Leon's Weblog

May 9, 2012

Multi-Room Audio from an HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 1:22 pm

One of the design goals for my media center was to include multi-room audio so that I can play the same music in both my living room and the terrace when guests come over. I had already setup an HTPC which contained all of my media and configured XBMC to play it nicely. The next stage in the project was to have a way to stream the music outdoors without adopting an entirely new system.

Alternatives
The simplest implementation would have been to run speaker cables from the receiver to the outside terrace. I didn’t like this approach because it would require drilling holes in a masonry wall and would limit the speaker placement. I also found that there is a limitation on my receiver of playing digital content (HDMI input) on “zone 2” speakers (a limitation that is apparently imposed by many receiver manufacturers). Finally, since I didn’t intend to leave the speakers outside as permanent fixtures, I thought that a more flexible/wireless solution would be more appropriate. I considered a wireless HiFi system like Sonos but did not want to invest in an entirely new setup of dedicated speakers and players.

Solution
I set out to find a pair of portable powered speakers that I could use outside as needed. The Audioengine A2‘s fit the bill quite nicely [note 1]. Plus, when not in use outside (i.e. most of the time) I could use them to upgrade my PC speakers. This worked out great because the pair of A2’s produced a lot more power at noticeably better clarity than the 5.1 setup I had before. I also bought a stand for these speakers which I find very convenient.

While looking for the speakers, I found that Audioengine also makes wireless audio adapters. It was an awkward time because their W1 model was being phased out and the new W3 was not yet available to purchase. Since the reviews for the W1 model were universally positive, I decided to wait it out a few weeks to get the W3 (which Audioengine mentioned is not backwards compatible with the W1 adapters). Other manufacturers produce similar products but judging by the quality of their speakers (ahem… the 5.1 setup that I recently threw out) I figured that this would be a better quality product.

The W3 adapter worked great [note 2]. No trouble transmitting though a brick wall, and no interference with other devices sharing the 2.4 Ghz frequency band (LAN, house phone, microwave, neighbors etc…). However, there were a few challenges to get the adapter working in my setup. First, as I described above in the problems with a wired setup, my receiver would not allow me to use the “zone 2” outputs. I would also have to mix using the pre-amped outputs for the wireless speakers and the remaining outputs for the wired passive speakers. To avoid this mess and to limit any potential loss in quality from changes in format (digital media on HTPC –> analog on receiver –> digital audio adapter sender –> wireless to adapter receiver –> analog to speaker output) I plugged the W3 transmitter directly into the HTPC USB port. This worked well but presented another obstacle. In Windows 7, you can configure only one default audio output device at a time and, since the W3 works like an independent sound card, I could not output to both the receiver (via HDMI) and to the wireless speakers simultaneously. This would defeat the purpose of the setup if I had to switch between either sound card manually. It also left me wishing that I had stuck to Linux as the HTPC operating system (Windows has this limitation by design so there is no expectation for Microsoft enable this functionality). One workaround available is to use the Virtual Audio Cable driver to act as repeater (VAC would act as the default driver and would be configured to output to several devices) but this software is not free. Fortunately, I found a patch for XBMC that allows it to output audio to 2 devices simultaneously. Problem solved. The icing on this cake is that there is a free XBMC Remote app for Android that allows me to control what is playing using my phone outside on the terrace [note 3].

So it all this worth it over a packaged product like Sonos. I think so. At $350, you are getting a much cheaper solution with room for scalability and customization.

  • Note 1
    The Audioengine A2 were well packaged and constructed. They are surprisingly heavy for such small speakers and are plenty loud when plugged into the sound card from my PC; however, when using an MP3 player as a source, the volume had to be nearly maxed out to fill a 20′ x 20′ room. It took more than 10 hours of playback to burn the speakers in (before that the output was heavy on the base). The only complaint that I had was that the speakers came with a defective mini jack cable so I had no audio on one the right channel until I used a better cable.
  • Note 2
    The Audioengine W3 were a lot smaller and lighter than I though they would be (as flimsy plastic boxes with a USB plug at the end). Aesthetics aside, they worked as expected. No setup required at all whether playing from a PC source using the USB plug or from a mini jack input. It takes just a few seconds for the sender and receiver to find each other. The light weight and small size makes it easy to plug these just about anywhere. The W3 caused no interference with other wireless devices in my apartment; however, I had to plug the sender 6 inches away from the PC’s wireless card and wireless keyboard dongle cable (otherwise the audio still played without a problem but my wireless keyboard became non-responsive). This was noted in Audioengine’s FAQ. Audioengine does not specify a latency for the W3 but it is noticeable (it is nearly 1 second; but, to be fair, that could be caused by my PC). In my setup, I can’t hear the indoor speakers and the outdoor speakers at the same time so it is not a problem. As for audio quality… well, I could not tell a difference between using the wireless connection and hard wiring A2 speakers. For higher-end speakers where the audio quality would be noticeable Audioengine makes a higher-end wireless adapter that streams a 24-bit signal instead of 16-bit.
  • Note 3
    I cannot say enough great things about the XBMC remote app. The entire media library is listed on my phone with images, summaries etc… Using the volume rocker on the phone to control the volume in the room is a nice touch.

1 Comment »

  1. Wireless speakers are nice but the only drawback for it is the use of batteries which only adds cost and maintenance.

    Comment by Adrian Kunselman — October 9, 2012 @ 6:46 am

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