Over the last hundred years, being able to enjoy music from the comforts of your home has been a pursuit that has driven many homeowners to great lengths. From phonographs to player pianos, record players to 8-tracks, single dial radios to hi-fi dolby surround stereos, and recently from casette tapes and CDs to iPods and mp3s, the media types and music delivery systems have changed rapidly with the changing technology landscape. The constant race to be on the cutting edge of home audio has far reaching effects into some people's ability to enjoy their home to the fullest, be it alone or during entertaining. Quite honestly, I'm one of those people :-)
My obsession with audio started quite simply when my dad bought me my first CD player when I was about 13 years old. That boom box with a dual cassette deck (crucial for making mix tapes) and single disc CD player spawned an obsession with speakers and stereo systems that has yet to fade. Tower speakers, receivers, and components morphed into new head units, amplifiers, and sub-woofers once I got my driver's license. In college my room always had the loudest stereo and (I'm sad to say) I was the jerk you could hear coming down the street in their car.
Moving into our house has presented an even greater opportunity to "pimp" our shelter. Don't worry, I'm not talking about flat screen televisions covering entire walls, or in-house recording studios. I'm talking about tasteful integrated audio that we or our guests have the ability to listen to throughout the house and control with a smartphone.
When I covered our home's extreme overkill wiring project, I mentioned that I had been running speaker wire and cat-6 network cable throughout the house for various purposes. One of the major purposes for all of this cabling was for the eventual installation of a whole house audio solution. I didn't know the brand or exact method we would purchase, so I decided to run as much cabling as I could imagine we would need and then hope it was enough once we finally bought a unit and tackled the install.
I did a TON of research on the brand and unit I wanted to purchase. Throughout my research I looked into Nuvo, Sonos, A-Bus, Aton, NuTone, DIY media servers from either Apple or Microsoft, and even a Linux based system. There are so many options out there it's enough to make your head spin, and they all fall within an extremely wide price range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.
Eventually it came down to a decision between the six zone and six source dream system with media server integration from Nuvo Technologies that there was no way we could afford, and an okay custom system of scraped together components, single zone and single source that would basically work by filling the house with music in an all or nothing fashion, but was closer to our budget.
In a twist of fate that is quite atypical of our home renovation projects, the renovation and technology gods smiled on this particular aspect. Essentially, Wendy and I got "the hookup." This was the equivalent of a friend of a friend's brother knows a guy who was once a roadie in a band that had a sound guy who used to work with another girl who's niece knows someone who could get us a really good price on a new whole house audio system direct from the supplier. Ok, so maybe it wasn't that complicated, but it basically took an aligning of the stars for this to work out.
The end result of this fortunate stroke of luck is the Nuvo Essentia E6G, six zone, six source system, with dual AM-FM-Sirius tuner, wireless iPod/iPhone dock, Nuvo Net Media Server connector, and wireless keypads, at a price that merely made us slightly woozy, not the retail price that made us vomit. We used the whole birthday/Christmas justification, you know, when you say "Ok, we can get it, but this is going to be your birthday/Christmas present from me for the next 32 years." I have to say, I do have the best wife in the world.
So finally, after years of running wire and anticipating the day we would finally have a whole house audio system, that day was upon us and the boxes arrived for install. I tried to do a whole unboxing sequence as I unpacked things, but you can probably tell just how excited I was from the blurry photo below.
As I mentioned, the Essentia E6G system is a six source and six zone system. This means that we can have six distinct sets of speakers throughout the house, with six independent keypads that each control the music separately. The six sources represent the choices we have for where the music comes from, be it a radio station over the tuner, our iPod or iPhone, CD player (come to think of it, we don't even own a CD player anymore), our PC with all of the MP3s on it, or any other source equipment we decide to hookup at a later date. This means that I can listen to the baseball game on an AM or FM station upstairs in the office, while Wendy is listening to the latest album from Carbon Leaf or a "classic" from +Live+ (her favorite groups) in the living room or family room downstairs.
For the install, we placed the components in a central location where all of the wires in the house run to. The following photo is of the rats' nest of wires and rigged up patch panel from before I got everything nicely organized with a server enclosure. Keep in mind, the photo is a major "before" compared to what we have now.
We then placed a few control pads in various places around the house. I knew we would eventually have these pads in rooms, and one of the requirements for a system was that the pads would fit in a "decora" style switch plate cover. This way the control pads could install in a standard low voltage wiring box next to a light switch. The first pads went in the family room and kitchen, and later in the office and master bedroom. We have plans to eventually add one to the master bathroom (yup, tunes in the tub), and basement (when we finish it in like 10 more years. :-/ )
For speakers we've opted for a mix of in-ceiling low profile options, and the use of our existing home theater speakers. We're even using one pair of speakers I've had since high school that are tucked behind the couch in the living room.
The end result is a beautiful setup of distributed audio that can fill the entire house during parties, or can be turned on in just one room when you want to relax.
My favorite aspect of the whole system is actually the control pads. The newer systems offer larger touchscreens that dispaly album art and have cool interfaces, but I like how dark and low profile the ones in our system are. They blend into the wall as simple black rectangles, but light up brightly when powered on. The small screen displays artist, title, and track information when a song is playing, and allows full setup and configuration of the system through it's many menus. And they work great in dark or dimly lit rooms.
We also installed two wireless control pads that display the same information, but allow you to operate the system from any room on any zone. Though, the range on these controls seem to be a bit limited in an old house with thick walls. We're still working out the kinks on these.
The iPod/iPhone dock with song selection and display on the control pads are a pretty awesome feature, and the ability to integrate with a media server is actually the best and most flexible part of the system. But I will cover the ins and outs of that aspect of the system in another post. Don't what to home tech overload you on this post.
We put in a lot of effort and legwork up front to wire up the house in anticipation of this system, and it wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. However, this level of effort isn't as necessary any longer. The whole house audio market has largely been targeted to the new home market. But as the economy has gotten soft, and the new home industry has slowed, many manufacturers have begun to focus on the aftermarket install and renovation audience. The system we have is a few years old now and requires all hardwired and pre-wired components and speakers, but Nuvo has come out with a new line of equipment that runs over the electrical system in your house. This way you don't need wires running all through your walls for the audio system, you just need a spare outlet somewhere in the room. Other equipment manufacturers, like Sonos, have begun the rollout of wireless solutions, like Sonos. These are geared to the DIYer who is interested in whole house audio that can come without holes in the walls and plaster in the hair.
If you're interested in a whole house audio solution for your house, start with the links I provided earlier in this post to get you started on your research. If you have any questions, please ask away and I'll gladly answer to the best of my ability. Whole house audio, though not "necessary" in a home, is a pretty cool feature to have. It makes your ability to enjoy music anywhere in your home a possibility, makes entertaining way easier, and is just something fun to have.