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Powering Your Multi-room Music System

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There are a number of different ways to power a house full of speakers. Here's an overview of things you need to know.

Audio in two rooms using one receiver

One-receiver setups are generally the simplest, most affordable ways to enjoy multi-room audio. In fact, your existing home theater receiver may have the necessary features — a second set of speaker outputs (often labeled "B" or "zone 2") to drive a pair of stereo speakers in a second room. [Shop for a multi-room receiver.]

Is this an option that will work for you? Let's take a look at some common situations.

"How do I know if my home theater receiver can power speakers in a second room?"
If you want a single receiver to power both your main and your second room, you should look for a receiver with powered (or "speaker-level") outputs. These models can send an amplified audio signal to a second room, so that you won't need to purchase an additional amplifier.

Don't forget: You'll need a pair of speakers in that second room; lots of folks also like to install an in-wall volume control to adjust the sound in their second listening area. Also, some receivers "borrow" power from your main room's channels in order to power speakers in a second room. For example, many 7.1-channel receivers use the two back surround channels to drive the "B" or "zone 2" speakers — when you listen to audio in your second room, you'll only have 5.1 surround sound in your main room.

"I want to be able to listen to two different audio sources in both rooms simultaneously."
To play back your TV's audio in one room, and send Dad's favorite jazz tunes to a set of speakers in the den at the same time, you'll need a dual-room/dual-source receiver. This kind of receiver can play two different sources in two listening areas simultaneously.

Don't forget: If you use your receiver's preamp outputs, you'll need another amp or receiver to power the speakers in your second room. To avoid that situation, use your receiver's powered outputs.

Diagram A

Diagram A — Audio for two rooms using "A" and "B" speaker outputs

Pros:

  • Simple and affordable — a great way to get started with multi-room sound.
  • Receivers with powered dual-room/dual-source capability will let housemates listen to two different sources simultaneously.

Cons:

  • With some receivers, you can't play all of your surround channels in your main room while playing stereo music in another.

Tips:

  • Your receiver must be designed to handle a 4-ohm load; speakers in both rooms must be 8-ohm speakers. If you use speakers with an impedance lower than 8 ohms, you may trigger your receiver's built-in protection circuit, causing it to shut off.
  • Installing an in-wall volume control in your secondary room adds a lot of convenience — adjust the volume right there, instead of running back and forth from your main room.

Audio in three rooms using one receiver

Some higher-end home theater receivers can provide audio to three or even four rooms at the same time. These receivers typically offer a mix of preamp-level and powered outputs, and some also feature a composite video output for an additional room, allowing you to send audio and video to your second or third room.

"What kind of receiver do I need?"
You'll need a receiver with 3-room/3-source capability (the back-panel outputs are often labeled "Zone 2" and "Zone 3"). This kind of receiver can play three different sources in three listening areas simultaneously. And most of them offer a combination of both preamp and powered speaker outputs.

Don't forget: If you use your receiver's preamp outputs in your second or third rooms, you'll need another amp or receiver to power the speakers in that room.

Diagram B

Diagram B — Audio for three rooms using "Zone 1," "Zone 2," and "Zone 3" speaker outputs

Pros:

  • Some 3-room/3-source receivers can also send video to one of your additional rooms.
  • Receivers with 3-room/3-source capability will let housemates listen to three different sources simultaneously.

Cons:

Tips:

  • With some receivers, you can't play all of your surround channels in your main room while playing stereo music in another.
    • Most receivers are only made to power two rooms, and use a preamp output for the third. A few receivers can safely power the speakers in all three rooms — in most cases, you'll only be able to get 3.1-channel sound in your main room, and stereo sound in two additional rooms.
    • Installing in-wall volume controls in your additional rooms adds a lot of convenience — adjust the volume right there, instead of running back and forth from your main room.

Audio in three rooms using two receivers

Adding a second receiver to your system can expand your multi-room options in several different ways. A two-receiver system not only lets you send music to more areas of your house, but it also always lets you enjoy full home theater sound in your main room while sending a different audio source to both of your other listening rooms.

"What kinds of receivers do I need?"
The first receiver will live in your main A/V room, connected to your audio sources, such as a CD player or music server, and powering your home theater speakers. This model needs to have a set of preamp-level (or line-level) outputs so that it can send a non-amplified audio signal to your second receiver.

Your second receiver is the one that will power your speakers in your second and third rooms, using its "A" and "B" speaker outputs. It receives audio information from your home theater receiver's preamp-level outputs — you can simply connect a standard set of stereo RCA cables to one of the second receiver's audio inputs. This receiver doesn't need to be a home theater model — in most cases, a relatively inexpensive stereo receiver can handle the job quite capably. You may even have an old stereo receiver that you can use for the job.

Don't forget: You'll need two pairs of speakers with that second receiver or amplifier — one pair for each listening room.

Diagram C

Diagram C — Audio for three rooms using a second (stereo) receiver (main-room home theater system not pictured)

Pros:

  • Simple and affordable.
  • You'll always be able enjoy surround sound with your main system and play music in your second and third rooms simultaneously.
  • This kind of system can easily be expanded. For example, if your main receiver has two preamp outputs, you could set up a second stereo receiver for four total rooms.

Cons:

  • Most stereo receivers can't send different audio sources to your second and third listening rooms. (If you find one that can output two audio signals to its "A" and "B" outputs, you'll still need to hook up at least one source directly to the stereo receiver, since your home theater receiver can only provide one source at a time.)

Tips:

  • Installing in-wall volume controls in your additional rooms adds a lot of convenience — adjust the volume right there, instead of running back and forth from your main room.
  • Your receiver must be designed to handle a 4-ohm load; both pairs of speakers must be 8-ohm, unless you use impedance-matching volume controls.
  • The receiver must have parallel connections internally. Ask your Crutchfield Sales Advisor if the receiver you're planning to buy has series or parallel connections internally.

Adding an amplifier for even more whole-house power and flexibility

In a number of situations, it may make more sense to use a more powerful dedicated amplifier, rather than a stereo receiver, to power your system. If you opt for a multi-channel amplifier, you'll not only have plenty of power, but also a lot more flexibility in dividing that power according to the differing demands of your various listening areas. [Shop for a power amplifier.]

Just like the previous examples that used stereo receivers, a multi-room amplifier would receive audio information from your main home theater receiver via its preamp inputs.

"How many channels of amplification do I need?"
The number of channels you'll want depends not only on how many pairs of speakers you want to power, but also on what kind of environment those speakers will be in, and how you'd like to listen to them.

For example, additional amplifier power comes in particularly handy for outdoor speakers, which tend to require a lot more power than indoor speakers to achieve comparable volume levels. With a 12-channel amplifier, you could "bridge" four channels to power a pair of stereo speakers in your backyard — that means that each of those speakers would receive two channels of power, enabling them to produce higher volume levels without straining the amp. For all but the largest of indoor areas, two channels of amplification per pair of stereo speakers should provide all the power you need. And for smaller or less-frequently occupied areas where you only want a single mono speaker for background listening, you could use a single amp channel set to a mono configuration.

Diagram F

Diagram F — Audio for multiple rooms using a multi-zone receiver and a multichannel amplifier

Pros:

  • Versatility — you can easily distribute varying amounts of power to different areas of your home, as needed; many amps can be "daisy-chained" to accommodate more rooms.
  • Plenty of power for every room, so you'll get great sound, and you won't strain the amp or underpower your speakers.
  • You free up the receiver's amplifier section to deliver surround sound in the main room at any time.
  • You can steer mono sound to small rooms and hallways while maintaining stereo in other rooms.

Cons:

Tips:

  • A relatively expensive solution, compared to other options.
  • In most set ups, with the exception of your main room, you can't listen to different sources in each area — the same music will play through all speakers in most setups.
    • Volume limiters on the back panel of some multi-channel amps let you match the volume from one room to the next. Then, even if someone cranks the volume knob all the way up, it still won't reach floor-shaking levels.
    • You'll need to find a well-ventilated space for the amplifier near your receiver.

Other considerations

Sharing components in two-receiver systems
Sharing audio components such as CD players and music servers between two receivers in a multi-room audio system isn't necessary, but it can save you both money and space. For example, if you've got a 400-disc CD megachanger loaded up with your entire music library, the ability to play it through either of your two receivers is an especially attractive option.

If your main receiver offers dual-room/dual-source capability, you can simply use its preamp output to share all of your components via a single analog connection. Alternatively, if the component you want to share can support both its analog and digital outputs simultaneously, you can make a digital connection to one receiver and an analog connection to the other. Or, if you can't make a digital connection to either receiver, you can use two buffered Y-connectors to share the component's output between your two receivers.

Choosing the right speaker wire
If you're planning to power your speakers from a receiver or amplifier that will be located in a separate room, it's important to consider what kind of speaker wire to use. To determine what's right for your setup, you'll need to figure out where you're going to route the wire and how far the signal will have to travel to get from your receiver or amplifier to the speaker. To run wire inside your walls, you'll need UL-rated speaker wire labeled CL2 or CL3. The Underwriters Laboratory (UL) looks at heat generated from current flowing through wire, how quickly the cable will catch and spread fire when exposed to flame, and the wire's susceptibility to damage from external stresses. Also, be sure to check your local building and fire code and buy wire accordingly.

Another factor to consider is the gauge, or thickness, of your speaker wire. The lower the American Wire Gauge (AWG) number, the thicker the wire. Significant power losses can occur over long runs, resulting in lower performance, making wire gauge a key factor in the performance of a multi-room music system. Use the chart below as a guideline for wire gauge selection.

Distance from speaker to amplifier Gauge
Less than 80 feet 16
80 to 200 feet 14
More than 200 feet 12

For more information on installing in-wall speaker wire, check out our articles on installing in-wall wire and in-wall, in-ceiling, and on-wall speakers.

If you'd like to see wire routing options that don't involve in-wall runs, see our article on home A/V cable management.

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