Technology has taken music in the home to a new level with clients now expecting the very best in sophisticated solutions. We explore the latest in products and systems to help you deliver the ultimate auditory experience
by Claudia Baillie
Podcasts in the kitchen, radio in the bathroom, and playlists at the bottom of the garden – how and where people access audio is changing, and the demand for both quality and flexibility is on the up. “People expect high-resolution sound in multiple zones, as well as the flexibility to listen to different things simultaneously,” says Peter Miller, client sales manager at London-based integration company Cornflake. “Open-plan living means the kitchen is a more popular place than ever to listen to music, while people also want pre-set radio in the shower for example.” With this in mind, when beginning a project, understanding how a client consumes music is key. “Do they mostly listen to background music, or are they a real connoisseur who gets home and relaxes with a spot of Beethoven,” asks Giles Sutton, managing director at award-winning technology company James & Giles. “Do they listen through a streaming service such as Spotify, or have a big collection of CDs? These details will all help to determine the type of equipment specified.”
Wired or wireless?
It is possible to retro-fit a wireless solution using a multi-room streaming system such as Sonos. However, solid concrete walls and metal panels can affect the way Wi-Fi travels through a property, and how good the signal is in rooms further away from the router. If the signal is weak, installing a series of Wi-Fi extenders will create additional network access points to ensure the signal remains strong throughout all rooms the house. Problems can also arise when connecting to Wi-Fi in an apartment block where shared channels enter the building, or when several devices – for example a laptop, smartphone, and tablet – are competing on a private Wi-Fi network. With this in mind, a hard-wired system will always create a much more stable connection. If a wired system is to be installed, consult an audio solutions provider at an early stage. Contact CEDIA, the more 3,700 member-strong international trade organisation for the home technology industry, to find a qualified provider.
Multi-room streaming systems
Due to its user-friendly interface, plus the fact that it is Wi-Fi enabled and can easily be integrated in existing properties as well as new builds, Sonos is a popular multi-room system. Products such as the Heos HS2 by Denon, as well as more expensive devices by Scottish manufacturer Linn, who makes specialist kit for use with high definition music, are in the same category. All of these can be connected to any speaker system. Cable quality is also important. “Your system is only as good as its weakest link,” Jonathan Bennett, marketing director at Q Acoustics, says. “You can have a great system and fantastic speakers, but cheap cable will mean information from the original source is lost, particularly over a distance.” Voice-controlled systems such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple Homepod, and Sonos One control music as well as providing smart home and information services. ‘The issue is Alexa will only play music from Amazon or Spotify for example’ says Peter Miller. “So at the moment they are somewhat limited.”
Ripping CDs on to iTunes is common practice, but many people are unaware it removes around 70% of the audio data. “In order to fit thousands of songs on to your computer, files are converted to low-res MP3s,” says Peter Miller. “It’s great if you’re listening on a phone, but played through high-end speakers the difference will be quite dramatic.” The same is true of Spotify, which streams compressed files. “While younger customers are usually happy to dip into playlists via this method, older or more dedicated music fans may prefer a higher quality sound through a service such as Tidal or Deezer,” says Robin Courtenay, managing director at custom electronic design company SMC. These offer high-res FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) CD-quality files and negate the need for physical CDs. If a client is keen to keep a personal library, a conversion method maintaining the original CD quality can be used to save them to a central server. Hard drives from 160GB up to two terabytes can store 2000-3000 CDs, and are relatively cheap. Both Naim and Linn also produce high-quality kit that can capture CD sound with compressing the information.
Speakers: concealed, statement or both?
“Around 80% of our projects feature ceiling speakers, as most clients want something discreet,” says Giles Sutton. “You can have speakers that are plastered over, making them completely invisible. Manufacturers including Triad and Artcoustic also produce designs in any RAL colour, so they can be colour matched to your paint.” Flush designs work best in kitchens, where freestanding speakers might be in the way, or in bathrooms where IP-rated products can be used. A step further along the line are design-led speakers, such as the BeoSound Shape from Bang & Olufsen. “This is a great example of a manufacturer looking to create a quality product that becomes a feature in the space,” says Sutton. “You can arrange the wall-mounted modules in any configuration, and choose from a range of Kvadrat fabrics.” Products like this, Jonathan Bennett adds, “also have a very European feel. In that sense, they become a lifestyle product, almost like a gorgeous piece of furniture.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum are top-of-the-range freestanding speakers from manufacturers such as KEF, Q Acoustics, Bower & Wilkins, Vivid, Bang & Olufsen, PMC, Wilson Benesch, McIntosh, and Meyer Sound, which often come from a studio background. “These tend to be used in dedicated music rooms by serious audiophiles,” says Peter Miller. “There may be acoustic treatments in the space, and along with expensive cabling and amplification devices, they give a much higher-quality sound.” Vinyl has also seen a huge resurgence in popularity, particularly among music aficionados who want to listen to whole albums rather than playlists. “A turntable would ideally be paired with speakers facing the cross section where you sit,” says Jonathan Bennett. “This is the difference between sitting and really listening, versus an overarching entertainment system that runs throughout the house. In this scenario the sound experience can be truly phenomenal.”