Multi-room audio is one of those buzzwords that’s been thrown around a lot in the connected home landscape. It’s a word that ultimately refers to what you might expect – audio in multiple rooms – but don’t be fooled into thinking that’s all there is to it.
You see, multi-room audio has come a long way from the bulky black boxes that previously hung from the corners of our living rooms. Today, its a seamless experience, from stylish wireless portable players to in-ceiling and in-wall speakers that are invisible to the eye.
But with so many types of multi-room systems and so many brands offering different solutions it can become a rather daunting experience trying to decide which music system is best for your home. So, if you are feeling a little overwhelm or you’re just trying to figure out what multi-room audio is and what it offers, you’ve come to the right place. This article will explain everything you need to know about multi-room audio from what it is, to the different types of speakers available, plus where we recommend using each type.
If you’re still unsure, drop our team a question here, or give us a call to get some advice on your unique set-up.
What is multi-room audio?
Multi-room audio gives you the ability to listen to music in every room which has a speaker or pair of speakers.
You can listen in different rooms individually, a couple of rooms simultaneously, or all rooms at the same time. But this doesn’t mean that all rooms have to be playing the same song…. Multi-room audio allows, in essence, every individual room to be playing its own song, all rooms to be playing one song, or a couple of rooms to be playing one song and a couple of rooms playing another song. Whoah. That sounded confusing just typing it.
In practice, it actually sounds a lot less confusing, for example, take this set up from one of our clients, he has a scene called “PARTY” on his keypad and on pushing this button his multi-room audio system plays late-night jazz in all bathrooms, the latest dance playlist in the entertainment area, and old school rock & roll at the spa pool.
Another cool thing about multi-room audio is that the music you play is not limited to streaming from services like Spotify or Tidal, you can play your own personal music collection too, whether that be on a network drive, your computer, a CD, or even vinyl (with the right setup).
Depending on the speaker brand and system you decide on, and whether or not that speaker system is integrated with your smart home, will determine how it will be controlled. This being said, most systems are easily controlled from a smart home remote, touch-panel and/or smart app on your mobile or tablet.
But what about the actual speaker type and configuration? Now this is where things get a little tricky.
Multi-room audio systems generally have two different speaker ‘types’. Fixed Speakers ( in-ceiling/ in-wall) and Freestanding Speakers (floor-standing/ bookshelf / soundbars & wireless speakers).
Some people choose to pick one type and some people choose to combine multiple types together. We discuss both options below and give recommendations on where the use of each type would be preferable.
The two types of multi-room audio speakers and when to use each type:
1. Fixed Speakers (in-ceiling + in-wall)
In-ceiling and in-wall speakers provide incredibly high-quality sound without cluttering your floor space or interfering with your decor. This is the perfect solution if you want music in your kitchen without a speaker taking up valuable counter space or a surround sound listening experience without bulky speakers on your TV floor.
Generally speaking, ceiling speakers are your best solution for multi-room music systems because of their high performance and minimal footprint. In-wall speakers are ideal for space-saving surround sound. Below we discuss when to use each option.
Planning for fixed speakers:
There are two main things to consider when planning your in-ceiling or in-wall music systems:
- How many speakers are required to reach the desired sound levels in each room?
- What quality of sound is required in each room?
The number of speakers required really depends on your room size.
One or two ceiling speakers may provide good background music for your dining room. But if you have a large living room with a high-ceiling. You might need five or six speakers to get the volume to the required levels when entertaining.
The other factor to consider is speaker placement. Here two things are important, alignment and coverage. Unless you are using ‘invisible’ speakers your speaker grill will still be visible on the ceiling. To draw minimal attention to the grill your speakers should be symmetrically lined up with, if possible, the down lighting and other features such as HVAC vents. Coverage is also extremely important. You want your music system to deliver consistent coverage throughout your room. To do this right requires experience and expertise, we recommend letting one of our in house designers map it out for you, or contacting an AV professional.
When it comes to quality of sound there are many considerations.
For the audiophile listener we recommend ensuring that you are getting Hi-Fidelity lossless audio from three places:
> Your source ( Streaming, Network Drive, PC, CD Player etc.)
> Your transportation (Audio Cable + Speaker wiring)
> Your speakers (in-ceiling/ in- wall) Although, this rule applies to all speaker types.
If one of those components is not set up correctly or is not able to transport or deliver lossless Hi-Fi audio quality then the system is not going to perform ‘as advertised’.
Without diving too deep into this if you are, for example, streaming off Spotify on professional audio cable to high end Hi-Fi speakers expecting lossless audio, you are going to be severely disappointed. Why?
Because Spotify is only capable of streaming at 320kbps on their “Extreme quality” setting. You would be better off steaming off a service like Tidal Hi-FI if lossless audio quality is important to you.
Where you would use a single stereo speaker:
There are many instances where you might want music overhead but just have room for one speaker, e.g the bathroom or a hallway. This is a great application for a stereo input speakers which will play on both the left and right channel in a single location.
In-wall speakers for critical listening areas:
If you are the type of person who enjoys coming home after a long day and sitting down to listen to music then you definitely want to be considering a room where you can use in-wall speakers to create a critical listening area. When placed at ear-level, they provide a more direct field of sound and a incredible concert style listening experience which will make you feel like the band right in front of you.
How much should you budget?
We advise being guided by the quality of the listening experience you require in each room. Mid-range speakers are usually fine for background listening but if you’re passionate about music or want to be able to crank up the volume when you entertain friends and family you want to go for a higher-quality system. Speak to your designer about your performance goals for each room and he or she will help you choose the appropriate equipment. If you are looking to get a better idea of how these costs fall into an overall smart home budget then check out our ‘How Much a Smart Home Costs’ article.
2. Free Standing Speakers (floor-standing, bookshelf, soundbars + wireless players)
Now, straight off the bat I should say that while there are incredible free standing speakers on the market, we don’t generally recommend them to our clients. The main reason for this is our dedication to blending technology seamlessly into a homes interior design and decor.
For us, this means making the technology as discrete as possible rather than drawing attention to it.
That being said, some freestanding speakers provide a unique advantage (being portable or wireless) and some, such as the ones in the picture above, are themselves works of art so if you are drawn to the freestanding option, the advice below should help you decide where best to focus your budget.
Free standing options:
When it comes to free standing speakers much of the advice regarding fixed speakers still stands. The proper placement, combination and amount of speakers is essential to achieve the optimal sound level and listening experience. Our in house designers or an AV expert can work with you to ensure you have the correct setup in place, but remember, the optimal speaker locations may not match with your optimal decor or furniture locations so its best to arrange your furniture and decor around your speakers not the other way around.
As with fixed speakers, you really have hundreds of options in terms of types and configurations (which this post is not going to discuss) so we will have to leave the conversation about the specific quality drivers, tweeters, woofers, sub-woofers, and cabinetry for another day.
From the early days of Hi- Fidelity sound, tower speakers or floor standing speakers have always been the golden girl of critical listening areas.
High-end floor speakers can make an impressive statement in the right room and are generally large enough to house multiple speaker drivers, which may include a tweeter for the high frequencies, mid-range for dialog and vocals, and woofer for low frequencies.
>Bookshelf Speakers & Wireless Players
As the name suggests bookshelf speakers are compact speakers which are small enough to fit on, urmm, a bookshelf. Well not all bookshelves actually. In fact, many ‘bookshelf’ speakers are probably better off on the floor or a stand, but I digress.
Bookshelf speakers typically have a “box” design, but a few brands have popularized other shapes for example Sono’s squircle (square-circle), Bose’s cube and Orb Audio’s sphere. Some of these designs can be quite attractive, however, due to their size, there is a compromise being made, and when used for serious music listening or movie watching, most are better off paired with a separate sub woofer to access lower bass frequencies.
>Wall mounted LCR Speakers and Soundbars
While LCR (LCR = Left, Center and Right channel) speakers and soundbars may have similar shapes and appear in similar places they are two very different speakers. An LCR speaker is specifically designed for home theatre use whereas a soundbar is more commonly found under the TV of secondary viewing area such as a guest room.
The main difference between an LCR speaker and a soundbar is that it requires a connection to external amplifier or a home theater receiver in order to produce sound whereas a soundbar does not.
Apart from this difference however, its physical design still has similar advantages to the soundbar because you don’t need separate left/right speakers and center channel because their functions are encased in an all-in-one space-saving cabinet.
When to choose fixed speakers and when to choose freestanding speakers:
You should choose fixed in-ceiling/ in wall speakers when:
- You want powerful speakers but prefer them to be discrete or even invisible.
- You want the ability to listen to music outside without worrying about the weather or having to carry speakers around the house.
- You want a clean, modern, uncluttered look in your home.
- You have limited space.
- You want to draw the focal point to your decor not your speakers.
- You have young children who may knock over or damage expensive Hi-Fi equipment.
- You plan to live in your house for 5 or more years.
You should choose freestanding speakers when:
- You see your speakers as an addition to good decor not a detraction from it.
- You want the flexibility to move your music systems from room to room.
- You want to make your sound system the centerpiece of your room.
- You enjoy showing off your speakers to friends and family.
- You plan to live in your house for less than 5 years and don’t want to leave your investment there when you move.
You should consider a combination when:
- You want to increase the resale value of your house with fixed speakers– but not over capitalize by installing them in every room.
- You want some flexibility to move your speakers to areas where you dont often require music e.g the garage, workshop or shed.
- You want to reduce your costs by focusing fixed speakers on ‘critical’ listening areas. E.g you could put in-ceiling speakers in main living areas, in-wall speakers in your home theatre room, a soundbar under the guest TV and a Sonos player in the garage.
I hope that helped answer the question ‘What is multi-room audio?’ and explained some of the important considerations when choosing fixed or freestanding speakers in your home.
If you still have questions, check out our smart home audio page or drop us a line below.