Posts Tagged ‘gadgets’

Cheap alternative to multi-zone audio amplifiers

In the home audio project I’m working on, I need to support 5 stereo audio zones (I guess earthlings would call it “rooms”). One of them is the living room, so I want to re-use the same speakers and amplifier I’m installing for the home theater system.

I wrote here a little bit about how I chose the home theater amp.

After spending some time on ebay, here’s what I found:

  • Multi-zone amplifiers (10, 12 channels etc) are very expensive. Not an option.
  • 5 stereo amplifiers is also not an option. Too wasteful in energy and space.
  • Surround amplifiers come in 3 flavors: 5 channels, 6 channels and 7 channels (“what about the dot-one” you ask? well, a “5.1” amplifier is almost always a 5-channel, and the 6th channel – LFE – is amplified by a dedicated subwoofer amp). There’s also 8 channel amps, but these are relatively new, so I couldn’t find any second-hand.
  • Two of the living room speakers double as speakers for the audio system, the other three are used only for home theater.

It’s easy to see, as my combinatorics TA would say, that the optimal solution is to use a 6-channel surround amp for 3 audio zones, and a 7-channel surround amp for another audio channel + the living room (switching between surround and stereo audio). Should be easy, and since I’m perfectly good with 10-year-old used amps (as I wrote here), should not be expensive.

So I bought a wonderful 2002 Marantz SR5200 6-channel amp for the first 3 zones. I hope the  cabinet will be strong enough to hold it, as it weighs a tonne, but it’s an excellent amp for my needs, which I bought for a mere 500ILS (about $130).

As for the 7-channel amp, after some reading I figured out a Denon 7.1 receiver will be a good choice: they all seem to have equal power to all channels (mostly 7x80w), they have analog fail-over when they don’t receive digital signal (which I intend to repurpose for automatic switching between TV and audio), and they support “Zone 2” – the ability to have it act as if it were a 5-channel amp and a separate 2-channel amp. And, used Denon amps are abundant, so it should be easy to find a good one in Tel Aviv.

And I did find a guy, here in Tel Aviv, who sells a Denon AVR1709. 500ILS ($130). Or, he thought he was. He was actually selling an AVR1905. No biggie, all I cared was it’ll have 7x80W and “Zone 2”. I didn’t care about the HDMI support of the 1709, and I hope I can manage without its automatic calibration.

Total expense: 1000ILS ($260).

HT amps are just wrong

I hate home theater amps.

Nothing personal, I just think they’re the paramount of bad UX. It feels they were designed for early adopters – audioholics, audiophiles and other types of geeks. People who want the super-huge 50-button remote control. People who wouldn’t be frustrated when their popcorn gets cold while they figure which preset they wanted to use for their movie (if they ever find the remote, anyway, because it’s hiding so deep inside the sofa cushions).

Huge amplifier remote from Yamaha Huge amplifier remote from Pioneer Huge amplifier remote from Onkyo Huge amplifier remote from Marantz Huge amplifier remote from Harman/Kardon

Anyway, my in-laws, who’s home is the victim of my multi-zone audio/home theater project, are not early adopters. They definitely don’t want a 50-button amplifier remote in their living room. I definitely don’t want them to have a 50-button remote, because 49 of those are the wrong key, and if any of them is pressed – they’d call me to fix it.

You don’t need to be a usability expert to figure out, that 90% of these buttons are redundant – the features people actually want to use on their HT systems are on/off, volume control and input switching. And maybe they can even do without the power control.

Now, you have your TV remote anyway, and it’s supposed to do input switching and volume control. Why can’t you use it?

I think this is an archaic leftover from the early days of home theater, when amps supported surround sound and TVs didn’t. So amps were in charge of input switching, and were wired between the sources and the TV. Of course, this meant the amps also needed to support video switching (and then HD video switching, and then HDMI… so people also needed to upgrade their amps every few years).

But today many TVs have “Variable digital surround output”, that goes through the TV’s input selection and volume control. So you can connect your TV directly to its sources, and connect its output to the amplifier. Now, the TV remote control does the input selection and the volume control, and 0% of the amplifier remote is actually used (just put it away!). How’s that for usability?

This opens up an interesting opportunity. Because, if you’re not using your amp’s video switching capabilities, you don’t care about HDMI 1.3 and 1080p video support. Hack, you can buy a top-quality 2002 amplifier instead of a mid-range 2012 model, and it will cost you much less.

The main disadvantage of this setup is if you want to use your amp for music, when the TV is off. If you’re dependent on the TV for input selection, you’d need to turn it on for selecting the audio source.

However, if you have only one audio source that you’d want to listen to when the TV is off, there is a solution. Most (maybe all) amps have automatic detection of digital inputs, and switch to analog inputs if they detect no digital signal. So if the TV is hooked to the digital input, and the audio system (CD? multi-zone audio server?) connected to the analog input, you can set up your amp to automatically switch between them when the TV is turned off and on.