Travel back in time with me to 1998. Pixar Animation was prepping the follow-up film to its breakout hit, Toy Story, while studio-head and co-founder of DreamWorks Jeffrey Katzenberg — who had recently departed as head of Walt Disney Studio’s film division — was looking to make a major splash for the recently formed DreamWorks Animation.
The result was the release of two very similar films — Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and DreamWorks’ Antz — within a span of about 50 days. Whichever film you ultimately preferred, if you take away all the studio infighting and backstabbing, what you ultimately end up with is two different companies coming up with very similar ideas that were released to market at the same time.
That was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about Russound’s new VoicePlay amplified keypad system.
I was literally sitting on my couch writing my review for Snap AV’s new WAKE Amp when I found out about Russound’s latest offering, and I thought, “Hmmm. That sounds similar.”
Honestly, I’m not sure which of these two products came to market first, or that it really matters. But, like A Bug’s Life and Antz, there are enough differences between these two products to make them both worthy of considering on their own, and you should be aware they exist as potential problem-solvers.
While you’ve probably gravitated away from installing volume controls on new projects, your company likely wired and installed hundreds of them over the years. In fact, more than 30 million in-wall volume controls are estimated to have been installed over the past 20 years. And this doesn’t include the millions of A-BUS components also installed, which use a wiring methodology that can prove limiting for upgrades. But the millions of these installed products represent an enormous upgrade opportunity for our channel!
One of the VoicePlay’s big “tricks” is being able to use this existing wiring — either speaker or Category cabling — to replace old volume controls with smart, amplified keypads. This breathes new life and functionality into dated systems and can be installed in minutes by even the most junior tech. The second is embedding Amazon Alexa — and more — into these keypads to make them a powerful and simple-to-use audio system.
I’m not sure it’s possible to be in this industry and not be aware of Russound. Founded in 1967 in Newmarket, N.H., the company has been making audio distribution products for the home and custom channel for more than 55 years. The product most associated with Russound is A-BUS, and whether you install this or not, you’ve likely encountered it at some point. The new VoicePlay system feels like it owes some of its heritage to this technology, and it certainly offers next-generation features for this aging tech.
There are two components to the VoicePlay system, the V-KP-1 and the V-PS-2. These are sold separately, letting you build a system as large as you want — with up to 32 V-KP-1s — without needing to overbuy. Russound sent me two KP-1s for my review, which let me test the multi-room music features.
The V-KP-1 is an amplified keypad with two 15-watt amplifiers that are rated to 4 ohms (a 4/8-ohm selector is on the back), though Russound recommends wiring the speakers in parallel if connecting two pair. It also includes dual microphones for its built-in Alexa interface and comes with both black and white faceplates that are easily interchanged.
The V-PS-2 is a 60-watt power supply that powers up to two V-KP-1s. (The math is pretty simple; two V-KP-1s have 4 x 15-watt amplifiers, equaling 60 watts.) The third component is Russound’s VoicePlay app, available for both iOS and Android.
Right from unboxing, Russound’s heritage of serving the custom channel is apparent in the little things they did to make the system more install- friendly. First, the two sets of -/+ Phoenix connections on the back of the V-PS-2 are removeable, making it easy to work on. The device also has a detachable IEC power cable, and it offers provision for wall-mounting should you wish. As mentioned, you can power the KP-1s via either 16/18-gauge speaker or Cat wiring, but if using Category cabling, you’ll need to twist all 8-wires together into two pairs of four to carry the required voltage.
Two of my nits with the Snap WAKE Amp were the size/depth of the keypad and the position/design of the wiring connectors. There is no way Russound could have known about these design complaints, however, they addressed all of them. The V-KP-1 is about .75-inches shallower, meaning it more easily fits into existing wall boxes. Also, the speaker wiring enters from the side, allowing for easier wire management. Both the power and speaker wiring screws into detachable Phoenix connectors and the connections are in the “safer” +/-/-/+ configuration. Game changing? No. But it again speaks to Russound’s “been-there, done-that” understanding of the needs of the channel.
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Once installed and powered up, the keypad’s status LED should be blinking green to indicate it is in discovery mode. If for some reason it doesn’t, just press and hold the bottom Action button until it does. Then it’s time to turn to the VoicePlay app. Usually apps require you to create an account, which can exacerbate things if the homeowner isn’t there. Not VoicePlay. When you open the app, it automatically starts searching for your devices. You then select one of the devices and click “setup this device,” prompting you to choose and connect to the home’s Wi-Fi, either 2.4 or 5 GHz. The keypad then connects to the network and shows the signal strength, lets you name it, checks for any available firmware updates and downloads if necessary, and, finally, prompts you to link it to an Amazon account to enable Alexa integration.
Even with both my keypads requiring firmware updates out-of-the-box, start-to-finish install is easily done in around 30 minutes per device. Though you likely won’t need them, Russound has some handy install guides online to assist in the install and setup.
Assuming you have the account linking and music services set up in the Alexa app, at this point all you need to do to enjoy some music is ask for it. And whether I asked for a specific song, album, artist, or station, the KP-1 listened and then started playing. Adjusting the volume is as simple as, “Alexa, turn it up/make it louder” or asking Alexa to set volume to a level between 1 and 10. The only time I had a difficulty with Alexa was when the music was too loud, but the keypad’s proximity to my speakers could also have been a factor.
As much as we all carry our devices with us, being able to walk into a room and simply say, “Alexa, play some [music of choice]” is always going to be faster and simpler than trying to pull out a device, open an app, and start hunting. And reducing the friction to enjoyment will have people using it more.
In line with that, I think one of the KP-1’s outstanding use cases is for guests or for rental homes. Beyond letting guests just ask Alexa for music, the KP-1’s also natively support Spotify Connect and Apple’s AirPlay 2, meaning that virtually anyone can walk into a room and play their preferred music in moments with almost no instruction. And if guests don’t have either of those, good news! The KP-1’s also has a Bluetooth 5.0 receiver that is supported by like everything. Pairing a phone is as simple as saying, “Alexa, pair my phone” (or selecting Bluetooth in the app) and then connecting to the KP-1 with the device.
Having Alexa built-in also gives you access to everything it offers, like timers, weather, news, alarms, etc. Plus, the ability to control other Alexa-capable devices in the home like lights or fans. Russound says the ability to “drop-in” on a room or make announcements to rooms is in the process of being implemented for VoicePlay, and it will be released as a free software update when available.
While the KP-1 has four capacitive touch buttons, in practice I rarely ever used them. When you can do everything with your voice, what’s the point? However, those with privacy concerns will appreciate that the top button toggles Alexa’s microphones on/off with an LED that lights red to indicate it is off, and the bottom Action button “wakes” Alexa. (The two middle buttons raise/lower volume.) You’d think that the Action button would be perfect for triggering Alexa when the mic has been muted — “Okay, I want you to listen now” — but no; the Action button doesn’t function when the mic is muted. Also, a minor nit, but there is no volume level indicator on the keypad.
While most users will likely default to using Alexa to request music via voice, the VoicePlay app offers quite a bit of functionality, giving access to the multiple services natively supported, including TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Tidal, Napster, Qobuz, and Amazon Music. (Deezer, Sirius/XM, Pandora, and Apple Music are also supported through Alexa integration.) In addition, a “My Music” option gives access to browse music stored on your devices as well as any DLNA servers in the home. When music is playing, you get a slick graphic of a record spinning with the album art in the middle and then the song metadata listed below. Honestly, using the VoicePlay app generally looked and felt like I was using something designed for a more typical whole-home audio system rather than an in-wall keypad.
The one thing lacking from the VoicePlay app — and keeping the system from being a truly full-blown whole-house audio system — is the ability to join or group rooms together. While you can see and control every room individually in the app, there is no way to merge two or more rooms together to play the same content. But there are two ways to make this happen. One is with AirPlay, where you can easily select which speakers to play to, and the other is through Alexa. Simply go into Alexa’s Multi-Room Music feature and create a group of available speakers and name it. You can have multiple different groups creating different combinations, and you’re able to group in any Alexa-capable speakers, not just the Russound. With an “everywhere” group created, I could just say, “Alexa play John Mayer everywhere,” and music played from both KP-1’s at the same volume and in perfect sync. Up to 10 speakers can be synced in this manner.
Sonically, the V-KP-1 offered an improvement over how I remember A-BUS systems sounding, though, to be fair, it has been some time since I’ve auditioned A-BUS. But it will certainly be beyond adequate for most client’s multi-room listening needs and produced clear, distortion-free audio that never sounded harsh or strained. My biggest complaint was that the amp is bass shy, and not really capable of delivering a lot of low-end depth or punch. I listened on a variety of speakers, and this was most noticeable when connected to a pair of Monitor Audio 8-inch outdoor speakers that ended up sounding more like 5.25-inch. Currently there are no audio adjustments (bass, treble, loudness, etc.) in the app to help this, though I imagine Russound will add this ability in a future release. Also, if you have a larger room or area — like speakers outside — you might find that the amp doesn’t have enough oomph.
Obviously, Russound’s VoicePlay system represents a great upgrade opportunity for all of the existing volume control and A-BUS systems out there, giving owners a simple and low-cost way to bring their aging tech into the modern era. Beyond that, it’s flexibility could also make it the perfect solution for rental homes or rooms that have a lot of guests. Ultimately, it’s the simplicity of system that makes it so intoxicating. Simply walking into a room and asking for music to play is a killer-app. And while that can be done with tabletop speakers á la Sonos, VoicePlay gives you a scalable way to do it while also utilizing high-quality, discreet architectural speakers, making it an attractive solution for our channel.
Kudos: Full-featured audio solution; terrific upgrade opportunity; simple install; adds Alexa control throughout home
Concerns: A bit bass-shy
- V-KP-1 amplified in-wall keypad with Amazon Alexa built-in
- 15 watts x 2 amplifier
- Four capacitive touch buttons, including Alexa on/off
- Bluetooth 5.0, Spotify Connect, and AirPlay 2 support
- Includes both black and white faceplates
- Requires V-PS-2 60-watt power supply (capable of powering two V-KP-1’s)
- VoicePlay app for setup and control (iOS and Android)
- Native support for TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Tidal, Napster, Qobuz, Amazon Music, and DLNA streaming