that zone what source to play and controls the connected sources. Elan calls its touchpanel controllers Via! panels, and it offers them in 4-, 7-, and 10-inch versions. While these are identical in functionality and performance, the 10-inch panel is actually large enough to serve double duty as a TV monitor for viewing in areas like kitchens and bathrooms. Elan sent me a midsize 7-inch Via! 7.0EM for review, a panel that requires both Cat-5 cabling to carry data and control signals, and coax cabling for video signals. In addition to the inputs, the panel also features two outputs: one video and one local IR, which are perfect for connecting to and controlling a TV in that zone. For example, an installer could program the Via! to fire up a bedroom TV and turn it to the appropriate video input and send it the video signal of whatever the panel is receiving - nice!

The second controller I received was the Olé XL touchpad. The XL is the evolution of Elan's original Olé panel and features a 2-inch OLED display, as well as the largest touch-control area of any double-gang-size product currently available. The touchpad requires only a single run of Cat-5 to carry both power and control signals.

My system also included the N800, a 4-inch wireless controller. The N800 is basically a Nokia Internet PDA that Elan has repurposed as a controller, and it looks every bit a Nokia product until you power it up and the Elan splash screen appears. Beyond a Wi-Fi access point, the N800 requires an Elan SS1 system station to communicate with the rest of the system. Currently, every N800 controller requires its own SS1, raising the total cost to just shy of $2,000 - a price that, per inch, makes Sony's XEL-1 OLED TV seem cheap. But Elan informed me that it plans to allow multiple N800s to be "stacked" onto a single SS1.