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Distributed audio/video: Home theater for the whole home

By The Vann’s Editorial Team
Last revised October 12th, 2009

Could you imagine having music in every room of your home, following you around from living room to kitchen to bedroom? How about having a video monitor in your kitchen with the game on, so you don’t miss the big play when you get up to make a sandwich? Or maybe being able to watch the vacation slideshow that’s stored on your den’s computer on the flat panel television in your living room?

Well, all of this and more is possible with the advancement of distributed audio and video. Of course, the possibilities are nearly endless, but whether you just want music in an extra room or audio and video throughout your home, there are options out there for you.

How’s it work?

Distributed entertainment consists of a centralized audio/video system that can provide audio and video signals throughout your home. The only thing required to be in each room are speakers and TV screens. Through wall-mounted control panels or remote controls, you’re able to control the system. You can have your centralized components out in your living room, or even hidden away in a closet somewhere in your house. You may choose to have additional source components located locally in rooms for convenience. These components could also be available to the rest of the system if you want them to be.

Distributed entertainment systems are usually either A/V-centric or PC-centric. That means either a traditional stack of components or a PC runs the show. What you choose mainly has to do with personal preference, although there are some other things to consider, like your home’s wiring system.

Utilizing some of your existing components, you can begin creating a home A/V distribution system. The least expensive method (although also the most limited) for getting audio to at least one more room is a single amplifier driving speakers in multiple rooms. The sound from the receiver is available in several rooms. Although volume controls may be located in each room, all of the rooms receive the same sound. It’s important to use an impedance matching system when you split the output from a single source to 2 or more pairs of speakers. Without it, you may damage the audio source.

Many multi-channel receivers on the market today feature integrated multi-zone systems. You can use a couple of the amplified channels to drive a pair of stereo speakers in a second room. This is great, but it’s likely you’ll want to listen to different sources at the same time in different locations, so you’ll need multiple amps or receivers. There are multi-source amplifiers available from many companies that power multiple zones. Some of these products let you connect up to eight separate source components and distribute them to eight different zones, with the capacity to expand up to sixteen zones of control and distribution. These types of amplifiers allow control of source components through both RS232 and/or IR. Today, receivers ready for multi-zone/multi-source use are very common, and increasingly inexpensive. They usually feature two to four zones each with a separate source, and video may be included on anywhere from one to all your zones. Be sure to look at this when shopping for a new receiver.

You’ll be set if your home has already been wired with CAT5 cabling for home network capability. Otherwise, these systems are a little harder to retrofit into your home. Also, with all of the necessary wiring that needs to be done initially, most people opt to have someone install the system for them. But once they’re up and running, an A/V-centered system tends to provide a little better performance (mostly due to processing and solid connection options) than a PC-centric design.

Audio is the easiest format to get throughout your house. With in-wall speakers and keypads/access panels, your room gets audio that is virtually invisible, with no components or other equipment needed in the room. Audio and video gets a little more complicated, as you'll need A/V connections and junction boxes to run video to a television or panel in your remote rooms. Of course, with technology like LocationFree TV, there are wireless options, although the quality drops off when using wireless technology, at least at this point in its evolution.

Whatever type of system you decide to use in your home, you’ll only be happy if you have control over the centralized equipment from each remote location. Without this level of control, you’d have to go to the equipment each time you wanted to adjust the volume or change a source. There are a number of methods of control. You may like the idea of wall-mounted access panels in every room, with push-button LCD screens that let you control volume level and source components. Or you could go the remote control route with today’s expansive, programmable remote controls.

The lowest cost solution is wireless RF (Radio Frequency) control. With these devices you use your remote control and an RF repeater to transmit IR signals through walls and floors to your equipment. They are usually only used for single zone systems.

With video signal transmission with coax, the same coaxial video cable that is feeding a picture to your TV is used to control remote equipment. Your remote control’s IR signal is combined with the video signal and is transmitted back along the coax cable to the source equipment. This solution provides better signal reliability than the RF method just mentioned.

Hardwired signal transmission is the best for signal reliability and system design flexibility. However, it may be impossible for retrofit installations. A dedicated cable from the remote location to the equipment is required in this design.

Conclusion

Home entertainment distribution is definitely the wave of the now. More new homes are being wired with CAT5 cable for home networking, so these systems will be even more common as the years go by. But even if you’re not building or remodeling, there are solutions that let you take advantage of this exciting development in home entertainment. Now the soundtrack of your life doesn’t have to be confined to your living room.

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