Literally since day one of opening our CI firm back in 1995, distributed audio systems have been a major part of our business, and they remain so to this day. Nearly every new-build project we’re involved with starts off with the question, “So which rooms do we want to wire for music?”
Of course, while the goals of distributing audio remain the same — discreet, easily accessed and controlled, and high-quality sound in each room — the actual means of distributing it has evolved significantly over the years.
At first it was a rack full of source components like CD players and radio tuners along with multi-channel amplifiers and a cobbled-together IR system. Then it moved to the ever-popular 6×6 — six sources to six zones — solutions from companies like ELAN, Niles, and SpeakerCraft, with some kind of in-wall keypad or touchscreen control in each room.
Now, audio distribution is primarily built around streaming solutions, either via companies like Sonos, HEOS, or Bluesound, or via a control system like Control4, and almost exclusively controlled with a handheld smart device.
What hasn’t changed as much is the price-per-zone (PPZ) of these systems, which can still easily exceed $1500 per zone when you factor in speakers, wire, and install. For many, this isn’t a problem, but when you start talking about an eight-zone audio system, that can approach $12,000, which can be more than what some are willing to invest.
Instead of bailing on the project or scaling the system way back in size or speaker performance to hit a budget, you might consider Juke Audio. Juke is a company that has rethought distributed audio, trimming out a lot of the complexity and extraneous features many no longer need or care about, to deliver an all-in-one-box, eight-zone, whole-house audio distribution system for about the price of two Sonos Amps!
Juke Audio takes a barebones approach to packaging, so don’t expect any kind of white-glove experience here. Inside the box are a detachable power cord, four sets of Phoenix connectors, and an Ethernet cable. If you want rack ears, Juke offers them for an additional $19. There is also what I believe to be the smallest bit of setup instructions I’ve ever encountered with a product; just a single-sided 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of paper with the most barebones of directions. To wit, step one under “Installation Summary” is, “Connect the speaker wires to Juke’s green connectors.”
Fortunately, I’ve been around the barn when it comes to connecting audio systems, so I don’t need a lot time with a manual, and I’ll be darned if that one sheet of instructions wasn’t enough to get me going!
To Juke’s credit, their website is chock-full of helpful information, with sections like using, configuring, and installing, including lots of pictures — with 12 (!) images on how to trim, strip, and connect speaker wiring — so those that want some extra handholding should be all set.
The front of the unit has all the styling of a store’s generic product label, being essentially a completely plain black box with the words “JUKE AUDIO” silkscreened in large, bold, white print across the front. Subtle branding it ain’t. There are no front-panel buttons or controls at all, but there are silver holes at each corner that are used with the rack ears for mounting. There are also no front-panel lights; just a minimal faint red glow when you’re looking head-on into the hole at the lower right-hand corner.
At just 15 inches wide, Juke eschews the near-industry standard product width of 17-ish inches, and with its compact 8-inch depth, it should fit inside a cabinet without any trouble while still leaving room for wire management. Also nice is that Juke is virtually silent when running, so if it can’t be located in a closet rack somewhere, it shouldn’t be distracting.
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Multichannel amplifiers incorporating digital amplification technology don’t feel like the amps of old that could often weigh 50 pounds or more. Even still, the roughly 6-pound Juke feels light. For comparison a single Sonos Amp weighs 4.6 pounds whereas the Juke is packing 16-amp channels! And forget about comparing it to the weight of my regular house amp, a 16-channel Triad AMP108.
Another interesting thing is that, while Juke offers both a six- and eight-zone option, they actually only make one piece of hardware. The only difference between the six- and eight-zone version is firmware that unlocks the two additional zones. This comes pre-installed if ordered that way, but if you decide down the road you want to go from a six- to an eight-zone, you can purchase a firmware upgrade (currently $325) to open those extra channels. That’s kinda brilliant.
Juke makes installation about as simple as possible, with a nice clean, rear-panel layout, and the whole wiring process took less than 10 minutes. (To be fair, my speaker wiring was already trimmed, labeled, and landed.)
There are four sets of included Phoenix connectors, with two zones (four speakers) per connector for all eight zones. One minor nit is that Juke has the jacks arrayed +/-/+/- instead of the safer +/-/-/+, which can help prevent a short if a stray wire touches, but they are certainly not the first company to do this. The Phoenix connectors accept wire from 12- to 22-guage, which is nice, and they make a snug fit where a bit of tension on the wire won’t pull out the plug.
Beyond the speaker wire there is an Ethernet port for connecting to the network and a detachable IEC power plug. (Juke also has a built-in 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi receiver if a hardwired connection isn’t available.) After connecting all the wiring, I hit the red power rocker switch on the back and I was ready to Juke.
“Wait! How do I connect my legacy sources, like a cable box? Or what if I want to connect my home theater or use another amplifier? And what about Bluetooth? And I have a zone with a subwoofer? And…”
Yes. I hear you. I too had all of these questions as I was sitting behind my rack wiring in the Juke, especially as I was disconnecting the line-level output to the Niles subwoofer that sits in my kitchen audio zone.
Remember how I mentioned Juke’s website being chock-full of helpful instructions? Well, under the support tab, there is a section labeled “App Notes” with helpful subjects like “Connecting a Subwoofer,” “Pairing with a Surround Sound Amp,” and “Connecting Juke Output to Line Level Device.” Within these Juke describes exactly what needs to be done, along with links to suggested parts to use such as the Rockford Fosgate RFI2SW high level RCA input plug and Boss Audio Systems B25N ground loop isolator.
Also, sitting next to the Ethernet connection are two USB-A connectors that can unlock additional abilities with third-party adapters. These USB connections can be used to add Bluetooth or analog audio inputs.
So, can you make Juke do the kind of things you need to for a system? Yeah. But is it a little kludgy the way things will be cobbled together? Sure.
“Meh. This thing sounds lame. I’d never install it.”
Yes, I hear you again. And I’ll be honest — at this point in the review, I wasn’t super impressed with Juke, and I was kinda thinking that, too. It seemed to lack all the features that I usually looked for in a product, and I felt like everywhere I turned I was running into limitations of what it didn’t do. But keep reading. As I started actually using and living with Juke, it’s ease-of-use and simplicity won me over!
Like a good, little brainwashed iOS user, I headed to the app store after installation and searched “Juke” where I found…nothing. I referred to the one-sheet instruction page and saw that I just needed to open a browser on an iOS device and navigate to “Juke.local.” (Android or PC users need to discover Juke’s IP address and then navigate there.) I can’t speak for Android, but with iOS devices you can then favorite the Juke.local page to your home screen for quick and easy access. There is no way to set a static IP within Juke’s setup menu, but you can certainly give it a reserved IP address in your router, though in my install I never found the need to do so.
Once on Juke’s landing page you are given two options: Choose Where to Listen, and Administrator Settings.
Administrator Settings requires a password to access, and then you are given options to Adjust Zone Volumes, Edit Sources, Edit Zone Names, Network Setup, Change Password, and System Information.
Of these, the first three are the most useful, with sources requiring a bit of explanation. Out of the box (with no additional USB devices connected), Juke’s four sources can be configured as either AirPlay or Spotify Connect, with any combination of the two (i.e.: 4 Airplay, 2 Airplay/2 Spotify, 1 Airplay/3 Spotify, etc.). You can also rename them so they broadcast a more friendly name like, “Dad’s Airplay,” or “Kid’s Spotify.” (The same goes for any analog audio sources connected via a USB connection.)
You can also pair multiple chassis together (Juke says up to 10) that will merge together in the Juke interface, however, regardless of the number of zones, a Juke system only has a total of four sources to select from. Also nice is that if you blank out a zone’s name, it won’t appear in the interface, helping to declutter it.
I’d say that Juke is currently designed to be more friendly with iOS devices than with Android because of its reliance on AirPlay. However, if your customer were primarily going to listen to Spotify, that would be less of an issue. There are some third-party apps to allow Android devices to spoof AirPlay — DoubleTwist pro and AirMusic — but I don’t have any experience using them.
However, this will be less of an issue coming up, as Juke has a rollout plan of free firmware upgrades that are all expected to hit before the end of the year. First up will be an upgrade to AirPlay2, that will be followed by adding DLNA support, and finally Chromecast.
Juke upgraded my unit to a beta version of the AirPlay2 software so I could experience that, and while the beta was a tad buggy — the Juke audio signal lagged behind other AirPlay2 speakers by about a second — they expect to fix that in the final release, which should be available by the time you read this.
There are two things that need to happen to get music to play; you must pick the music you want to hear and then AirPlay (or Spotify Connect) it to the correct Juke source, and then you need to pick where you want Juke to play the music.
To pick where you want music to play, open the Juke.local page and then pick “Choose Where to Listen.” In the upper left-hand corner of the screen, you select which of the four sources you want to listen to, and then click on which rooms you want to hear it in. It’s really a bip-bap-boom process that takes just a moment.
I also liked that Juke remembered what rooms I had selected for each source. Say I have source 1 set to play in the kitchen and dining, source 2 to play in my bed and bath, and source 3 to play outside. I wouldn’t have to go in and pick those again, I would just get music playing to that source and it would immediately come on in those rooms. Unfortunately, you can’t have multiple rooms selected for different sources, as in I couldn’t have all of the above options and then a source 4 that had all rooms selected, and any time you make a change to the room selection, it holds onto that new setting.
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Juke is so simple to use that once you have music playing and your rooms selected, it just kind of gets out of the way. And changing the rooms where music is playing — say turning it off in one room while turning it on in another — is instantaneous and seamless. I would often transition from music playing in the dining room, to my bedroom, and then into the bathroom as I moved around my home, and there is no pause, delay, or hiccup in the switchover.
Naturally, you can also listen to the same source in any or all of the Juke zones, however this is where volume control can get a little dicey. The main volume adjusts the global volume level of every zone, so raising/lowering it affects every zone. Now, you can go into the admin settings and adjust the zone volumes to tweak each zone individually, but that is honestly a bit of a hassle. But if you find that you frequently listen in the same areas simultaneously and want one/some of the rooms louder/quieter relative to the others, you could make this change once and be set.
The sucky thing about using AirPlay (with an iPhone at least) is that if you make or receive a call, it kills the music. However, AirPlay2 doesn’t have that limitation, which will be another welcome reason for the upgrade. You also can’t get multiple streams playing from a single device, meaning if you want jazz in the kitchen and rock by the pool, you’ll need to have two devices handy.
Juke is rated at 40 watts peak/20 watts RMS per channel, with a total rated output of 320 watts. Each output is stable to 4 ohms, and they can even handle a 2-ohm load on a maximum of two zones, meaning you could connect three pair of speakers to a single zone output.
Compared to my usual Triad amp, I noticed that Juke was definitely lacking in the power output department. Where I would usually listen at about 50 percent volume on my Triad, I frequently drove Juke’s levels closer to 80 percent, and even at 100 percent output it wasn’t able to deliver the SPL levels needed on my outdoor speakers. It also wasn’t able to deliver the same bass and dynamics from my Origin Acoustics 10-inch speakers that I’m used to. The solution for these areas that need more juice is to use a speaker-to-line-level adapter to add a more powerful external amp (as per Juke’s app notes), but obviously that will drive the system price up accordingly.
It would have been great if there was a way to bridge the amps in a zone to get more power, or to be able to set a zone’s output to mono for large areas with multiple speakers or where speakers are widely spaced. (Perhaps in a future firmware update…)
Easy and affordable are definitely Juke’s value propositions, and after living with it for a bit, you quickly see the elegance in its simplicity. While it won’t be for everyone, for a family looking for a simple, cost-effective way to get music around the home that is a step above a bunch of portable speakers, it offers a compelling solution.
Kudos: Terrific price per zone, simple interface and install, size can be perfect for small cabinetry
Concerns: Zone power output can be an issue, need multiple devices for multiple streams, limited to four sources
- 4-source streaming audio player
- Supports wireless streaming from Apple AirPlay and Spotify Connect (AirPlay2 coming in free firmware update, along with DLNA and Chromecast)
- Powerful 1.2 GHz Quad Core processor with 1 GB RAM for future firmware feature upgrades/additions
- Two USB connections support a variety of third-party devices (analog input, Bluetooth receiver)
- Class-D amplification 16 x 40 watts (peak), 20 watts RMS/channel; Total rated power is 320 watts RMS; rated to handle 2-ohm load on up to two zones
- Multiple units can be paired together to expand listening zones
- Connections: Inputs — 4-sets of Phoenix connectors (accepts wire from 12-22 gauge), two USB-A connectors, RJ-45 Ethernet; Outputs — Detachable IEC power connector
- Dimensions: 15 x 3 x 8-inches (WxHxD); 6 pounds