The State of Whole-House Audio in the Smart-Home Channel
Wireless connectivity, high-resolution audio and voice-control integration technologies are fueling a new era of whole-house audio.
Robert Archer · August 6, 2018
It may seem like a long time ago … but it wasn’t all that long ago that purchasing a whole-house audio system meant a homeowner was making a major investment in their property.
Today, the situation is vastly different, with a new generation of whole-house audio products providing homeowners with a wider selection of solutions that are also more affordable.
Not only are these products more adaptable for a wider range of installations—they are also more sophisticated with options such as high-resolution audio, and they provide more interface and control choices, as well as more home-friendly industrial designs.
The maturation of the whole-house audio category is also opening up increasing opportunities to add outdoor zones and subwoofers to systems that in years past wouldn’t have been accepting of these options.
Wireless Audio Opens Up New Sales Opportunities
Just over a decade ago, Sonos revolutionized the whole-house audio market with the introduction of its product line. Upon the launch of Apple’s iOS products, including the iPhone, Sonos really took off, and shortly afterward, a wave wireless products hit the market to provide homeowners with an array of wireless audio choices.
Now wireless solutions from Bluesound, Bose, NuVo, HEOS, Naim, JBL, VSSL, Russound, Fusion Research, CasaTunes, Devialet, Ambisonic, and Yamaha’s MusicCast all deliver a near turnkey installation experience with a range of options such as high-resolution audio and control system integration capabilities.
Other wireless options include Bluetooth streaming, Apple’s AirPlay wireless technology, and Google’s Chromecast technology. These technologies can be found in mainstream and custom-installation products, and realistically most consumers have at least heard of these technologies.
The new products are designed to balance the company's engineering experience with the features consumers desire.
“Our new Dynaudio Music family makes it easy to enjoy the music you love anywhere in your home with uncompromising fidelity,” says Andrew Werdean, CEO, Dynaudio. “Tuned by the same team that develops our money-is-no-object hi-fi speakers and pro studio systems, Dynaudio Music systems boast the quality, innovation, and modern Danish design that characterize our renowned hi-fi speaker portfolio.”
The Dynaudio product line offers a choice of four models. Each of the products incorporates five presets that can be used with any available media.
Dynaudio also employs its digital signal processing (DSP) technologies, which it employs with its professional and automotive products. The DSP technologies support the company’s RoomAdapt help tailor the speakers’ performance in environments such as corner placement, up against a wall and open spaces.
High-Res Audio Bolsters Whole-House Audio Performance
When Bluesound first hit the market, it was the first major brand to provide the option of high-resolution audio. Now, through the availability of the streaming service TIDAL, more manufacturers are offering high-resolution audio through the MQA format.
Capturing the entire audio file, MQA unfolds the content in a process it calls “music origami.” Through this process, MQA audio enables services such as TIDAL the ability to offer high-resolution audio without the added burden of higher bitrate files.
Ken Forsythe, director, market development, MQA, says integrators have many options available to provide their clients with MQA-based whole-house systems.
“There are a number of MQA whole-house solutions available. These solutions can be either centralized or decentralized,” he says.
“A great example of a centralized system is the NAD CI720 ‘blade’ amplifier streamer. This 3U-high component features a 60-watt [per channel] stereo amplifier with full BluOS streaming capable of providing full-studio MQA playback. This powerful solution is ideal for the CI market as six CI720s can be rack mounted on a single shelf. It has integrated thermal management, and it can be controlled with every third-party control system.
"As for decentralized systems, there are a wide variety of wireless and wired products at various performance levels. These include options such as AudioQuest’s Dragonfly family, Bluesound’s range of wireless loudspeakers, soundbars and subwoofers, and Meridian’s 200 Series streaming products.
"Also, Roon Labs’ music player for portable and desktop use provides MQA playback. These are just a few of the more than 50 brands of hardware partners that make products that can be used anywhere in the home," adds Forsythe.
When discussing higher performance systems, high-resolution audio, and MQA with clients, Forsythe suggests the best way to validate the investment into better components and MQA is simply to play someone’s preferred artists on TIDAL with the HiFi in Masters option.
Forsythe stresses that TIDAL’s HiFi in Masters streaming options, which is available on the desktop version of the service and the Amazon Fire TV platform, differentiates the listening experience through the level of quality that high-resolution audio offers.
“Because MQA is the highest quality audio source available, it is an easy way to help demonstrate why someone might want higher quality components in one or two ‘priority zones’ or even their entire home,” he says.
“Also, MQA being easily accessible through TIDAL makes it easy for customers to understand and justify increasing their investment in higher quality because they have easy access to the best sounding content in every room and even on the go.”
Another option that provides a better listening experience is TIDAL Masters. This streaming option delivers lossless CD-quality (16-bit/44kHz) streams at more than 1,400kbps, and is available on iOS and Android, and for devices like Apple TVs.
Newer solutions that match the TIDAL Masters levels include options from Deezer and Qobuz streaming services, which are either just arriving to U.S. consumers, or will be available to U.S. consumers shortly.
Whole-House Audio Brings the Bass
The addition of subwoofers to systems' zones is another trend developing with the audio category, and the trend might be due to the growing acceptance of whole-house audio as a viable means of music playback.
Dave Donald, worldwide ambassador, Origin Acoustics, states the addition of subwoofers to augment the low-end extension of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers used in whole-house audio zones provides a number of benefits to listeners.
“Subwoofers are also a tremendous enhancement for architectural speakers,” says Donald.
“These speakers hidden in the walls and ceiling are designed to be virtually invisible. A subwoofer discreetly placed in a corner, behind a couch or used as a plant stand will continue this ‘invisible’ aesthetic while dramatically enhancing the sonic experience.”
The reason subwoofers enhance the sonic experience, he explains, is that bass frequencies have a more emotional impact than other parts of the frequency spectrum. According to Donald, once someone hears their favorite music or even movies with these lower frequencies, it is hard to live without a full-frequency listening experience.
Like Forsythe, Donald also recommends system demonstrations. He says that as long as the system is configured correctly, the listening differences between a system with and without a subwoofer speak for themselves.
“The benefit of a subwoofer is easy to demonstrate. It is important to set up the system so the blend of the subwoofer and speaker is virtually seamless,” he notes.
“Then allowing someone to audition the system in all its glory and only then removing the sub from the equation is shocking. Most listeners will be amazed at how much of the total sonic effect is anchored in the subwoofer’s output.”
Before randomly installing a subwoofer, Donald warns integrators to consider the room environment, because so much of a subwoofer’s performance is predicated on its placement within a room. He says room loading, room nodes, and areas of complete bass cancellation are common issues within a home environment.
He suggests dealing with these issues by placing the sub in the seating position and then walking around the room and listening for areas within the room that produce higher sound pressure levels (SPLs).
“Moving the sub to this position will—most likely—result in substantial bass output at the listening area,” comments Donald.
Whole-House Audio Breaks Down Barriers
Another advantage that modern technologies afford integrators is the ability to place audio in locations that traditionally may have been inaccessible.
Jonathan Duran, director of residential sales and marketing, MSE Audio, says wireless connectivity is enabling integrators to meet a wider array of consumer demands without sacrificing quality.
Duran says the company will launch its OS-440 at CEDIA Expo 2018, and it is designed as an outdoor smart amplifier. Duran says integrators can set the amp up outside and connect it to a home's network without having to run wires, and that combining outdoor kitchens, pools, and entertainment areas with audio can help integrators deliver high levels of entertainment value to their clients' homes.
"We certainly see backyards and outdoors as a growing part of the whole-house equation," states Duran.
"I have to think the reason for this growth is chiefly that people want an escape without having to leave home—'staycations'—as they're called. People have put so much time, energy and money into their homes that it stands to reason, eventually, they'd run out of things to do inside, so would then look outward to try to emulate that level of comfort and control outside as well."
Circling back to wireless technologies, Duran emphasizes that because Wi-Fi provides a convenient means of connectivity for outdoor zones it is imperative integrators make sure their clients' networks are robust enough to deliver reliable coverage to outdoor zones.
Once the network is verified to deliver high levels of coverage, the next component in designing a whole-house audio system with outdoor zones is the proper placement of outdoor speakers.
"Most installers think 'inside the box' or 'inside the house,' where there are enclosed spaces to make audio sound the way we're used to it sounding. Once you open that up and have no physical sound boundaries to content with keeping it within the home, your thought processes should keep up with it," Duran says.
"Thankfully, we make this easier because we voice our outdoor products in real outdoor environments to make sure the specs we publish are accurate to real-world scenarios. All our outdoor speakers are meticulously designed to actually sound good outside, so if you were to listen to one inside it wouldn't be the best representation of the sound quality and performance we put so much effort into achieving."
Duran adds that because of the evolution of home entertainment, both dealers and their clients can benefit from the addition of outdoor audio zones within a whole-house audio system.
"The benefit to the dealer is obvious: They [dealers] are able to sell and control more of the installation to create more business and more comprehensive A/V packages to create unified systems ensuring they are the first one the homeowner thinks to call not matter where the job exists," he notes.
"Speaking as a homeowner myself, the benefit on the other side of the coin is the rush that comes from the smooth and cohesive integration of all your stuff the first time it clicks for an end user, and they're able to smoothly control what they want, when they want it, and that everything can be 'one' is a transcendent experience. Hyperbole aside, it all really comes down to that one word all homeowners are continually chasing: convenience."
Home Technology Evolution Requires Increased Sophistication
The whole-house audio category is gaining popularity, as witnessed by the explosion of wireless audio products on the market, as well as trends such as full-frequency zones augmented by subwoofers and outdoor A/V zones.
As the category continues to grow, Katy Bradshaw, director of marketing, Meridian Audio, says as the market matures, the more home subsystems are becoming linked together.
She says home systems are increasingly more than just a pair of speakers in a room, and products are becoming more about integration and system control.
But Bradshaw points out there are storm clouds swirling in terms of the quality of products in the audio space.
“The biggest change has been the commoditization of home audio, which has resulted in a lack of performance and very little investment into the quality of the product,” she notes.
“As the pioneer of high-resolution audio, we provide customers with the opportunity to experience quality audio around the home that everyone can enjoy. Meridian systems provide the scalable backbone to multiroom audio that allows seamless integration with popular control drivers [from companies such as Control4, Crestron, and Savant]. All this is supported and enabled by our complementary Design and Specification Service and focused dealer training.”
Mirroring the developments in other smart home categories, voice control options are also popping up in the whole-house audio category to further enhance the control of modern whole-house audio systems.
Not long ago, the DTS’ Play-Fi platform announced a new update to its iOS and Android control app that includes information such as Recent Activities and Preset Activities.
Play-Fi touts how homeowners can control audio playback on Alexa compatible DTS Play-Fi products to execute commands such as playing a song in a specific room, grouping zones, adjusting volume, and pausing or skipping tracks by simply issuing a verbal command.
“DTS Play-Fi is excited to have built an open wireless multiroom audio platform that offers both integrated Alexa Voice Services [AVS] and Works with Alexa certification, giving consumers the most flexibility when it comes to voice control,” boasts Dannie Lau, general manager, DTS Play-Fi at Xperi.
Play-Fi joins companies such as Sonos, JBL, and Bose who have had voice control options for a number of months. In the case of Bose, the Boston-based company was demonstrating voice controls during CEDIA Expo 2017 in San Diego.
Beyond the control capabilities of Meridian’s Design and Specification Service, Bradshaw says integrators can utilize this option to allow Meridian to design the system to free them up to focus on other aspects of the job.
The service also supports the sales process to help dealers explain the differences between products, technologies, and formats that include a document pack that outlines “standard,” “performance” and “reference” systems.
“Each of these packages will deliver high quality, but the difference is, the greater the spend, the greater the immersion; the greater the fidelity, and the greater the enjoyment,” comments Bradshaw.
“We’ve found that by creating these systems, our integrators have been able to explain to their client more eloquently what the additional spend will give them.”
Combining more sophisticated systems solutions, along with developments such as high-resolution audio, the MQA format, and the latest products, integrators have more whole-house audio options than ever before.
“As often happens with technology, things that initially seemed unnecessary or irrelevant can quickly become an everyday essential For example, HD television—many people now cannot watch ‘normal’ channels as HD has become a minimum standard. The same goes for audio,” she points out.
“We are expecting to see whole-house audio continue to grow, and we look forward to supporting our dealers with this … at the end of the day, you get what you pay for. We don’t compromise on anything when it comes to our products. They are research led, and we continue to be pioneers in our field.”
Regardless of the budget, Forsythe summarizes the opportunities within the market by emphasizing integrators should try to offer systems that incorporate the highest possible levels of technology and performance, even if the client doesn’t demand these requirements right now.
“Remember budget is a relative term to each client. We now live in a world that we are told is ‘plug-and-play’ and most clients have no idea what a modern multiroom system actually costs to purchase, install and maintain,” adds Forsythe. “When looking at the entire home’s budget, having a system that is MQA capable is only an incremental cost increase over a standard system. This also ensures a level of protecting the client’s investment in their whole-home audio system, as we will only see more and more services in the future with MQA content.
"Think about it, you wouldn’t design and install a home theater today based around DVD and 480p video quality would you?”
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Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). Bob also serves as the technology editor for CE Pro's sister publication Commercial Integrator. In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass., and he also studies Kyokushin karate at 5 Dragons in Haverhill, Mass. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org
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