Should I go with a wireless or wired sound system?
November 16, 2012 7:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm wondering whether to go with a wireless sound system or in-the-wall wiring.

The walls in my house are coming down, and I have to decide whether to wire the entire house for sound, or to go with a wireless system (like Sonos). The house is about 2500 sq ft, with high ceilings, and a downstairs basement. I'd like to be able to have the option of sound in almost every room. That said, the master bedroom is on one end of the house, and the downstairs basement on the opposite end. And it's a long house. The four most important rooms are the living room, master bedroom, kitchen and basement.

I'm no audiophile. Music is important to me, but I'm not a hardcore connoisseur. I'd like to be able to listen to music in the basement, the master bedroom, the kitchen and the living room (and maybe in the side yard and/or the outside deck if that's not asking for too much).

With all the new wireless technology, I'm unsure whether it makes sense to even do wiring in the walls anymore. Besides, how many speakers can you run off of one amp? On the other hand, this will be my only chance to do wiring in the walls, and I don't want to miss an opportunity.

Unsure quite what to do, and thought I would turn to mefites for advice and recommendations.
posted by zagyzebra to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here's my big question for you: Do you need your music to play in all of those rooms at once?

We pondered wiring our house for sound. Doing some research, I found that the speakers that sounded good and would install flush with the walls or ceiling were all more expensive than buying a nice sounding ipod dock for each room we actually wanted to listen to music in. The installed speakers can get really expensive for stuff that sounds good. The other consideration is that sometimes I wanted to listen to something different than my wife at the same time, and to be able to do that with an installed system was really really expensive. This was a few years ago, so maybe things have changed, but I don't know to what extent.

Wiring for sound in the upstairs of a house is easy if you have an attic, because you can just run the wires to wherever you want and drop them down in the ceiling. The downstairs is harder, but if you know it is only going to one room than you can do it without too much trouble. Speaker wire is not terribly expensive, and don't buy into the hype of buying fancy monster cable.

If budget is a concern, than I'd wire one or two pairs of speaker cable from wherever your amplifier is going to be to the downstairs rooms you might want speakers in, and don't worry about the rest for now (that is assuming you have an accessible attic for the upper floor).

Before you go to the trouble of doing this, though, make sure you really look into how much all of the components are going to cost. For speakers that actually sound any good in that many rooms plus outdoor speakers, with all of the wiring, amps, etc, you may be talking about several thousand dollars. Then, how are you going to control the music? Are you going to then setup a wireless remote control system so that in each room you can adjust the settings? Make sure you price this out.

We bought this: Klipsch iGroove speakers. It sounds fantastic, is very small, and very user friendly. I can't imagine setting up an installed system that sounds anywhere near as good without spending much more per room.

If you do end up running the cables and doing a full system, make sure to update this thread, I'd love to hear what you end up going with. Installed sound in the house was one of those things I was determined to do until I actually tallied everything up.
posted by markblasco at 8:02 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I got this for Mothers Day a couple of years ago:
We really enjoy it. Has been almost painless to set up and use. We are always surprised by how good the sound is.
posted by slothhog at 8:17 PM on November 16, 2012

There is no real need for in-wall speaker wire unless you want speakers mounted in/on your walls/ceilings.

I would make sure that you have ethernet jacks in every room and wherever your main entertainment setup is, you have wall plates for speakers, A/V inputs and power for your TV.
posted by wongcorgi at 8:51 PM on November 16, 2012

iPod touch and Bluetooth speakers.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:08 PM on November 16, 2012

Response by poster: Hmmm.....wireless seems to be the preferred option. It seems easier, and in the end, cheaper. One thing I have to take into consideration is that I will be renting my house out. Whatever option I go with must be easy (plug and play) for a tenant, who will likely be short-term.
posted by zagyzebra at 9:16 PM on November 16, 2012

Keep in mind that everything is wireless, and sooner or later as a society we're going to start facing the bandwidth limitations as devices interact. There are also latency issues, audio cutout, phasing issues, digital artifacts, and a host of other wireless issues that can creep up.

I guess what I'm saying is, if you are talking about a home theater room, centrally located, wire it. If you are just talking about stereo, meh... You may find that you can get away without wires, but if the studs are easy to reach right now - do it once and you'll probably never have to deal with it again. You may save yourself headache a year from now when you do buy something that interferes.

As far as multi-room wiring, generally speaking you wire one room per amp. Also, depending on the distance in your house, a Bluetooth setup may not have the distance coverage (depends on the Bluetooth standard implemented) Airplay ceases to function once you are out of network range, and so on and so forth...

If you just want music to follow you, there are a host of Bluetooth, Airplay, wireless, and portable products - I have some skin in the game, or I'd probably mention specific products.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:38 PM on November 16, 2012

In your situation, instead of wiring the house for sound, I'd be tempted to run some Cat6 structured cable from each room back to a central point near where your phone / network comes in or a little cupboard under the stairs etc.

That way you (or your tenants) have much more flexibility. If the wireless is a bit patchy at one end of the house, it's easy to plug in another AP or just hardwire the device in that room. Or say you rent to a geek who wants a file server and VoIP system - no problem.

You can even just plug in your Sonos / Squeezebox / Airport Express or whatever you choose to provide your sound around the house and be sure of the highest bandwidth available.
posted by dirm at 5:31 AM on November 17, 2012

I love my Sonos and highly recommend it. Who wires anymore?
posted by walla at 6:25 AM on November 17, 2012

Adding on - if you are already going to be able to access the studspaces consider pulling extra runs of cat 6e and a few pull cords in any room that might be used differently in the future: That second bedroom that you might make into an office? Pull extra cable and leave significant loops in the walls. Document their location.

That way, when the new awesome tech we can't imagine comes along you either HAVE cat 6e ready for it, OR if it requires whizzbangzongo cabling that doesn't exist yet, you have pull cords to fish that new wire without opening the walls.

A little more work now but huge payout in the future if you need it. And cable is cheap.
posted by BrooksCooper at 7:42 AM on November 17, 2012

If you are removing drywall, you would be foolish to not take this opportunity to run a multi wire media pack through the house. Look up "structured wiring".
posted by at 8:56 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Here's my next question for anyone who's still reading this thread: If you were in my position (and yes, drywall is coming down), what questions would you ask of an electrician to ascertain competence?
posted by zagyzebra at 11:50 AM on November 17, 2012

Best answer: Wireless is a great way to move signals around without having to open up the walls, it can save a lot of patching and painting. If the walls are going to be open anyway, though, you'd be a fool not to run a wire to every place you think you might possibly someday want one, and then run some spares just to be sure.

Sonos is an excellent system that sounds like it'd be perfect for your immediate needs, but you should still wire it. Sonos boxes can communicate wirelessly, but if you plug each one directly into the house network you'll have much less noise interfering with your wifi and won't have to worry about placing each box so that is within range of another. Sonos units also require wiring to the speakers, and you might want those to be installed in the walls or ceilings and wired to wall plates (in each room or all in a central location.) If you think you might want installed speakers at some point, it's really easy to wire for them while the walls are open, then just sheetrock over them and leave them there until it's time to cut the speaker in.

For maximum flexibility I would recommend the following:

Figure out where your router and modem are going to live (let's say the basement, maybe behind the stairs) and mount a network and cable/satellite distribution box there. This should ideally be someplace accessible for when you inevitably need to reboot these things. To this box you should run the incoming lines from the street: cable, telephone if you're doing that, and also satellite (run a few RG-6 coax up to the roof or attic now even if you're not getting a dish right away.) You'll also need power, typically the box will have a knockout where your electrician can install a receptacle that you'll use to power your modem, router, switch etc.

This box will be the hub for your wiring system, all the rooms will be wired directly back to it ("home run" in wiring-speak.)

To cover the house with good wifi signal, you should pick places for wireless access points and run a CAT6 to each of these locations. For a 2500 square foot single-level house I would start with 3 access points, with one in the middle and two more out toward the ends. They should be someplace where you can unobtrusively mount them high on a wall, and where you can get to them for rebooting as needed (hall or bedroom closets are good for this, as are high shelves in built-in bookcases) They will typically need an outlet for power, so plan for that too. I highly recommend getting the access points and setting them up before the walls are closed, so that you can test whether the coverage is adequate and change locations or add more access points as needed. At least bring one and try it in each spot in turn to get a ballpark idea of coverage.

For every large room in the house (bedroom, office, kitchen, etc.) you should have at least one CAT6 drop for a network jack. If you're feeling flush, make it two per location; CAT6 is primarily used for network, but it's cheap and can be used for landline telephone or repurposed to do almost anything else. These should go back to the main box where you will install a network switch, which could be big enough to make all the jacks in the house active at once, or you could get away with having a small switch and plugging in only those jacks that you're actively using. With this setup a housemate/tenant could conceivably have their own second modem in the box providing private internet service to their portion of the house.

For any location where you might want to put a TV, I would run a bundle or a structured cable ("structured cable" is just several standard cables wrapped in an outer sleeve that makes it easier to deal with) containing 2 CAT6 and 2 coax cables. This gives you a lot of flexibility as far as hooking up cable or sat boxes, internet-enabled set-top devices, etc. This bundle should go from the spot in the room where you want the equipment for the TV to the box in the basement. You should also add a conduit or "smurf tube" from the equipment location in the room to the place where a wall-mounted TV would actually hang. This will allow you to pull one or more HDMI (or network, or Kinect, or whatever crazy gizmo comes next) from the equipment up to the screen without draping cables down the wall. Also, of course, consider power requirements for the TV and have a recessed "clock receptacle" installed at each TV location. Just stapling a long HDMI cable inside the wall is a bad idea, since HDMI ends can't really be replaced in situ so you'd be out of luck if the cable were ever damaged, to say nothing of potential future standards that might use different cables or connectors.

For any room where you might want sound, you should pick speaker locations on the walls or ceiling (ideally with good separation but not too close to a corner, and not opposite one another such that they're faced directly at each other) and from those spots run speaker cable first to a spot in the room where you might want to put a stand-alone audio system or Sonos box (this spot should also have network and power) then from there back to the box in the basement. This will give you maximum flexibility when deciding whether you want a centralized audio distribution system or a bunch of little independent systems. I'd recommend 16 gauge wire or thicker, brand is honestly not so important. You can use a single 4-conductor cable so you just need to run one to each room and split it where you need it to reach both speakers, simplifying the wiring process and making it easier to organize the cabling at the main box.

To run the music system, one cheap and expandable way to go would to get a single Sonos Connect box and hook it up to an amplifier, then run the output of the amp through a speaker selector (I've never used this one but it would let you drive 5 sets of speakers from a single Sonos/amp combo. It won't get very loud but is the cheapest way to get started.) You can then set the relative volumes of your zones on the front of the selector and use the Sonos app on your phone or computer to adjust overall volume as you listen. You can easily expand this system as needed by adding additional Sonos units and amps and decoupling them from the selector, or add more zones by splitting the output of the Sonos and feeding it into a second amp/selector combo. Sonos does a good job of combining units to play in unison for when you want the same music everywhere, or you can use multiple units to listen to different things in different rooms. This approach allows you to keep all the amps and equipment in a single location, so you can have sound without devoting shelf space in the room to it. It'll also help you save costs on power conditioning, since you only need one big surge protector.

Here are some guidelines for making sure the work is being done competently and that the right materials are being used:

A good home network specialist will test each network jack and not consider the job done until they all test good. An electician will usually not have the tools to do this as they wire, but they'll be cheaper and it might be worth the savings to you if you can do some basic testing yourself: plug in a router at the main box and then walk around with a computer and making sure it can connect to the router through each jack, then call them back to fix any bad ports. Either way, you should make sure the jacks are tested before a tenant moves in.

All your network cabling should be punched down into a patch panel which should be clearly labeled with the location of each jack. You can then use short ethernet cables to connect each jack to your network switch.

Wireless access points should be set to use the same ssid (network name) and password scheme but different channels. This will allow your phones and laptops to seamlessly roam from one access point to the next as you move around the house.

Coax should be quad-shield RG-6, sometimes people try to cheap out and use RG-59 which is really not adequate for long runs

Low voltage cabling like speaker and network should not be bundled with electrical wiring or run parallel with it within a foot or so for long distances, this can cause noise and interference. Whenever possible low voltage cabling should cross electrical wiring at a right angle.

Standard landline telephone should never share a CAT6 cable with network. (It's actually possible to wire this in a way that will seem to work fine, but your network's speed will be severely degraded because your equipment will be forced to use the older, slower 100 megabit standard rather than the current gigabit standard.) This is different from VOIP that uses the network itself to digitize the telephone signal a la Skype or phone service through your cable or fiber ISP, I'm talking about physically wiring an old-fashioned phone jack to two conductors of the CAT6 that you're also using for network.

A switch is required to "split" the network connection, and an electrician who tries to split ethernet by just splicing (or "bussing") the wires together is bulshitting you and has probably never wired ethernet before, because it won't work at all. I shouldn't even have to mention this but I've seen it done more than once. It's not so bad if they home run it and just splice it all together in the box like it was telephone (you can just rip out their bussing block and replace it with the right stuff,) but if they try to daisy-chain more than one jack it's a nightmare.
posted by contraption at 2:44 PM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

On more note; any crawl spaces should be connected together by as much conduit as you can squeeze in, ideally 3 or 4 2 inch pipes, so that there is a path for future wiring to take from one end of the house to the other. They should be clearly labeled at each end so that future workers can find them and know where they go even if you've sold the house or forgotten about them.
posted by contraption at 2:49 PM on November 18, 2012

BTW, wiring a Sonos system up with Ethernet will help make things more reliable, but the SonosNet mesh network will still be active.

Do you think a whole-house sound system will be a draw when trying to find tenants?

I'd say to put in network wiring everywhere but don't bother with the speakers. Keep things simple.

Sonos is great. I've had my system for about two years. I have one Play5 in my kitchen and 3 Sonos Connects. The Connects are all wired into my network and are connected to existing stereo systems.

If you go with the above advice to use one Sonos to drive your whole house, you'd lose one of the benefits, which is to be able to play any combination of music in any combination of rooms.
posted by reddot at 12:05 PM on November 22, 2012

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