Networked Video and Multi-room Music Systems – Which Solutions Hit the Right Note? Part 2 of 2

A few days ago you might have seen us start to waffle about networked video and multi-room music systems, we came to the conclusion that we were probably going to install hard-wired connectivity though out the Eco House due to concerns over interference.  It should not be as bad as London, but because we are not detached – the issue could still remain…

Music Everywhere

We are still very much undecided about the platform that we want to use for music in the house. The iPod speaker dock is fine for now, but with the limited power output and restriction on song storage it is not ideal, as we have quite a bit of music. We are not audiophiles by any sense – I personally find that name a bit creepy – but quality is important.

Many of the well-known audio brands such as Naim offer networkable solutions, they can be quite expensive though. From initial searching online Naim network streamers start at about £1,150, to then replicate the audio in different zones around the house you also need to buy separate amplifiers and of course more speakers. One thing we did have in mind was that any devices we buy should be able to interface with Apple devices, we are not necessarily Apple fanboys /girls (well I guess we are), but the operating system and device universe is now huge, so there is value in building apps for it. A stable eco-system means that hardware companies will keep up their support for your device. Quite important when you are making home automation investments that rely on them.

So are their alternatives? One company that has been around for a while are US firm Sonos. Its solution is completely different to other vendors in that they produce wireless enabled combined speaker amplifiers not separates. Their products have a minimalist look, minus the retro LCD displays of the like of Bose.

The Sonos Play & smartphone control app

The Sonos Play & smartphone control app

When you buy a Sonos speaker (or network amplifier or pre-amp) a pre-requisite is that you own an iOS or Android smart device or at least a Windows or Mac computer, as that will both be your display and your remote control. The brilliant thing with this is that the beautifully designed cabinets are timeless and your control interface is intuitive and continually evolving.

On paper there are many reasons to choose Sonos, the primary one is that you can effectively install one in every room of your house and control each separately, you can also set your network of Sonos devices to combined mode, so that if you are having a party they all play the some track. To ensure quality sound delivery Sonos has developed its own mesh protocol, which is a proprietary version of Wi-Fi, this means that interference is reduced. A further back up option is that if you have laid Ethernet cable within your property (which we plan to do) you can also connect via this. Further plus points are that you can tune into Spotify,, and even your iTunes music collection hosted on your PC/Mac or NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. Not all are compatible, but well-known offerings from Buffalo, and Apple Time Capsule are.

One thing that slightly concerned me was the audio performance of a combined device, so I recently headed to a John Lewis to have a listen. Personally I like the sound of the Play 5 over its smaller brother the Play 3, I think its that bit richer and more complex. If you are not sure about either, you can purchase the Sonos Connect that allows you to hook up your favourite audio components from the past. This might be something I do for the front room – maybe connecting a pair of old Tannoy speakers I can forage on free-cycle or via some carefully chosen auction on eBay. I might also use a Connect to enable wireless control of some waterproof ceiling speakers I plan to integrate into the wet room.

The Mini Home Cinema

From a movie / TV perspective, we would be going from nothing to something. When I visited the Mobile World Congress last year in Barcelona (a business trip), I experienced the Connected House (a showcase property showing everything that could possibly be networked). Smart TV’s were shown to be accessing locally stored data on a NAS or PC via a power line connection playback being controlled by a media server application that has a mobile or tablet application. Is this all-important? Probably not… But some kind of setup that reduces the number of boxes and control devices required whilst improving usability to the level your mum or nan can use is surely a good thing.

In terms of TV’s, I have often favoured Sony and my latest trip to John Lewis went some way towards confirming that. Many of the TV’s on sales now – even the large ones offer little in the way of audio quality. It appears to be that brands expect you to shell out for a separate surround sound system. Sony obviously offers these too, but after testing a few it seemed that most of their TV’s probably offer high enough fidelity to be used standalone, other contenders include Samsung, LG, Panasonic & Philips…

A further left-field alternative is a second hand Bang & Olufsen panel, Laura’s parents have had a Beovision Avant for years, the screen seems pretty small by todays standards but the picture quality is superb, the same goes for the sound quality, which is epic for a TV! Avants can be bought from second hand specialists from £750, if you are comfortable with eBay they can be had for significantly less there. I think we would install one in a heartbeat if we were not bothered about setting up a connected home, unfortunately there is no HDMI interface (as the screen is not hi-definition), which is pretty important for peripherals these days…

The iconic Beovision Avant

The iconic Beovision Avant

Something that would work though is a 32 inch Beovision 8 (A good size for our compact front room) I found one on eBay for an affordable, but non the less considerable at £795 via a Buy Now listing. This price may be worthwhile to secure an object so beautifully finished… The main reason this model would be favoured over the iconic Avant is that I have read various reports online which show it to be compatible with the Apple TV solution, this ultimately means that you would be able to control a 6 year old TV with your smartphone and effectively bring it bang up to date

It would be great to get your thoughts on the above ideas, I personally love the idea of mixing old AV equipment with new connectivity enablers (like Apple TV). If people took this approach it would boost the second hand market and reduce the number of large TV’s demand, therefore reducing the amount of plastic getting disposed of.


Networked Video and Multi-room Music Systems – Which Solutions Hit the Right Note? Part 1 of 2

Seeing as Laura and I are completely renovating our house, including the electronics, now is also a good time to consider what media we consume and how we plan to do it.

Currently we don’t have a TV, as in many ways we find most of the content a waste of time, every now and then we might watch some interesting documentaries or the latest food show on 4od using our computer, but that’s about it. I guess we mainly use our laptop for watching movies, which means that at the moment we are not getting the full effect, as the sound quality is not amazing and the screen pretty small…In the long run I expect that we will want to watch films in our front room, as the new rear space is geared far more towards eating, listening to music and watching the fire (when we find one we like).

Music is important to both of us too, it keeps us company while we travel and forms a fundamental part to our lives. We want to be able to listen to it anywhere in the house. Currently we have a budget setup, we plug our iPod into our Logitech portable dock, open the BBC Radio App and stream Radio 6 via our Wi-Fi router. Bearing the above in mind, and the potential requirements of owners after us, or those we rent this property too, how should we wire things up?  We asked:

The Cable Guy

The Cable Guy - Dave "Custom" Brown

The Cable Guy – Dave “Custom” Brown

This next bit is not a random aside to the 1996 comedy staring Jim Carey, no sir! It’s the first mention of my Brother on the Our Eco House blog. Hi Dave you’re (kinda) world famous! Every self builder / renovator should try to get as much support and advice from friends and family as possible – even if you take none of it, you feel better after discussing your challenges and concerns. Back to Dave – he’s our IT whiz, day to day he does all sorts of business network installations, from small offices up to football stadiums. He’s there so you don’t pull your hair out when the computer says no.

Having mentioned our plans to him, he said that if we can afford it we should run cat 6 Ethernet cables throughout the house and terminate it in a patching panel much like you may be used to seeing in your company server room. You then connect this to something like a Cisco 16 port gigabit switch, which in turn connects to your cable / broadband / fibre modem.

Home Network Cabinet - Not Good

If Dave doesn’t help, our network cabinet will probably look like this

Home Network Cabinet - The Right Way

The Cable Guy Effect

Why do we need cable connections, what about Wi-Fi? I think the main point is that Wi-Fi works most of the time. But if you have multiple devices streaming multiple things at once, such as HD 3D movies, Wi-Fi sometimes seems to freezes up, if other devices cause interference and therefore data packet loss, things stop working!  Network cables can also be used for controlling lighting systems and other items within the “Internet of things”. You may not be convinced about this idea, but we think that the cost of installing the cabling and wall sockets now is going to be minimal compared to the cost of adding it later if we find things don’t work.  Remember our house is a terrace, so there will probably be plenty of other devices trying to use the same radio frequency as us…