A look into multi-zone audio devices, both the past and present, and how they have evolved to make life easier for consumers to play back audio from a single device into multiple rooms.
Introduction to Multi-Zone Devices
Multi-Zone audio is a feature that has been requested in home theater installations for a long time. The reason is quite simple—people want the ability to play the same song, throughout all their various rooms in their house from a single device. This is also referred to as Party Mode, but Multi-Zone Audio works as well, to imply that from a single playback device you can play the same content to multiple locations, or zones.
In the past, this required a more traditional method for doing so, that being through the device itself. Some high end receivers for example, support multiple “zones" in their configuration, where you can connect traditional audio out cables, which then connect directly to that room of the house. Higher end installations could afford the usage of a home distribution system, which would allow any device to transmit the same signal into it, and broadcast it throughout the house. These older methods proved to be costly and required a lot of cabling as the audio cables were forced to run to every room desired.
Evolution of Multi-Zone Devices
With the popularity and growth of Ethernet (or Cat-5) wiring, most homes have been pre-wired with Ethernet in every room of the house. Fortunately for potential multi-zone customers, the presence of IP-based distribution devices has grown significantly in recent years. Sonos is arguably the most popular to date, providing a slick and moderately priced system which allows not only for multi-zone audio playback, but also a portable remote with display that you can thus easily control from anywhere in the house. The way the Sonos and these other IP devices work is simple—they connect either via Ethernet or wireless Internet of your home and each device obtains an IP address just like your computer. From that point, all of the compatible devices can communicate with each other. The benefit of this over traditional method, if supported, is that you can not only have the same song playing in two bedrooms, but since the cat-5 cable supports a large bandwidth of content, can even stream different songs from the same device. The songs are stored on a central computer or server most of the time, so every device in the house shares the same collection. For a full review of a Sonos player, check out: http://www.brighthub.com/computing/hardware/articles/32381.aspx
While Sonos has revolutionized the market, other players have been released taking advantage of the IP-technology to fit an audience with less of a budget (Sonos setups start around $1000.) Logitech (http://www.slimp3.com/ )recently purchased the creators of the “Squeezebox" which has been around quite some time. What initially began as a simple 20x2 VFD Display device that connected to your home network, has now grown into a full suite of devices, from the same simple black with green text display device showing the songs, to an advanced device with full color artwork and an amplifier, to even a graphical remote that controls each device. Where the Sonos sells itself in a bundle of sorts, the Logitech pieces allow for more growth, as you can buy pieces separately and grow your system as needed.
Multi-Zone Made Easier
The offerings of Logitech and Sonos are just a few of the many companies out there taking advantage of the IP technology, and the reasons are obvious. Most homes are being wired with Internet, and even those without will most likely have a wireless router. Why invest the money to hard-wire analog or other distribution cables throughout a house which will be limited in its technology. Besides the music itself, these devices can be controlled from any other IP-based remote control (even your laptop), and offer a much more attractive interface. Where a traditional multi-zone audio setup would just have a small LCD keypad in each room to control the music, these new devices allow for full cover art browsing and control—which besides being more efficient and attractive, also will impress visitors that much more!