Multi-room audio has always been a “new construction” thing, or for very high-end custom installations. When will multi-zone, multi-source audio be truly retrofittable, so that “the rest of us” can get a fully-functional system in our homes without needing to tear up our walls?

Retrofit-friendly multi-room audio will be truly possible very, very soon. This year, NuVo will ship a multi-room audio system that runs over the electrical wiring already in every home. This system, called Renovia, will be based on the HomePlug 1.0 standard for power line communications (PLC). This standard and this technology are tested and proven.
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The retrofit market has always been a difficult prospect for multi-room audio because, as you said, the installer needs to cut holes in drywall and run Cat-5 wiring throughout the house. That’s why the multi-room audio industry has historically sold in new construction, where the walls are open and running the wire isn’t a messy, expensive job that involves cutting and then patching holes in drywall. Traditionally, in an existing home, no matter how great the desire the homeowner might have for multi-room audio, it’s usually not a realistic option because of the logistics involved, or because the homeowner concludes that it’s simply not worth it the aggravation and expense.

That calculus will change rapidly because of PLC-based multi-room audio solutions. The infrastructure is already in place in 100 percent of homes. It’ll be up to manufacturers like us, our dealers and media outlets like HomeToys to get the word out and educate the public about PLC multi-room audio and what it can do.

Powerline-based solutions sound great, but why not a wireless solution?

Wireless solutions are great in theory, and it’s understandable why everyone would want a wireless solution for multi-room audio. The unfortunate reality is, however, that wireless is just not dependable or robust enough to provide the kinds of multi-room audio solutions currently provided by hard-wired and, soon, PLC-based systems. Radio frequency disturbances and interference-related pitfalls can affect control and playback, and detract from performance. Consumers do not recognize when there is a delay in wireless transfers, however they would be intolerant of a tick, stutter, or absence of music in a song for as little as a microsecond. We look at audio as a “mission critical application” in the sense that downtime and inconsistent performance are purely unacceptable. Wireless just isn’t up to that “mission critical” standard yet. PLC, however, will be.

What new touch panel technologies are showing the most promise?

Without a doubt, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) touch panels are where it’s at. OLED does not require a backlight to function, so an in-wall OLED controller draws far less power, and portable units can operate longer on the same battery charge. An OLED display can also be much thinner than an LCD panel because of the lack of backlight. And you can see an OLED display clearly in any ambient light situation and from any angle. It essentially eliminates many of the weaknesses of LCD. Combined with capacitive touch technology, which responds so well to user actions, our customers love what an OLED touch panel brings.

Because multi-room audio isn’t a “gadget,” it doesn’t get much mainstream media attention. How can multi-room audio be introduced to a wider market?

Both CEA and CEDIA, as well as their memberships, have done a tremendous job of educating homeowners, even going so far as to creating videos explaining what exactly multi-room audio is and the applications that are possible. However, especially with the retrofit systems so close to arrival and the market poised to expand exponentially, we all need to step up our games, especially when it comes to viral and social marketing efforts.

We’ll also be better to engage traditional media through PLC systems in the form of system reviews, trend stories and end user profiles. Even though multi-room audio isn’t a retail product, we are confident that information about what systems are available, how to get them, and the approximate cost will be readily available to them.

What size of budget and what equipment would you recommend for a basic system installed in an average 3 bedroom home?

The most important factor is whether the system will be built into a new home or retrofitted into an old one. Once that is determined, a solution can be specified. For the sake of this question, we’ll assume it’s a new build and the homeowner wants audio zones in all of the bedrooms, the kitchen, the entertainment/living room and the dining room, for a total of six zones.

For a medium-sized installation such as this, we’d recommend our Essentia E6G system, which incidentally is the first multi-room audio system to earn the ENERGY STAR because of its standby power efficiency. From a single distribution hub, Essentia E6G can deliver sound from up to six different sources to six different zones, meaning everyone in every room can simultaneously listen to whatever they want. The audio sources can be a docked iPod, AM/FM radio, satellite radio, an A/V receiver, a music server… either legacy sources or sources we provide. The system would also include Control Pads for each zone and/or a Wireless Control Pad, speakers and speaker wire, and some other behind-the-scenes equipment.
Customization of a specific system, choice of speakers and source equipment may affect the overall cost of the multi-room audio system. It’s possible to have existing speakers wired in or higher-end speakers installed separately, so that can have an effect on price. In general, though, it’s safe to assume a system will cost about $1,000 per zone.

Is there a source component that will handle internet radio (Pandora for example)?

Later this year, we will introduce a music server product that will deliver Pandora and other internet sources to the user just like any other local source. Our philosophy is that wherever your music is, you should be able to listen to it through our systems. The same applies for music that’s on your PCs or Macs. The whole world’s connected; why shouldn’t your multi-room audio system be part of your “My Music” universe? It should, and it will.

What is the best method of incorporating the multi-room audio system into a home theater so that its music sources can be played through the theater system?
Our systems are flexibly designed to incorporate home theater systems in varying ways, depending on the customer’s desires. The main units have line level outputs to allow external amplifiers, like an existing home theater amplifier, to be connected to any single zone. In this scenario, the zone controller will choose which source audio is being sent to the home theater amplifier.

We also offer Local Source Interrupts, which can be added to any zone. The Local Source Interrupt will allow a pair of speakers to be switched between the multi-room audio system amplifier and a local amplifier. In this scenario, the multi-room audio amplifier will function separately from the home theater amplifier, but both systems will utilize the same existing speakers.

Multi-room audio centers around that keypad in the wall. Will multi-room audio control become more flexible and versatile in the future?

Absolutely. In fact, it already has. We recently introduced our Wireless Control Pad, a device about the size of a smartphone that breaks the existing paradigm of a dedicated in-wall controller for each zone. With the Wireless Control Pad, you can walk through the house and control whatever zone you’d like, even if you aren’t in it. In addition, the new music server I mentioned earlier will even allow you to control the multi-room system from a web browser. And we also are open to control from third-party home automation systems. It doesn’t need to be that “keypad in the wall” anymore if you don’t want it to be.