Help me find the right multi-zone audio setup
June 18, 2014 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a way to implement multi-zone audio in my house but I'm getting a bit lost in my search...

I was hoping to find a stereo system that allows multiple zones, but all I'm finding are all-in-one AV receivers for a home theater setup that provide for a second zone, or ridiculously expensive options like Sonos where just one speaker is hundreds of dollars but each can be controlled independently.

I don't really need a receiver with 6 HDMI inputs and 7.2 surround connected to my TV, just so I can have audio in multiple zones - but I guess something like this would be OK if it's my best option. I'm not really an audiophile, so the absolute best sound isn't important to me as long as I have the functionality I want. At least one of my zones will be outside, and Sonos doesn't (to my knowledge) made outdoor speakers, so even despite their cost they still don't meet all my needs.

So here's what I want for my setup. I would like one zone for outside - on my back patio off the kitchen/dining room, with additional speakers out by the pool (another 50 feet away). I'd like to be able to play sound on the deck, at the pool, or both simultaneously. I'd also like to somehow transmit the signal wirelessly to the pool speakers (there are power outlets near the pool but no easy way to run speaker wire). It is also preferable for the deck speakers to get the audio signal wirelessly too, so I don't need to worry about running speaker wire through the walls or around a window frame.
I also want at least one zone inside. Here, I also want the ability to play different audio than what's playing outside - as in, the ability to play two audio sources simultaneously, one inside and the other outside. And of course to play one source in both zones at the same time. Again, I'd like the ability to split the indoor zone into multiple speaker sets so I can play music downstairs in the family room, or upstairs in the kitchen/dining room, or both. Now that I think about it though, perhaps two separate zone inside might be good - one for TV audio in the family room and another for upstairs - that way I can play music while I'm entertaining and have the TV tuned to a game downstairs - but still with the ability to pipe the TV audio upstairs as needed (like for a big game where people are mingling but still want to follow the score).

So I guess here are my questions - do sound systems with 4+ zones exist? Or should I get a 2-zone system and rig my own way of turning on/off individual speaker sets as needed to pipe the audio where I want it?

I don't necessarily need recommendations for actual speakers - I can read reviews and find good speakers that fit the power limits of whatever system I end up with.
Please recommend sound systems that do multi-zone, as well as any add-ons I'd need such as wireless transmitters/receivers to get sound to each speaker set around the house and outdoors. I do not want to punch holes in walls or run unsightly speaker wire all around the house to achieve this.

Budget - aside from speakers (which range in price from very little to OMG!), I'm looking to spend probably less than $500 on the rest of the setup.

Bonus points: I also would like (but don't absolutely need) the ability to send audio to the system via Bluetooth and/or WiFi. If this falls out of my price range though, I can always plug my phone and/or an ipod into the audio inputs for each zone I guess.

If my setup doesn't seem clear I'm happy to clarify anything that will help. Thanks!
posted by trivia genius to Home & Garden (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you really just want to be able to play two different sources, I think you're going to be much better off with a two zone system and a speaker selector (there are many good ones). To have four distinct zones, you're looking at real bucks, but two zones is fairly easy to get.

I'm replying on my phone so I'll refrain from writing more right now but I can say more about the other stuff later...
posted by primethyme at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2014

What you want to do is possible using the Logitech Media Server and Squeezeplug's. Use the squeezeplugs as output devices for each zone, and you can control them from any web browser or the apps that are available for both iOS and Android. All connected together via your wifi network. You can link output devices together if you need to (for example zone 1 and 3 playing the same output, 2 and 4 independent) on the fly.

If you don't want to roll your own the Logitech and Slimdevices branded hardware is still available on ebay. Logitech bought the company, then decided it wasn't profitable enough and killed it, but there is still a pretty active set of developers working on it. My system is 4 zones but I'm using a combination of Logitech and Slim equipment that I'd purchased before Logitech dropped it. As bits die I'll probably replace it with squeezeplugs.

You'll need your server colocated with your TV to support line input via the Waveinput plugin.

The processing requirements for the server are pretty light, so you can use ancient cheap hardware. I'm using a 7-yr-old laptop that my work was getting rid of, no problems.
posted by Runes at 2:11 PM on June 18, 2014

I have implemented a similar setup using an inexpensive 2-zone Onkyo receiver (in the $250 range) and a speaker selector, as primethyme says. The speaker selector operates from the Zone 2 outputs and feeds to four different sub-zones, if you will: one for my deck outside (which I hardwired) one for the dining room, one for the living room and one free at the moment. Again, I hardwired all these, but you could hook up wireless transmitters to each output on the selector to hook up wireless speakers.

One thing to watch for on the receiver: the Zone 2 output on my unit can only handle analog signals, so I can't send audio from my DVR (hooked up through HDMI) or my BluRay player (also HDMI) to the Zone 2 speakers. That's not an issue for me as my goal was to listen to music in the house while someone (kids) could watch a movie in the family room. Still, this means I have my CD player (yes I am old) hooked up with A/V cables instead of an optical digital connection. But you said you're not an audiophile so that likely won't make a big difference to you.
posted by dellsolace at 10:03 AM on June 19, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all!
Rolling my own system probably isn't in the cards, Runes, as I need it to be, for lack of a better term, idiot-proof for others to operate.

dellsolace - that sounds like a perfect option.

Any recommendations for wireless transmitters that will work well without breaking the bank?
posted by trivia genius at 10:26 AM on June 19, 2014

Oh, operation of a LMS-based system is very easy. There's apps out there for both IOS and Android, as well as a web interface. Selecting songs, which output device to play them on, etc. is easy.
posted by Runes at 12:17 PM on June 19, 2014

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