Plan a Whole-Home AV System

Planning a house-wide audio and video system? This guide will get you started on the path to music and video, everywhere.


Design by DSI Entertainment; photography by Berlyn Photography

Design by DSI Entertainment; photography by Berlyn Photography
By: Krissy Rushing

Imagine pausing a movie in the living room, then starting it at the same spot from the comfort of your bedroom. Or having a party where the music moves with you, playing seamlessly whether guests are in the kitchen, the living room or on the patio. This sort of whole-house AV system distributes sources — such as satellite TV or a DVD player — to different environments or zones, throughout the home. Sources are centralized in one location (known as the "head end"), giving you the convenience and joy of your music, movies and media in any room.

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Planning Basics

To plan for a whole-house system, you will most likely need the help of a qualified AV installer.

Find a location.

The first step is to determine where you want the AV zones and the head end. Josh Christian, VP of marketing for DSI Entertainment Systems, recommends a head-end location with climate control to keep equipment from overheating. You can also purchase a fan or cooling system for $50-$200.

Get the right wires.

After you choose the sources that will go into this centralized rack, it's time to wire. Even if you don't plan to set up equipment right away, wire is cheap enough to install during construction/remodeling to avoid the hassle of retrofitting it later. For video, Christian recommends a minimum of CAT5E wire for distances up to 320 feet from the head end, beyond which, fiber-optic cable is a must. HDBaseT, the latest CAT standard, bundles video, audio connections, Ethernet and up to 100W of power into one cable for even easier installation.

"We commonly distribute pristine high-definition video throughout large homes without any issue using these technologies," says Christian. "You will also need some AV distribution components that can accept the various sources’ signals and convert them to a format that can be sent over this wiring."

For audio, you will need to run in-wall rated speaker wire of the correct gauge to speaker locations. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers from companies like Speakercraft, Bose, Sonance and Klipsch ($100-$400/pair) are a popular choice for whole-home AV because they are unobtrusive and don't need to be plugged into electrical outlets.

Less-invasive wireless ecosystems from companies like Sonos and Bose are an increasingly popular choice, and can be installed for as little as $300 a room. You don't have to run wire to these speakers, but most need to be plugged into an electrical outlet. "I wouldn't go beyond eight wireless zones. The more zones you add, the more congested your wireless network becomes, and both your wired and wireless speeds will slow down," says Christian.

While there are some great wireless systems on the market, they may not be the right solution for those who want top-notch sound quality. "With wireless, there is still a possibility of lost connections, bandwidth limitations and interference problems. Wired audio provides a strong signal path and protection from outside influence. For those with a sensitive ear, a wired speaker solution will provide the best outcome," says Dave Ohlendorf, lead programmer at Bekins.

Control It All

Finally, you'll need a remote control system that can communicate through walls with centralized equipment. Home automation manufacturers like URC, RTI, Crestron, Control4, Savant and AMX have easy-to-use control systems ($250-$10,000 depending on system scope) and apps that transform your smartphone or tablet into a controller. "The control interface is the most important factor. If the user interface is not intuitive and functional, it doesn't matter how well the rest of the components work," says Ohlendorf.

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