July 17, 2011 by Kent Roller
Revised July 9, 2014 after installing more systems and working with Bose products.

For creating the perfect mood in your home, few things do the job better than music.  A whole house audio system ties the house together with sound unlike lights, paint, flooring, and decor can.  As you move from room to room, hearing the same music adds a sense of continuity.  And because the music is all around coming from overhead, it doesn’t have to be loud and no components get in the way.  There is a richness to whole house audio that raises the value of your home, both while you’re living in it and when you sell it.

There are many ways to go about whole house audio, but the basic premise is to send sound from a single point to multiple sets of speakers.  Why do you need a single point from which to send?  Well, you don’t.  You could put a stereo and ceiling speakers in every room, but that’s not whole house audio.  As you enter each room you would need to turn on the system.  And each room would be playing its own music, unless you only listen to radio and tune every room to the same station.  Never mind the fact that you would need to buy as many systems as rooms.

The purpose of whole house audio is to simplify the music control process.  Or gain greater sophistication, depending on how advanced your wiring design and equipment is.

This article describes a few of the most common designs.  They all achieve the goal of sending music to the rooms from a central point.  The differences are in the method of selecting and controlling the music.

Lets review the three basic control options before we examine the different designs.

  • Room Selection:  This is what is coming out of the speakers in any given room.
  • Room Sound Level: This is the volume of the music coming out of the speakers in any given room.
  • Music Source:  This is any device that feed music into the central power amplifier.

Basic Whole House System

Figure 1 describes the most basic whole house wiring design and the one that will cost the least to install.  The speaker distributor is a simple device that splits the single set of speaker wires coming out of the amplifier into as many “zones” as you have rooms.  Speaker distributors reduce the power by a factor of the number of zones.  This keeps your amp from blowing up because it’s powering more speakers than it was designed to power.  Most speaker distributors let you turn zones on and off in case you’re not going to be in a certain room.  The power amplifier can be any stereo receiver, or purely a power amplifier.  The advantage of using a receiver instead of a power amplifier is that receivers have radio tuners.  If all you do is listen to radio, then a receiver and a speaker distributor is all that you need.  Receivers also let you select the music source.  You can select your CD carousel, record player, cassette tape player, MP3 player, even “listen” to movies from a DVD player.

A basic whole house design is in fact quite versatile.  But in practice, it is not convenient.  To adjust the volume level in the rooms, or change the station, or select a different music source, you need to stand in front of the receiver.  The changes you make apply to all of the rooms.  You might like the volume in one room, but not in another.  And you can’t play different music in each room.

These rules can be bent a little depending on the kind of receiver.  Some high end receivers have network connections and web interfaces.  By connecting the receiving to the network, you can use a web browser to display a virtual control panel.  The web based virtual control panel allows you to do the same things you can do while standing in front of the receiver.  You can turn the receiver on and off, adjust the volume, select music sources.  In the case of some receivers, you can tune into internet radio.  Despite all this convenience of remotely controlling the receiver, the same problem of individual room control remains.  Every room must play the same music, at the universal volume.

Advanced Application of a Basic Whole House System

Figure 2 is a Basic Whole House Design used in a way that takes advantage of recent trends in media streaming products to simulate an advanced design.  Bear in mind that independent music selection and volume levels in each room is not possible.  The reason for that is clear by looking at the figure.  The device that the speakers are connected to is the speaker distributor.  The rooms play the music that is passing through the distributor at whatever volume it is passing. The distributor is passing the music coming from the amplifier’s single set of speaker outputs.

But let’s assume for a moment that we like the universal volume level in each room, and we want the same music playing in each room.  Accepting that solves a lot, leaving us free to do some cool things with music selection and play controls.

The figure shows a smart phone communicating with a computer that has music lists.  The computer in turn is communicating with a media streaming appliance.  The media streaming appliance is sending the music to the amplifier.  The advantage of this configuration is that it allows you to play the music lists that you’ve compiled from the convenience of your computer.

You don’t need a computer however.  Media streaming appliances also have the ability to connect to the Internet and play music from online stations and services such as Pandora.  From your computer or from your smart phone you can control the media appliance directly.  You can select the service, select the music, play and pause, and adjust the volume by altering the volume output of the appliance.  But if you’re like most people, you probably have a particular music collections you want to play, and managing them through appliances designed for accessing third party services isn’t going to give you the personal experience you’re seeking.

For the ultimate in personal music management, here’s how I use Figure 2 in my home.  There is a computer sitting along side the amplifier.  It runs iTunes where I have a variety of music lists designed for different house activities.  The computer also runs VNC.  VNC is a program that let’s my iPhone run a VNC client to control the computer.  To change the music, or the entire house volume, I log onto the desktop of the “music server” and adjust iTunes as if were standing in the closet.

There are a couple of big problems with my practice.  For one, I can’t turn off the amplifier remotely.  To save energy and the amp, I have to walk into the closet at the end of the day and turn it off.    Using iTunes on a tiny iPhone screen is a pain.  Most people don’t have an extra computer to use as a music server.  If you’re looking for a “press and play” that every member of the family can use (not just the computer geek), this is probably not a good option.

Before we get to advanced central music selection and management designs, lets look at a basic system that’s been modified to provide one crucial element of the whole house audio experience – individual room volume control.

Basic whole house audio system with manual volume control knobs for each room.

This whole house audio system has keypad controllers in each room. The keypads let you adjust the volume from each room, but also allow you to select the music that’s being played. Some systems let you play one kind of music in one room, and different music in another. You’re only limited by the number of music sources.

Very advance systems let you attach a music source to the controller and play the music from that source in the same room or in all of the rooms.  For example, the “music source” on the wall represented in this diagram might be a Blu Tooth enabled receiver.  Your iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Android device could play music over Blu Tooth to the receiver, which in turn sends the music back to the amplifier and then to the speakers.

Every system mentioned above would be considered old school in this age of Wi-Fi and mobile devices.  Legacy systems work nicely, but they are complex and not convenient if you have to get up from your comfy chair to press keys on a keypad or turn a volume knob.  The current state of the art does away with keypads and music sources.  Control of the amplifier that sends the music to each room is conducted by a mobile app.  The mobile device that runs the control app can also the music source.  The control and music signals are all carried by your Wi-Fi network.  A system like that looks like the following diagram.

Streaming Whole House Audio