Russound Collage Powerline Media and Intercom System

Price: $3,945 At A Glance: Up to three independent music streams • Built-in FM tuner in each keypad • Rhapsody and SHOUTcast Internet radio access

Collage Hits a Home Run

Given the choice, Hercules would choose to clean the Augean stables in a single day rather than wire my house for multiroom audio. Gypsum dust, asbestos-laden insulation fibers, desiccated rodents, and poisonous spiders are just a few of the delights that await the installer (or, in reality, me) who takes on the task. It’s also a logistical nightmare since my house doesn’t have an attic or basement, plus the house only has about 8 inches of crawl space underneath it. Don’t get me wrong, I like my house. It’s the thought of running wire through, under, and around it that gives me pause.

Being able to avoid the wiring backaches was one reason why the Sonos Wireless (over-the-air) Multi-Room Music System I recently reviewed (HT, January 2010) enthralled me. You simply plunk down a ZonePlayer in whichever room you want music, plug in speakers, and you’re good to go in minutes. Still, for all the Sonos system’s amazing qualities, it doesn’t offer in-wall keypads. It also isn’t the first system you’d normally want to use with in-wall speakers. In fact, there really isn’t any other current over-the-air wireless multiroom system that’s designed with custom installation in mind.

It you own an existing home and would like to install a more traditional-style multiroom system with in-wall speakers and keypads, what should you do? Normally, a system like this involves lots of wire, either speaker wire or Cat-5, or both. The wire would spider out (in what’s known as “home runs”) from a central location where the amps, switchers, and source components are situated. In addition to the cost of materials, the labor dollars also add up quickly. It’s a shame since, thanks to Thomas Edison and his popularization of alternating current, my home already has a lot of wire in its walls and at least one outlet and light switch in every room. Yet somehow, a multiroom system can’t take advantage of that.

Of course, Russound’s Collage Powerline Media and Intercom System does exactly that. It uses your residential electric wiring to pass signals from keypad location to keypad location without requiring you to home-run new (or any) wiring back to a central hub. To be accurate, it’s not totally wireless. Russound is promoting it as a “no new wires” system. However, even that is a slight misnomer since you still need to run speaker wire in the wall from the amplified keypads to the in-wall speakers. But let’s not fault Russound. Until speakers include their own amps, harvest energy from their surroundings, and incorporate 3D motion-capture remote control capability, the short run of wire from keypad to speaker will be a necessary evil. In an attempt to make things as easy as possible for retrofit installations, Russound makes a single-point stereo speaker with a fixed-tilt baffle (Acclaim 7W51SFT) that you can install in the wall a couple of feet above the keypad. This dramatically minimizes the wire and effort that’s needed to put music in a room.

Going with the Flow
The Collage system uses powerline carrier (PLC) technology—specifically the HomePlug 1.0+ Extended version—to distribute digital signals (music, metadata, and voice) throughout the house. The concept behind PLC is simple, but it’s a little mind-blowing. PLC superimposes a high-frequency signal (encoded with a data stream) over the 60-hertz electrical flow in your home’s electrical wiring. Somewhere else in your home, a receiving device strips off the signal and does what it needs to do with it.

PLC as a technology isn’t new. Utility companies have used it to communicate with remote meters. It’s even turned high-voltage electrical transmission lines into AM broadcast antennas. (Don’t try that at home, kids.) As an interoperable standard, HomePlug PLC has been around for a couple of years, and it’s been primarily used for computer networking. Although some companies have recently introduced HomePlug devices that can transmit HD video for short distances over the AC wiring in the home, Russound’s is likely the first HomePlug PLC multiroom media system to hit the market.

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