SpeakerCraft MODE Multiroom Audio System

the listThe adage is that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." That seems to be the philosophy of most A/V manufacturers; when a new feature appears, their solution is usually to sell you a whole new system. In fact, it's happening right now with HDMI: The only way to realize all the benefits of the latest version (1.3) is to buy a new DVD (Blu-ray or HD) player and receiver.

That's why the SpeakerCraft MODE multiroom audio system is so refreshing. Instead of abandoning the distribution system it created several years ago, the company engineered a way to integrate new keypads with full metadata feedback that lets you see artist, album, and track information anywhere in the house - hence the name, for Music On Demand Everywhere. Plus, these next-generation keypads can easily replace those already installed in existing Speakercraft systems. Sound too good to be true? Read on to see how well they pulled it off....

SETUP SpeakerCraft's lineup includes three multizone controllers compatible with the MODE keypad, and my review system included the middle-of-the-line MZC-66 ($1,920). As the heart of the system, the MZC-66 routes audio and video from six sources to six stereo zones and has an onboard 12-channel amp rated at 30 watts per channel. Its ability to distribute composite video isn't unique, but it is unusual - and awesome - at this price point. Keypads, whether the older MKP series or the far cooler new MODE 3.1 ($399 each), derive both power and control signals over Cat-5 cabling. Audio signals run directly to the speakers from the MZC over traditional speaker wiring.

Like an audio mullet, the MZC chassis is business in the front (with only a single power button) and party in the back, its rear panel bristling with connections. Beyond the inputs you'd expect for each of the six A/V sources, you'll find the video outputs and requisite keypad and speaker connections for each zone. On top of that are IR connections, buffered source outputs, zone amplifier outputs, a contact closure input, and two expansion ports.

These forward-thinking expansion ports are what make adding the new MODE components possible. And while you could simply use the MODE keypads as cool system controllers, they really shine when you add the MODE Jukebox server (not tested: $2,350 for single-zone output, $3,600 for four-zone) or one or more iPods. Assimilating your Pod tunes requires three additional parts: the MODE Base ($120), the MODE Adapter ($120), and the PS-3.0 power supply ($55). An MZC system supports up to six Bases, or six separate Pods connected at once. This means that Dad, Mom, and the kids can all have access to their favorite tunes and playlists. An Adapter is required for each Base, though a single PS-3.0 can power up to six Adapters.