Compelling new data from Parks Associates reveals that 60 percent of residential broadband users have created their own music libraries on home computers. The world is ripping, customizing and sharing digital media like never before. Trends in music consumption, therefore, point to more portability and distribution over home networks.
"As digital music continues to grow in popularity, a new class of fully digital music systems, including those providing multiple zone capabilities, will become more attractive to those fans looking to expand the ways they enjoy their burgeoning digital music collections," stated Parks Associates vice president and principal analyst, Kurt Scherf.
This digital dynamism is perceived as both a blessing and a curse among multi-zone system manufacturers; some companies have elected to make strictly digital distribution products and some continue with analog. The rest are crafting their own strategies. This month's CEDIA EXPO will be the premier forum for perusing the next crop of multi-room offerings.
Oxmoor's ZON is a pure digital whole-house audio system that's garnering a loyal residential dealer base. It provides in-room amplification through a 60-watt all-digital stereo amplifier. Features include an integrated jog wheel, high-resolution dot-matrix display/user interface, on-board DSP for EQ selection, tone and balance controls and a loudness contour control. A built-in infrared receiver provides control of the ZON controller and passes IR commands to source devices throughout the home.
NetStreams' Musica MU4602 is another noteworthy and net-worthy system. It's a four-source, six-room audio distribution system that gives homeowners control of multiple audio sources with simultaneous playback and adjustment of treble, bass and volume from in-wall keypads. Each keypad integrates a digital amplifier and provides instant visual feedback for sources in each room. Musica has mixed up the traditional recipe by adding IP control to its feature set.
Despite its convenience and scalability, not everyone is convinced that multi-room technology should be all-digital, all the time. "There are some good digital music delivery methods, but there are also ones that seriously compromise sound," stated Richard D. Stoerger, vice president and COO of Audio Design Associates (ADA) in White Plains, New York.
"While technological progress is always beneficial, consumer expectations of quality, or lack of, can be a problem with digital music's popularity. We once included a hard-drive music server in our lineup that sounded great, because it had bit-for-bit CD quality audio uncompressed, not MP3. You can hear the difference. The reality is that at the MP3-level you do not hear music as it can be heard."
ADA, staying faithful to superior sonic quality, has developed a robust "home and theater" A/V receiver that will debut at CEDIA. The HTR-2400 combines an eight-zone multi-room system with a ninth zone home theater system into a single five-rack-space chassis.
For the home theater, the HTR-2400 offers additional digital/multi-channel audio and multi-band video inputs that output through a 7.1 digital preamp/amp hybrid. It also includes 24 channels of power amplification, dual internal tuners, an AM/FM/WX (weather band) tuner and XM tuner, making it the first A/V receiver to include satellite tuning. The success of Antex's TriplePlay three-zone XM receiver reflects intense demand for multi-room satellite radio. ADA's radio tuners feature 30 presets with filtering control.
"Our new box is an all-in-one solution, whereas anyone who wanted multi-zone and
home theater was typically dealing with two different systems that had to be kluged together from different manufacturers," Stoerger stated.
"We're the Rolls Royce when it comes to multi-room technology, not just because of price, but because we maintain a critical eye on performance. We believe that a client spending thousands of dollars on multi-room is spending serious money on what is, in essence, an audio system."
ADA started exploring digital amplification technology years ago, but took a serious look at it last fall. ADA engineers are lauded for developing reliable multi-zone and home theater amps and preamps, but they knew that a digital amp's compact design and low-heat disbursement would be useful in a full chassis. So the company moved forward with a unique design combining a 16-channel digital amp for eight audio zones coupled with multi-room preamp technology, composite video and separate home theater inputs. It also incorporates DSP similar to ADA's separates such as the Suite 7.1. "Our proprietary Class-D [in the HTR-2400] amplifier really sounds phenomenal, Stroeger enthused, "which is really the only reason we went ahead and built it."
Another distribution-ready digital amp will debut at CEDIA from ELAN Home Systems. Privately previewed for dealers in May at its TRIO Summit, the whole-house D1650 is ELAN's next-generation digital amp in its ELAN D Series. It features 16-channels, Class-T digital technology and 900-plus watts of power at an 85-percent efficiency. It can simultaneously deliver 60 watts at 4 Ohms to each of its channels. "With this new amp and the D1200 [its predecessor], dealers also now have the flexibility to select whichever product best suits their job--more power or greater number of channels," said ELAN's president and CTO, Bob Farinelli. "The D1650 was also developed to be a companion piece to our company's System12 eight-zone A/V controller, providing high-quality, stereo audio to System12's eight zones."
Many multi-room notables will make strong showings at CEDIA, including Matrix Audio Designs, who will showcase its newest multi-source, multi-room controllers, the Series 4, Series 6 and Series 8. Each Matrix controller manages distribution of four, six or eight sources, with distribution starting at two zones and expanding up to 64 zones.
Audioaccess, a division of JBL, is joining the multi-room fray with the introduction of its first integrated home theater and multi-room audio/video system designed for custom residential installation. The system is based on the W.H.E.N. AVR/Controller, a 7.1-channel A/V receiver that offers various surround modes, and includes two built-in AM/FM tuners. The system controls outboard A/V sources via dedicated IR outputs and three RS-232 ports for two-way control of specific high-capacity DVD/CD changers. An additional RS-232 port is provided for software upgrades.
Are multi-room manufacturers favoring delivery over sound? Is whole-house distribution technology predicated on audio quality or multiple-zone support? Architectural audio manufacturer Sonance hopes its new distribution system, the DAB1, will maintain faithful sonic reproduction and reliable zone delivery. Designed to provide multi-room audio, system power and control in a single component, it will work with any Sonance in-wall keypad or three-wire IR devices. Up to four audio sources can be connected to the DAB1 and played in any or all of the zones simultaneously.
The need for sophisticated multi-room infrastructure further increases as the hard-drive server category continues its explosive growth. The new SMS3 Smart Media Server from Russound will enable users to identify songs, artists or albums in their music collection using Gracenote's Music Management System. The SMS3 supplies three different music sources simultaneously, making it a great candidate for marriage with a multi-zone system. When used with a Russound CAV/UNO-S2 system, music metadata is delivered directly to the user via the UNO interface. The SMS3 will be shipping this month for $2,899 MAP.
Russound has also unveiled its CAM6.6T a multi-source/multi-zone AM/FM receiver that can distribute six audio sources into six zones and can expand up to 36 zones. Its modular expansion slot allows for upgrades to the tuner, such as XM satellite radio. The CAM6.6T ($1,999 MAP) and UNO-S1 ($199 MAP), its sister keypad, are offered in various configurations to meet diverse needs.
Imerge's SoundServer continues to win the hearts of multi-room system installers by proving itself as a reliable central brain. Imerge's Chris Janes believes the SoundServer has become a preferred multi-room audio source because it provides smart options for discrete audio sources in up to 16 rooms. The SoundServer S2000II incorporates a TV interface with album cover illustration, up to three discrete outputs and three levels of storage capacity, 80, 160 and 250 GBs. Climbing up the ladder, Imerge's S2000Mk2 improves upon the functionality of the S2000II and is available with up to four outputs and is compatible with Media Exports, including iPod downloads.
Stay tuned for news from Channel Vision, Intellinet Controls, Niles, NuVo Technologies, SpeakerCraft, Onkyo and esteemed others who are guaranteed to show top-shelf multi-zone products in Indianapolis.
Margot Douaihy is managing editor of Residential Systems in New York City.