Thanks to the wonders of modern music technology, you no longer have to sit motionless on the sofa while two oversized speakers batter your ears into submission. Fork out for a decent multi-room music setup and you can listen to Stravinsky in the study, The Beatles in the bedroom and Garbage in the garage. A multi-room audio system frees you from listening to your digital music collection in the room where you keep your hi-fi. It's one of the cornerstones of the digital home. What's more, you can link up your whole house without breaking the bank (or angering your wife/husband) because whatever your music needs and whatever your budget there's a system out there.
Multi-room systems are usually based around some kind of hard disk music server. This box digitally stores all of your favourite tunes, and then uses Ethernet or Wi-Fi connections
to push that music around to the other rooms in your home.
The advantages of this are huge - you no longer have to spend hours trying to find exactly the CD you want, or run around tuning every stereo in the house into the same radio station. Better still, different members of your household can listen to their own favourite tracks using individual room-based keypads/adapters, amplifiers and speakers, or listen to playlists that you've created. It's a great solution for parties!
High-end vs low-end
On the following pages, you'll find our pick of the best multi-room audio options available today, plus we've listed their key features, advantages and disadvantages. On these first two pages you'll find the Champagne Charlie 'high-end' options. These include the big-guns: the SoundServers and the MusicCASTs, which range in price from $2000 to $11,000. If money is little or no object, then invest in one of these systems and you'll get a powerful system that our Custom Install section would be proud of. In contrast, on the last two pages we've highlighted the leading DIY PC or Mac-based alternatives. If you have room for improvement one of these systems will fill it.
1. CAMBRIDGE AUDIO AZUR 640H
Ostensibly a budget CD player with built-in 160GB hard disk, the Azur 640H boasts an Ethernet port and Wi-Fi support, which enable multiple 640Hs to be networked together. Cambridge reckons you can run up to 16 640H clients from the master unit, and each 'slave' unit is capable of handling another 16 devices - enabling you to network up to 255 rooms in total. You can use the 640H to listen to tracks stored on your PC or Mac, and there is support for a wide range of audio codecs including unprotected AAC (MP4), MP3 and unprotected WMA. You can even create your own CDs, using the built-in CD-R/W burner.
One of the more affordable high-end options and it is packed with features.
You have to buy a lot of extra boxes to create a true multi-room system.
2. IMERGE SOUNDSERVER S2000 MKII
$5335 to $10,999 www.imerge.co.uk
This slim silver box is available with a choice of 80GB, 160GB or 250GB hard disks, plus support for anything from one to four other rooms, although your choices are fixed at buying time and can't be changed later. To network the SoundServer, you'll need to buy additional NP200 Network Audio Players for each room (which cost $1599 apiece) and then add localised amps and loudspeakers. Although the SoundServer primarily uses analogue audio connections, you can stream music wirelessly by plugging a third-party Wi-Fi router into the Ethernet port, and then configuring each NP200 Player.
Stylish, sophisticated and great sounding. The SoundServer can also be controlled by your desktop PC, laptop or PDA.
Extra room amps and speakers required; no built-in Wi-Fi as standard, only supports PCM and MP3 playback.
3. LINN KNEKT KIVOR INDEX 250
Linn is the daddy when it comes to multi-room audio systems and the Linn Knekt Kivor Index music server is available in the widest choice of capacities (this is the price for the 250GB version), with the most expensive variant delivering nearly a terabyte of space. That's enough to store all your music in uncompressed PCM form. Unlike its bigger Kivor Tunnboks cousin, the Index is configured to deliver music to up to eight different rooms out of the box, so all you need to add are control pads, amps and speakers - which Linn also sells - in each of the rooms where you want to listen to your music.
The best sound quality for multi-room audio.
Extraordinarily expensive, but this is a company that also sells $30,000 CD players.
4. LIVING CONTROL AFINITY 240G
$TBA (Â£2950) www.livingcontrol.com
Based around the 240GB MusicBox 3, Living Control's yet-to-be-released Afinity (sic) serves up a complete multi-room solution including distribution to a choice of four or six rooms (via the RoomBox 4 or RoomBox 6) from six different sources in your main hi-fi setup. All you need to add are individual VideoPad controllers, plus local room amps and speakers, and you're set. Heck, Living Control can even sort out your movie and TV needs via its RoomBox 6CVX, with video feeds for the system being delivered by high quality analogue component video connections. Wireless distribution for audio is a possibility, although you'll have to add a third party router to achieve it. This limitation should change later this year when Living Control launches a revised and possibly renamed version that proposes to include Wi-Fi audio networking - we'll bring you more news on this when it has been confirmed.
The Afinity is easily one of the most elegant, sophisticated and affordable multi-room systems around. It's easy to operate and extend later too.
Like many of the other systems here, the Afinity currently lacks built-in Wi-Fi and can get expensive once you factor amps and speakers.
5. OPUS TECHNOLOGIES 500 SERIES
Designed to be affordable and easy to install, the Opus 500 Series delivers a DIY version of multi-room that concentrates on music distribution rather than playback. That means you'll have to add music sources like a CD player or HD music server, but in return you get all the amps, speakers and keypads you need to send music around your homeâ€¦ and you get a lot for your money. Even the basic package gives you enough to deliver music to four different rooms and another four sub-zones, so you can pipe music to your main bedroom and an en-suite, for example. You can also network MCU500 Master Control Units together, giving you a maximum of 24 zones plus 24 sub-zones or enough for 48 rooms.
The 500 Series is cheap and can be upgraded to include video distribution; PC control.
Uses proprietary connections that lock you into Opus format; adding Crestron/AMX control requires additional hardware.
6. YAMAHA MUSICCAST
The world's first true Wi-Fi hi-fi, the MusicCAST proved something of a revelation when it was launched last year, delivering multi-room for the 'rest of us' in a coherent, integrated and user-friendly package. One year on and it's still just as important, although it's also in need of an overhaul. The MusicCAST's 80GB hard disk no longer looks quite so generous, and its built-in 802.11b router is practically pensionable. Still, what other system can pipe wireless audio to up to five different rooms, and still have the oomph to carry your tunes to another two rooms via Ethernet? Not many. We also love the fact that the optional room clients ($1499) are equally easy to integrate, and that Yamaha also sells matching speakers ($199).
Seamless to integrate and to use, the MusicCAST really is the benchmark by which other multi-room Wi-Fi hi-fis are judged. Sound quality is good too.
Yamaha's qualms over copy-protection means no copying tunes directly from your PC; no support for WMA or AAC.
7. NETGEAR MP101
Netgear's Wireless Digital Music Player is a chunky old campaigner, but while it's limited in scope, the $229 asking price makes it a tempting option if you're looking to buy in bulk as it means that you can set up a whole-house audio system for less than $1150. Like the Squeezebox, the MP101 is an audio-only adapter promising plug-and-play operation. Install the server software on a song-stuffed PC, and plug the device into a stereo via the L/R audio leads and the two should happily link together via either a wired or wireless connection. We say 'happily', but this isn't always the case - we've often had trouble establishing a network between device and PC, and when things do go wrong, the meagre instruction pamphlet is not much help. Some readers have also told us that the server software is consistently flaky. We say that this device is ripe for an overhaul.
The cheapest device here; Rhapsody internet radio support; decent digital display and 802.11b playback performance.
Can be tricky to set up; prone to crashing and the server software is unreliable.
8. ROKU SOUNDBRIDGE M1000
The M1000 easily beats Apple's Airport Express gizmo when it comes to piping your iTunes music collection from a Mac to a hi-fi or fridge-top stereo. The two failings of Airport Express are its lack of a remote control and the absence of an LCD screen. The SoundBridge adds both of these things and packages them into a beautiful brushed aluminium tube - if only the Squeezebox looked this tasty. Best of all, perhaps, linking this device to a Mac is far easier than setting up the other PC-only boxes here, and the result is a solid delivery system for crisp and satisfyingly weighty streaming audio. Happily, it's also PC compatible (and there's a bigger M2000 version for $400 more), but it kicks off the argument that the Mac would make a far better media server than the PC. We don't doubt that Steve Jobs knows this tooâ€¦
Excellent sound reproduction; easy set-up plus a superbly designed chassis make this a must-have accessory for computer-based multi-room.
It won't play back DRM-protected files from the iTunes music store, but its Plays For Sure logo ensures Windows Media 10 DRM support.
9. SLIM DEVICES SQUEEZEBOX2
Hook this compact box up to a wired or wireless network, and it can be configured to access music stored on a computer's hard disk and streamed through a stereo system or TV. Plus it includes 802.11g and the ability to act as a wireless repeater. No walkthrough required: connect the Squeezebox2 to a stereo via its audio left and right jacks, install the companion software and you can browse your entire My Music collection using the remote control. Internet connectivity can be extended to any room so your Playstation, Xbox, VOIP phone, and home theatre PC can be connected to your network without Ethernet cabling - and that means music files to be synchronized to as many as 50 rooms. Despite the odd dropped connection, the Squeezebox2 is a capable solution for anybody who wants to stream audio content from a PC or centralised media server.
Simple to set up, the Squeezebox2 does everything
you ask it to, and it's a cheaper way to pursue the multi-room ideal.
There's no support for DRM-protected files; it doesn't work with networks encrypted using the WPA protocol.
10. SONOS NETWORKED DIGITAL MUSIC SYSTEM
The system itself consists of several ZonePlayers that you locate where you want to listen to your music, and a main controller box that allows you to select the music where you want it to be played. The controller resembles an iPod (maybe Apple wasn't looking), and you'll find yourself picking it up just for the hell of it. Hook each ZonePlayer up to a set of speakers and away you go - instant multi-room music.
This system is so good you'll find excuses to get up in the middle of the night to listen to it. It works without the compromises of other equivalent solutions - your entire music collection is accessible wirelessly in any room you want it, and to send audio to another room you simply add an extra ZonePlayer and speakers. It also allows you to stream internet radio and line-in sources to any ZonePlayer. The design is fantastic, and you don't need a degree to operate it - unusual for a wireless device!
Effortless streaming; good file support; gorgeous design; multi-room capability.
No support for DRM-protected files; relatively pricey.
WHY DON'T MANY OF THE SYSTEMS HERE SUPPORT PROTECTED FILES?
The record industry remains jumpy about the sort of devices that can play back downloaded music files. Tracks bought from Apple's iTunes store will only play on an iPod - Apple has yet to license its FairPlay DRM technology. Meanwhile the Windows Media 10 approach is aimed at handheld rather than multi-room devices.
CAN A WI-FI MULTI-ROOM SYSTEM BE HACKED?
Most of the DIY options here do include 64-and 128-bit WEP support to enable you to encrypt your network traffic. This should keep your music away from prying eyes. The more expensive multi-room systems don't have this problem as they use wired connections.