The Integration Guide to Wireless Multiroom Audio

September 5, 2017

This Integration Guide was sponsored by BluOS, Legrand Nuvo, Peerless-AV, and RIVA Audio as a supplement to Residential Systems, September 2017

Last year, Apple caused a great deal of consternation when it announced the new iPhone 7 would not have a headphone jack. The internet groaning was loud, but technology insiders praised the move for the most part, noting that Cupertino tech giant was doing what it always does: revolutionizing how people used technology and forcing that change with new iterations of its own popular products. The iPhone 7 is now as big a hit as its predecessors and, with it, wireless headphones occupy a prominent place in the mobile accessories department.

While wireless multiroom audio has not had the lightning success of Apple’s culture-defining product design moves, it has had category-defining moments, including mass-market acceptance of Sonos’ modular wireless audio system. Technologies such as Bluetooth, Apple’s AirPlay, and the Sony-led DLNA platforms also have allowed consumers to stream audio from a host of devices to both wired and wireless speakers—a demand that has grown with the steady dominance of streaming music services as the primary mode of listening to music worldwide.

As an industry that prides itself on delivering premium technology systems of every kind to its clients, custom systems integration and mass-market wireless audio business are not always aligned. With wired audio systems touted as the superior solution for multiroom projects, there has been a grudging acceptance of wireless systems, mostly because clients keep asking for them.

“Many people stream music from their phones—usually Pandora, which has potentially the worst quality audio of all—via AirPlay using an Apple TV connected into a very basic AV system,” said Gene Crawford, owner of custom integration company, Crawford Entertainment.” A step beyond this is usually a Sonos Connect as the source unit into an audio system. In this case, the smartphone is simply the control point, as the Sonos plays the streaming music itself. The reason for this popularity is both the low cost and a lack of knowledge of true audio systems. Wireless is taking over due to the convenience, and perhaps because many homeowners assume that ‘everything is wireless these days.’ We hear this a lot at Crawford Entertainment, and try to explain that real audio involves amplifiers playing speakers and the benefits of wired solutions. Though small, self-powered Wi-Fi speakers are no true substitute, they are being purchased and used that way.”

THE SONOS FACTOR

When asked, “What have you found to be the most requested wireless audio system from your clients?” CI professionals and dealers unanimously answered, “Sonos.” This is unsurprising, as anyone who has followed the company’s development since 2005 can testify to Sonos’ expert ability to deliver “prosumer” quality to a consumer base exactly because its founding principles encompassed modularity with robust sound quality. It is a business model that has significantly influenced how other market players build their wireless audio systems, including Yamaha and its MusicCast system and U.K.-based Musaic and its eponymous system, while also having the benefit of consumer brand recognition.

For Hugh Cobb, owner of Cobb Home Innovations, it was a no-brainer to recommend Sonos for a client in Murfreesboro, TN, looking to retrofit a home’s audio with specific zones. Pictured is the family room in his company’s Experience Center.

“Those requesting a wireless audio system commonly ask for Sonos because of its broad consumer advertising,” noted Garrett Breinholt, buyer and sales manager of Mountain West Distributors. “End users favor this particular solution because of three main factors: support of the broadest offering of streaming music services; it’s a recognizable brand name; and the app provides a simple user experience.”

The proof is in the sheer number of wireless multiroom audio integration projects that have Sonos as the centerpiece. For Hugh Cobb, owner of Cobb Home Innovations, it was a no-brainer for a client in Murfreesboro, TN, looking to retrofit a home’s audio with specific zones. “With the Sonos system it was a simple solution to update,” he said.

For Tommy Bartnick of Malibu Wired, Sonos is a good fit for both wired and wireless solutions, with the integration company installing the brand’s Connect:Amp, Playbar, and Play:5 most often. “What makes this product line so cutting edge is that it seamlessly integrates into a Control4 system,” Bartnick said. “Control4 has a certified driver for Sonos products, allowing the devices to offer a fast response time and increased reliability.”

Malibu Wired just finished a Hollywood Hills remodel where the owner wanted to add several zones of audio to his existing system. The Malibu Wired team added a few Sonos Play:3s in the bedrooms, while a Play:1 was placed in the master bathroom.

“The owner loved the idea that he could control each zone independently and right from the app on his smartphone,” Bartnick added. “This is an example of a project where a wireless solution was the only way we could get music in the rooms that he wanted.”

GOING HYBRID

To satisfy both their clients’ wishes and still maintain what they believe to be superior sound delivery, many custom integrators are opting to offer hybrid multiroom solutions.

Tommy Bartnick, of Malibu Wired, just finished a Hollywood Hills remodel where the owner wanted to add several zones of audio to his existing system.

“Hybrid—wired mixed with wireless—multiroom systems are workable solutions for robust projects, and we’re seeing these kinds of installs for the majority of the jobs our dealers do,” Breinholt said. “In many cases, an integrator will run wire in most of the house with wireless amplifiers in each zone, but it may not be cost effective or possible to get wire to certain rooms. For those areas, it’s common to use an all-in-one wireless solution, like wireless powered speakers or a soundbar.”

This mix of wired and wireless products in one project has often met with success, including for one of Breinholt’s dealers, Luke Whatcott of Greenline Home solutions in Salt Lake City, UT. Recently, a client wanted to utilize their existing in-ceiling speakers as well as add audio in other rooms, with control from a single app, including syncing music throughout the entire house.

“Greenline decided on Sonos for the solution because it has a user-friendly app and the ability to support both wired and wireless speakers,” Breinholt said. “At Greenline Home Solutions, much of their business is new construction, which allows them the luxury to run new wiring to each room and build a future-ready solution. They strive to provide the best solutions for their customers that will stand the test of time. However, this job in particular showed them there is an untapped market of customers with single-room systems that want to expand to multiroom audio. Today’s wireless technology solutions make system expansion much easier and more reliable than ever before.”

STILL WIRED

Wireless audio, multiroom and otherwise, might be all the rage among consumers, but for custom integration professionals, it will never truly replace the full, rich, robust sound quality of wired systems. Much like the audiophiles who have made this category so powerful and profitable in the past, residential integrators are reluctant to cede more ground than necessary to the multiple wireless technologies eroding not only what they view as the best sound delivery systems possible, but also the best listening experience ever.

While this Hollywood Hills remodel utilizes wireless solutions to serve ancillary rooms, the main spaces are still best served with a traditional distributed solution utilizing in-ceiling speakers. Photo courtesy of Malibu Wired.

“Wired networks are much better for control and streaming audio, but the even bigger need is to run speaker wires from amplifiers to real speakers,” Crawford said. “This is truly the best way to create an audio system, and I think it always will be. Because to truly vibrate the air in a room or outdoor space and get good quality audio requires work to be done by the amp and the speakers, and a small digital amp in a small powered speaker is a low-quality substitute for this.”

Crawford is not alone and finds an ally in Breinholt, who also noted that until a manufacturer delivers a good quality wireless in-wall/in-ceiling speaker, he doesn’t see wireless surpassing wired solutions in custom installations. “Integrators continue to use wired speakers in the majority of their multiroom audio installs because in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are discreet; and, with the use of wireless amplifiers, integrators can provide the wireless music streaming capabilities that customers want without all the visible wires and boxes.”

In knowing how to deliver the ultimate listening and audio control experience, however, integrators might not be recognizing a simple truth: there is an entire generation of music lovers now who have only ever heard music through digital devices and headphones. For this set, as well as converts from generations old enough to remember turntables and box-wired speakers, the loss of sound quality is often imperceptible or insignificant, or the convenience and simplicity of a wireless audio solution outweighs the need for a wired system. As horrifying as this reality might be, it could be time that custom integration, like Apple, set the bar for what the next best iteration of wireless home audio technology ought to be.

Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor to Residential Systems.

WIRELESS MULTIROOM VIEWPOINT

WILL THERE EVER COME A TIME WHEN MULTIROOM WIRELESS AUDIO SOLUTIONS WILL SURPASS WIRED SOLUTIONS?

RIKKI FARR, FOUNDER AND CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER, RIVA AUDIO

Yes, while wired multiroom systems have been a staple for reliability and quality for years, thanks to new and emerging technologies, wireless solutions now have the capacity to realize all of what high quality audio can offer while providing more simplicity, flexibility, and freedom when compared to today’s wired distributed audio solutions. Thanks to RIVA’s patented Trillium audio technology, RIVA’s WAND (Wireless Audio Network Designs) Series creates three discrete channels to provide stereophonic sound in a single speaker while maintaining an open architecture system, allowing the listener to play music via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, DLNA, AirPlay, and through unlimited content sources such as those from Chromecast built-in, Spotify Connect, and even legacy sources such as turntables. The convenience and sheer audio quality of RIVA’s Multi-Room (+) loudspeaker systems certainly make them a disruptive force in the world of distributed audio.

GREG STIDSEN, DIRECTOR, TECHNOLOGY AND PRODUCT PLANNING, LENBROOK INTERNATIONAL

Network audio solutions have come a long way. With our BluOS operating system we can stream 24/192 high-resolution audio to 64 zones on a single network. While wireless solutions can be prone to interference, good network practice can minimize problems. More importantly, wireless audio may now be considered the preferred option for many multiroom installations. For example, there may be restrictions in rental and condominium dwellings where running wires is not allowed. Clients may have multiple dwellings where some homes can be wired but others are better served with a wireless infrastructure. With BluOS we can seamlessly integrate wired and wireless products to create the best most cost-effective distributed audio systems.

FRITZ WERDER, VP/GM, LEGRAND’S ON-Q AND NUVO

On the pro integrator side, I think there will always be a split, and installers will continue to hard wire as much as possible in new construction because it’s always more reliable, has no noise barriers, etc. That said, it’s likely and probably inevitable that wireless will make up a part, if not the sole means, of the signal distribution solution for most home music systems, especially when you consider that many systems also have wireless sources (e.g. Wi-Fi streaming from laptops or Bluetooth streaming from phones or tablets), not just wireless end-points. It’s also highly likely that mixed systems, including both wireless and wired distribution, are also going to represent the largest segment of the market, especially when you consider that integrators are going to design systems to meet the unique needs of each project. The flexibility of both options is key to their ability to provide reliable, efficient solutions, as it offers the opportunity to easily expand those systems in the future using wireless technology.

TODD MARES, DIRECTOR OF EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES, PEERLESS-AV

Wired versus wireless for audio has always been a give and take. Traditionally the user dealt with a lesser product when it came to wireless based on the compression that was needed to utilize the most bandwidth. Now that compression standards have gotten much better since its infancy within the last 10-15 years, there are ways to get not only higher bitrate audio to stream, but also new providers that allow lossless formats to stream. The lossless formats were always best suited for copper as the data streaming requirement was so high. Now that we have entered an era in hi-resolution audio, the next item to fall in line was to find a better way to get from point A to point B, and wireless technology has been catching up to the masses–and delivering unbelievable audio without a wire. With options like Tidal, Deezer Elite, and the lesser-known Qobuz, audiophile quality is now available for the masses, wirelessly. Some of these have not been widely adopted at this point, but Tidal is trying to be that service and pave the way. Audiophile single listening rooms will most likely always be a wired scenario; however, for multiroom hi-res audio, it’s here today and with the connected Wi-Fi home along with newer and better Bluetooth standards (aptX), this will most likely become a major player going forward.

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