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The Integration Guide to Wireless Multiroom Audio

Home audio’s evolution in the past five years has been remarkable. Streaming music services, the move from physical media to near-universal digital delivery, and the shrinking of audio components have collectively redefined how we listen to music in our home space.

This Integration Guide was sponsored by RIVA Audio as a supplement to Residential Systems, September 2016

Home audio’s evolution in the past five years has been remarkable. Streaming music services, the move from physical media to near-universal digital delivery, and the shrinking of audio components have collectively redefined how we listen to music in our home space. While the classic audiophile—obsessed with sound quality and preserving the technologies that made loudspeakers and AV receivers the standard for a good system—might be heartbroken by all of these changes, today’s current model for audio delivery signals the cultural shift to the connected home mindset. This is no more evident than in wireless multiroom audio, which with the debut of Sonos’ modular system more than 10 years ago, has gone from strength to strength with increasingly robust networking technology, smaller form factors, and the growing integration of streaming services.

The latest of among integrator-grade wireless multiroom audio systems comes from lifestyle brand of Audio Design Experts, RIVA Audio. The company’s Wand Series delivers a new option that is both customizable and easy to use, both indoors and out. Like most systems in our channel, it benefits from a choice of diverse hi-res audio sources, including Spotify, Google Cast, YouTube, AirPlay, Bluetooth, and many others, while also offering several connectivity options (from a single connection to a whole-house wireless networked audio system up to 32 speakers strong). The series also includes several companion components including Wand Arena and Wand Festival speakers, as well as the RIVA Wand app, which can be used to create streaming zones and allows the client to use a voice control system.

“The integrator can use the RIVA Wand app to easily create different zones, and the app will help the client easily stream different music through the environment or voice control the system,” noted Rikki Farr, chairman and chief creative officer for the company. “The built-in IoT compatibility means the integrator can return to add future integration into a smart home environment with additional features from RIVA Concierge.”

RIVA’s Wand Series includes several companion components including its Festival speakers. Apple’s AirPlay, like Play-Fi, also has proved popular as a means of setting up a multiroom audio system. It is at the heart of Russound’s XStream products, with Charlie Porritt, Russound’s CEO, underscoring dealer feedback and the integration with other Russound components (keypads, touchscreens) as important aspects of XStream integration of AirPlay.

“Russound caters to professional installers with products that offer an enhanced user experience,” Porttitt said. “This explains products like the XZone4, four-zone audio system, which features four independent streaming sources, so every room can stream any content without affecting the other rooms. This even includes an unheard-of four streams of Apple AirPlay available with the system. It’s a feature set that is not exactly common among DIY products.”

Control4’s EA Series of controllers covers all of the home automation bases and supports a whopping 9,700 home automation and entertainment devices, including high-resolution audio capability, with each controller purpose-built for different smart home solutions and audiences.

Musaic Music Players work with the company’s IFTTT app, which enables customers to set up and edit their own home automation rules. “Integrators can provide their services to a growing number of customers who are interested in either a smart home, high-resolution audio, or an entertainment system, or this ultimate combination that comes in one controller,” said Paul Williams, Control4’s vice president of solutions. “Not only do these products appeal to the residential markets, but the EA Series’ flexibility and capacity can be used in commercial applications as well, broadening the potential client base for smart home installations for integrators.”

NAD, which has developed its own high-resolution music player with proprietary software, plans to introduce several new products in the category at this year’s CEDIA.

“Our vision is to create an ecosystem that allows professionals excellent flexibility in system design,” explained Greg Stidsen, NAD’s director of technology and product planning for parent company Lenbrook International. “BluOS will be available from NAD in AVR and high-end Masters Series multi-channel and stereo components, in wired distributed audio components that use traditional speaker wire distribution, and in wireless options from Bluesound—one app, one system, with multiple audio solutions and price brackets covered.”

Stidsen highlighted the BluOS ecosystem’s reliability, 64 zones wired or 12 zones wireless (or any mixture of the two), and price points from entry level to high end as key selling points that attract installers to the brand.

NAD’s BluOS ecosystem enables 64 zones wired or 12 zones wireless (or any mixture of the two), and price points from entry level to high end. Denon’s HEOS Multiroom audio system benefits from its open third-party control API, which means control systems like Control4, RTI, URC, Crestron, and bespoke third-party control can be linked to the system. Last year, to help integrators specify HEOS in their projects, Denon introduced HEOS Drive, the company’s multiroom audio product specifically designed for the integration market.

“It is a four-zone, eight-channel, rack-mountable, multi-streaming amplifier with a ton of custom-friendly features like mono/stereo audio output, volume limiting, 12V trigger outputs, HP/LP filters, low-impedance capability, and active cooling,” said Paul Belanger, global business team leader for Denon’s HEOS components and custom integration. “We have also had great success in the integration channel with our HEOS Home Cinema, which is an IP-or IR-controllable soundbar and wireless subwoofer combination with HEOS multiroom capability, HDMI switching, and HD audio decoding from Dolby and DTS.”

This month, Denon will also start shipping its first Denon and Marantz AVRs and preamplifiers with HEOS multiroom streaming built in. These home theater AVRs and preamplifiers are promised to now work seamlessly within the HEOS ecosystem.

U.K.-based Musaic believes the near future of multiroom audio includes a move toward soft features—features that end users can enable and customize themselves post-installation—a change that the company’s CEO Matthew Bramble sees as side-stepping builtin obsolescence and allowing the integrator to avoid support calls.

“A unique example of this kind of thinking is our own Musaic Music Players and how they work with the IFTTT app,” Bramble said. “Via IFTTT customers can set up and edit their own home automation rules and explore options to connect Musaic to many consumer devices such as Nest, Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo, and Netamo, or indeed go further and explore connectivity with Energenie, Lutron Caseta, and other systems that also blur the line between mainstream consumer products and pro integration.”

Russound’s XZone4, four-zone audio system features four independent streaming sources, so every room can stream any content without affecting the other rooms. Musaic’s systems also offer ethernet and Wi-Fi operation, the former of which is always more robust, though Bramble sees Wi-Fi as coming into its own under certain circumstances. “Our Wi-Fi utilizes two-by-two multi-in, multi-out (two antennas and two spatial streams per antenna,) which works particularly well with the new routers that are able to use beam forming to create a strong lobe of directional Wi-Fi. The choice of the backbone is crucial with these systems and it is here that the integrator can make an enormous difference,” he added.

Eleven Engineering has purpose built its own wireless delivery standard, SKAA, to circumnavigate issues raised when Wi-Fi fails to deliver on the promise of the wireless multiroom audio system.

“Wi-Fi is needed in the house to do what Wi-Fi is designed to do: deliver cloud access to the wireless devices in the home,” said Rex Whitehead, Eleven Engineering’s director of sales, North America. “SKAA takes care of wireless audio distribution with a dedicated system so Wi-Fi is not clogged up with doing that. When considering whole house, we feel that audio from your video sources should also be included. With SKAA, the latency is fixed at 36ms so it is the perfect complement to your video system, and the latency is even low enough to be used with gaming, certainly not possible with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.”

Amazon’s Echo and Alexa have taken the consumer market by storm, setting a high standard for voice control even as the massive online retailer works out some control kinks. It is a good measure for what is coming to wireless audio multiroom systems, which, with integration into whole-home systems, is a no-brainer.

“Voice is the next frontier,” Denon’s Belanger said. “If the Amazon Echo has taught us anything, it is that voice done right can be a game changer in how people interact with their home and products. There will be an explosion of great voice tech over the next 18 months.”

RIVA’s Farr agreed, noting “the future of wireless multiroom audio is likely going to center on home automation and smart home systems, with voice control being a key component. As easy as touchscreen apps are to use, voice control—once refined and perfected, can be even easier. As users become more comfortable using voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google voice, they will begin to expect the same level of integration into their home. Multiroom audio lends itself to home automation, and as smart homes become more popular, multiroom audio systems will likely grow with them.”

Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor to Residential Systems.