Loudspeakers as ‘Toasters’: Have We Gotten Lazy on Whole-House Audio?
Industry veteran Richard Stoerger makes 'light' of the famous Sonos Superbowl commercial, explaining how a centralized multiroom audio system would have provided a much better music experience.
We as an industry have come "an extremely long way in multiroom audio," says 30-year industry veteran Richard Stoerger of Audio Design Associates (ADA).
Most of the progress, he says, has occurred in just the past decade. While the high-performance market -- where Stoerger and ADA have always played -- continues to gain steam, he gives props to the mass-market providers for moving the premium market along.
"All of us at ADA are thrilled with the incredible consumer demand for the category," Stoerger says, "and we acknowledge that were it not for likes of Sonos and Apple, we simply wouldn’t be here today."
Having said that, he wonders if A/V pros have gotten a little complacent in the multiroom-audio category, spec'ing products that are easier to sell and install but might not necessarily be the best option for consumers (or most beneficial profit-wise).
As always, Stoerger challenges integrators to think beyond the bulky, wireless, powered speakers when offering customers a professional-grade multiroom audio system. Here is a piece he sent to CE Pro in response to Jason Knott's July 23 article, “Installing Centralized Multiroom Audio Systems vs. Decentralized ‘Toasters’”
The Trouble with the 'Toaster Method' for Whole-House Audio
By Richard Stoerger (edited lightly by CE Pro)
Charlie Porritt, a fellow CEDIA Lifer and my counterpart at Russound, correctly notes in his "Speakers as Toasters" report that a professionally installed centralized system will result in a better multiroom audio experience overall.
He uses the “toaster” as a metaphor in that one would not want to place an audio speaker box in every room, or for that matter multiple boxes in a single room, to properly spread audio throughout the space.
Charlie is 100 percent correct. For installations of any size, budget notwithstanding, placing wireless speakers throughout a home ignores some important realities:
- Is a powered, plug-in speaker an aesthetically elegant solution?
- Are AC outlet locations necessarily the best locations for speakers?
- Will the home’s construction impede the distribution of Wi-Fi?
- Will one or even two speakers do a room justice?
The fact is that Sonos and all its wireless multi-room counterparts, while ideal for the mass market, have deficiencies when it comes to a more luxury-oriented home experience. I have and continue to recommend Sonos to countless friends and family members because a Sonos (or a Sonos-like) system is a game changer in certain applications, and need not cost a fortune.
They are the Lego of the multi-room audio world -- simple, elegant, quick to install, and easy to use. I would dare say that they even sound OK when considering the package, size and delivery method. But their strengths are also their weakness.
That Silly Sonos Superbowl Commercial
I love re-watching the famous Sonos commercial that aired during the Super Bowl in 2014. Talk about a jaw-dropper that helped to change an industry. In a mere 60 seconds, Sonos, without a word mind you, explained clearly and succinctly the wonders of multiroom/multizone music.
The use of lights to explain the filtration of sound is brilliant.
But I also noticed the anomalies that this commercial brought to light, so to speak.
First, there is no way one can experience that level of audio dispersion the commercial promises with cascading lighting, through three speakers and a soundbar. No way!
Second; one could easily make a case that the home that is depicted in the spot was underserved by the installer (presuming there was one), in that its décor and style bespoke a luxury lifestyle.
This was a home ideal for a more elaborate custom installation that would have involved numerous in-wall or in-ceiling speakers, and probably subwoofers in some rooms for sound reinforcement, as David Donald, another CEDIA Lifer and worldwide ambassador for Origin Acoustics always advises.
It's Not All About Watts
So where does all this leave consumers who want to have it all and have their cake too? As I see it, there are several approaches available and cost should not be the deciding factor, at least for the luxury customer.
If in fact, the cost is the barometer, then suffice it to say there are a growing number of solutions that work. But if audio filtration and sound quality are in anyway important, then a centralized solution is the platform upon which one should build their system.
That doesn’t preclude a centralized system from adding on wireless speakers for areas were audio is less critical, wiring complex, or room size irrelevant.
But a centralized system provides the customer with the ability to place speakers so they aren’t just “toasters” on a shelf or table. It permits the deployment of multiple speaker pairs in zones that are long, large, or gigantic.
This permits one to play audio at a lower sound level while still providing balanced distribution of sound. It permits the addition of subwoofers or more important, proper multi-room preamplification and high-current amplification that might very well minimize the need for subwoofers to begin with.
Multi-room audio is usually played at what most in the industry refer to as background sound, meaning that the volume level rests at a point where one can still have a conversation (although that doesn’t mean you can’t crank it to “11” when the occasion presents).
Remarkably, while the audio industry has done a great job of speaking about “watts per channel”, we have forgotten to let people know that at these and even higher audio levels, very few watts are in fact used to generate sound.
ADA supports the premise that high-current amplification does the very best job when it comes to multiroom sound reinforcement because while little power is actually used to do the job, providing current to the speaker will more effectively drive the more demanding speaker element, the woofer.
And here the results are dramatic. Even the most modestly priced in-wall/in-ceiling speakers deliver more bass when driven by a high-current amplifier.
Don't Just Think Multiroom Audio
As for high-resolution audio, this is not a system but rather a source to the system. Hi-Res Audio is fabulous but in all fairness takes a backseat to the multiroom delivery system.
A building is only as good as its foundation and if multi-room sound quality is important to you or your customers, then you have to first look at the building blocks you are feeding your high-resolution signal through.
I recently upgraded a friend’s home that had an ADA system to include a Sonos Connect as a source. I first installed the Connect to provide a variable audio signal so that the Sonos app would control volume. Simply put I was underwhelmed from a sonic perspective.
I then set the Connect to a fixed audio level and let the ADA system do the heavy lifting.
While this setup did require the user to select the source and volume level on the ADA keypad (no home-automation system in this case), the improvement in audio quality was well worth the sacrifice of controlling volume from the app. How often do you continuously adjust volume in your car or home anyway?
So in my world, and perhaps yours too, if you are going to think multi-room audio, you have to begin with planning a centralized multi-room system. That doesn’t mean you can’t blend wireless audio solutions into your mix.
The overall truth about the beauty of multiroom music is that the sounds follow you throughout your home and landscapes. When done properly, with the right components, enough zones and speakers, the result is amazing, beautiful and lifestyle changing.
Richard Stoerger is President and CEO of Audio Design Associates (ADA). Joining ADA in 1988, he is a founding member of CEDIA, past Board Member and Nominating Committee Member, past Chair of CEDIA’s Regional Education Program, Manufacturer’s Council, and Management Conferences.
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