• Building a multi-room networked home audio solution for FREE, Part 2

    Three years ago I wrote the article Building a multi-room networked home audio solution for FREE, Part 1 and never wrote part 2, where I promised I would show everyone how to put together a professional grade system for around $1,000. To date part 1 has been the most popular home network article on this site with over 45,000 views (next to the random article I wrote on how to remove a broken dipstick, which has over 73,000 views).

    A few things have changed in those 3 years, inflation happens you know, but prices are still close to the same. There are more options now however, which I'll highlight as we go. My home has an accessible crawlspace which made running speaker wire insanely easy. Without that you may need to get creative, this article is going to assume you have the ability to at least run a little wire.

    Here's a breakdown of what we will need:

    • Whole house multi-channel amplifier
    • At least one Logitech media player, more for multiple independent zones
    • A Logitech Media Server (many NASes include this, an old PC running Vortexbox is another great solution)
    • In-wall speakers
    • In-wall speaker wire
    • Subwoofer
    • Lossless music format such as FLAC or ALAC
    • Optional: In-wall volume control

    And really that's it.

    The amp

    Let's talk about the amp first. Back when I put the system together I went with the Dayton Audio MA1240a Multi-Zone 12 Channel amplifier, which retails for $444 at press time. The sound is very crisp and clear, no distortion and this amp is very customizable. True audiophiles will snub their noses at the Dayton Audio amp, but I can say I have a Pioneer SC-63 amp on some beautiful old Polk Audio SDA-2Bs and the sound quality rivals that combination. Of course, this amp is rated at 40W per channel, so it doesn't get as loud as the SC-63, but for whole house listening it's PLENTY LOUD.

    But before we go in to why this amp is good, let me mention there is now a 65W per channel version of the amp, the Dayton Audio MA1260 Multi-Zone 12 Channel amplifier. Essentialy the same specs with more power, for $100 more. Your choice, pick your poison, I'm not sure I would go for the more powerful amp for $105 more given how loud this amp is while still remaining crystal clear.

    Anyway, why this amp? First of all, the sound is crisp and clear and the price is right. On top of that with 12 channels you get six zones, which is perfect for whole house audio. But the magic doesn't stop there, let's take a look at the back of the amp.
    The amp is almost infinitely customizable, which you really want when setting up whole house audio. The amp can be triggered to turn on, it also auto sleeps well so it won't sit there using phantom power.

    It also has two sets of main inputs and two sets of main outputs. Additionally each zone has its own Line In, and input selection can be individually set to each speaker in the zone. Let's breakdown what this actually means. Let's say to start out you just want to use one media player, heck let's say you just want to use the Logitech Media Player that comes with the Vortexbox. In this scenario you use the #1 Bus Input and set all of your zones to Bus 1, boom, audio through your whole house from one player.

    But down the road let's say you don't want the patio playing music all the time while the house is playing music. With this scenario you add a player to that zone, use the Zone-specific Line In and then set the Zone Bus selection to Line In. Or you could plug in to Bus Input 2 and have multiple zones using that player. You don't have to be the player either, you can use one of the player solutions I mentioned in Part 1 or even just a Raspberry Pi running Squeezeslave.

    The amp also has per channel gain control, so say your kitchen speakers are louder than the rest of the house, just fine-tune that zone. The Dayton Audio amp packs a whollup for the price and in my 3+ years of use I've been extremely happy with it.

    The Player

    This solution is based on Logitech's Squeezebox line of players, but really it can be customized as desired if you have a better solution. If the plan is to start with just one player I'd recommend getting a Squeezebox Duet simply because you get the player AND the remote for around $100 on ebay if you are picky and can wait for a good deal. Check here for an ebay search of the Logitech Squeezebox Duet.

    If you don't want to spend the money on a player there are other options. You can simply load SqueezePlay on to a computer and use it as the player (you'll need to get the audio in to the amp). Or you can simply use the VortexPlayer on the Vortexbox, which we'll get to below. You don't get the official remote with these solutions, but Squeezebox remotes are readily available on iOS and Android. Only official solutions get free Pandora as well, with an open source player you need a Premium Pandora membership, but that's not a huge deal.

    The Media Server

    To run the solution I'm describing you need a Logitech Media Server. That's not as scary as it sounds. Most NASes these days come with a Logitech Media Server package. If you have a NAS explore that option, it will probably work well for you. If that's not an option you can always download Logitech Media Server run it on a Windows PC, Mac or Linux PC. Lastly, my favorite option is the Vortexbox. The Vortexbox let's you rip movies, rip music and store and play them all, amongst many other things. Best of all it can be run on an ancient PC. I've "upgraded" mine to a Dell Zino HD. Literally the only thing that should cost you money for the media server step is maybe buying a large hard drive space if you go crazy ripping to FLAC or ripping movies. The Dell Zino cost me $68 on ebay, but before that I had it Vortexbox running on my old computer from 2002.

    As a bonus the Vortexbox comes with its own Logitech Squeezebox player, so you can simply plug the old computers sound card in to the amp. I can't guarantee the best sound if you do this, but it's an option.

    The Speakers

    If there's anything you need to put though in to it's the speakers. Parts Express does have a great selection of in-wall and ceiling speakers, but that wasn't an area that I wanted to experiment with. I went to Newegg.com and picked out some Polk Audio RC55i 5.5" two-way speakers. Back then I paid under $100 per pair. Crutchfield now has the Polk Audio RC55i for $129.99 per pair. I also got a set of 8" Polk Audio RC85i in-wall two-ways for the bedroom for $169. I went the larger speakers in the bedroom since I wasn't going to have a subwoofer in there and didn't want tinny sound. I debated different manufacturers such as Klipsch, or even higher model Polk Audios, but ended up with these and have been happy with them. Depending on what you choose for speaker configuration, this category can eat up your budget fast.

    Let's talk speaker placement. When you think of whole house audio you often think of ceiling speakers or speakers high in the wall. This is ok for background music speakers, but if you want really good sounding music that you can sit and listen to, consider speaker placement carefully. In my home I have several speakers high in the wall, but my main listening speakers face the couch on either side. This sounds amazing when I'm sitting just listening to music. When I first set them up they were off to the side, you don't want to do this. They sounded good for background music, but awful for sitting and listening.

    The subwoofer

    With the 5.5" two-way in-wall speakers you aren't going to get incredible bass. You can spend a shitload on a subwoofer, but since I had been so happy with the Dayton Audio amp, I decided to give the Dayton Audio SUB-1000 10" 100 Watt subwoofer a chance. I am so glad I did. The bass is punchy, deep and very adequate. Best of all it complements the in-wall speakers very well. The rear has gain adjustments so you can tune out the droney bass that you sometimes get with some subwoofers. It's price has gone up to $119, but that is still well worth it.

    In-wall speaker wire

    If you have access to a crawlspace or another means to run wire, you'll want to use in-wall speaker wire vs normal speaker wire. Although it's not a lot, speaker wires still carry voltage and can pose a fire risk in case of a short, in-wall speaker wires have an extra sheathing for protection against snags and shorts. You can shop around for speaker wire, Parts Express does sell a 250ft roll of 14/2 in-wall speaker cable for $63.21 at press time. I used the thicker gauge just because I don't like to skimp on wiring. You can go with a narrower gauge for less money and probably be fine. You can get an estimate of about how much wire you'll need by measuring from where your amp will be to where each speaker will be, making sure to measure up and down walls. I see no reason to spend an enormous amount of money on speaker wire, go with an adequate gauge and get the length you need.

    Lossless Music format

    If you are going to go through the trouble of putting a great system together, why settle for compressed or clipped files that aren't giving you the full music? Whenever possible I rip to FLAC as my Squeezebox solution will support it. ALAC works too and is more Apple-friendly. What's the difference you say? I feel lossy formats (Apple AAC and MP3) need more volume to have the same sound output. Bass sounds less punchy and pronounced with lossy formats and the music sounds more "muddled" to me, although this can be a result of the mastering as well. To really see the difference we need to download Spek, an Acoustic Spectrum Analyzer, and open the files. First, a FLAC file:

    You can see in the FLAC file that the full range of music is there, from 0 kHz to 22 kHz, both beyond the range of human hearing. The top of the range falls off naturally showing it is truly "lossless" or exactly as it was on the CD. Now let's look at a 256k Apple file:

    This actually looks pretty good. The full range is there, but you can tell the top of the spectrum has been clipped as evidenced by its flat line. This is not bad. Now let's look at an old 128k file:

    Yuck, significant clipping has been done here to compress the file. As you can see it gets clipped right around 16 kHz. You'll more than likely be able to hear a difference with this kind of file unless you have some sort of hearing damage. The lesson to take from this, use a lossless format whenever possible if you want the best music possible (and you do), but the 256k Apple files aren't all that bad.

    Optional: In-wall volume control

    You might want some sort of volume control in certain rooms, especially if you have only one source. For instance, you may not want the kitchen blaring tunes while the kids are having a dance party in the other room. Use volume controls sparingly however, they are more work and you'll use them less than you think since the Squeezebox has its own volume control.

    I bought several and ended up using just one, for the kitchen. I recommend these volume controls from Pyle. They work well and wiring is easy enough. I put them inside a plastic electrical box as I wasn't comfortable having them in a low-voltage enclosure. The wiring gets a bit dense with how deep they are. With a no volume control setup you can run wire straight from the amp to speakers. With a volume control in the equation you have to run both speaker wires to the volume control, then to each speaker from there. It makes wiring slightly more of a pain in the ass. You can make it slightly easier by running a 4-1 in-wall speaker wire. Make sure to check what gauge you'll need.

    So let's break down the cost:

    • Whole house multi-channel amplifier - $444 to 549 with the solution I suggest
    • At least one Logitech media player, more for multiple independent zones - free to $200 per player, you only need one to start
    • A Logitech Media Server (many NASes include this, an old PC running Vortexbox is another great solution) - free to several hundred $
    • In-wall speakers - $25 to well over $200 per pair depending on what you chose
    • In-wall speaker wire - $60-200 depending on what you need, could be more
    • Subwoofer - $119 if you take a chance on the solution I suggested
    • Optional - In-wall volume control - $27 a piece, use sparingly

    Realistically you can hit the $1000 budget with the suggestions above. You'll go above it depending on what kind and how many speakers you go with. Also it assumes you're doing the work yourself, if not all bets are off.

    Lastly, here is my network/audio closet.

    On the top are my two Squeezebox players, a Squeezebox Touch and an old Squeezebox2. I also have a Logitech Radio and a Boom in other bedrooms, as well as a Squeezebox2 hooked up to my Pioneer SC-63 for dedicated listening with the Polk Audio SDA-2Bs. I have a Squeezebox Duet remote that I use to control music, but I also use my Android phone and the Logitech Media Server web app.

    On the second shelf down is the Dell Zino HD that I run Vortexbox on. It has much more power than the Vortexbox needs, which is funny when you look at how old the Zino HD is. Sharp eyes probably notice the Synology NAS that I could have run Logitech Media Server on as well.

    Lastly, the third shelf down is my Dayton Audio MA1240a Multi-Zone 12 Channel amplifier. This amp sounds great and has worked wonderfully for me. All of the speaker wires run from the amp out in to the crawlspace and to their respective speakers.