I’ve benefited tremendously from the information and expertise shared on this forum but have selfishly returned little. So this is a loooong “give back” from a guilty lurker! Let’s jump into the nuts and bolts and I’ll save a little philosophy for the end.
I recently completed a total “rip out and replacement” of the audio side of my A-V environment. This was a Russound WHA system that I installed 11 years ago when we built our house. AV tech and solutions have changed so much in that time frame that my original decisions now seem almost laughable! Those were the days before network enabled equipment, smart phones, apps, streaming services …
Note that I’m breaking this into 2 parts (since it’s absurdly long). In this first part I’ll describe the context of my application, the original Russound system solution, and the eventual Chromecast Audio replacement. In Part 2 I’ll go through some of the specific evaluations and decisions I made along the way – Google vs Amazon, CCA vs Sonos, and multi-channel amp options.
In the Beginning …
Here were the original system specs (23 zones):
13 Stereo Zones
3 Home Theater Zones Surround Zones
7 A-Bus Stereo Zones
I installed almost 60 in-wall, in-ceiling, diplex, surround, subwoofer, and outdoor speakers and ran over 10 miles of wiring. That sounds like a lot until you start subtracting out all the stuff I no longer use – component video cables (pre-HDMI), coax TV cables (pre-cord cutting), CCTV coax+power (pre-IP camera). There was also a bunch of fire/alarm/ sensor wiring. Fortunately, I did run lots of Cat 5/6 cable (WAY more drops than I've ever used), and I home runned all the speakers (except for 3 zones - which came back to haunt me later). Everything terminated in a dedicated wiring closet.
The Russound gear consisted of 2 CAV6.6 controllers (6 zones each + A-Bus), 1 R1250 12 channel amp, 12 Uno keypads (single line display), 7 A-Bus amp’d keypads, an ST2XM tuner for XM / OTA radio, and a HTPC serving up the ripped mp3’s. I don’t even want to think about how much this all cost “back in the day”! For audio content I was relying on a large library of CD’s (which turned into ripped mp3’s) and XM Radio.
Mission accomplished … sort of! We could play any of the source material in any room (or rooms). We could locally switch sources and control the volume using the keypads. The limits of a single line display quickly became apparent – it just wasn’t very useful! It worked best for confirming the source and for selecting XM channels. It wasn’t effective at all for selecting artist/album/song title. So all the expensive keypad gear really just became glorified on/off, volume, source selectors.
Version 2.0 …
Jump forward a few years and along come smart phones and streaming media apps … That totally changed the way we consumed and interacted with all our media and made the audio system in the house even less satisfying! Outside of home we rarely listened to our CD/mp3 content, and I only really listened to XM in the car. Instead we became Spotify/Pandora/podcast addicts and really craved the same rich user interface that we experienced on our phones & tablets while we were at home. Something had to change!
I initially added a single Sonos CONNECT as a source input to the Russound system. Now listening to music became a 2-step process. Use the Russound keypad to turn on the zone and select the source. Then immediately jump over to a phone/tablet/computer and fire up Sonos to navigate streaming source and content. We found quickly that the Sonos became the only source we ever really used. This worked OK for multi-zone (any room) but not well for multi-source (only 1 Sonos!). I strongly considered adding more Sonos CONNECT’s to give us more flexibility, but at $350 a pop it was an expensive option. And I still had all the Russound infrastructure getting in the way. I really wanted to replace the whole system but couldn’t find an option that really matched up to our wants/needs. Which leads to ...
Decision Time …
I had learned a lot along the way about what we liked/didn't like and what we used/didn't use. So I tried to realistically narrow down the priorities for a system replacement …
- We enjoy a wide range of music styles and hugely enjoy the streaming world of Spotify, Pandora, etc. For us nothing is more gratifying than going on an "Easter egg hunt", finding a new artist or song, pulling up all the details, and immediately adding it to our playlists, followed artists, saved library, "radio stations", etc. Being able to play locally sourced (CD/mp3) material would be a bonus, but not one that we would use very often.
- We know that the rich interface provided by apps like Spotify and Pandora can never be matched by any amount of "metadata" on keypad displays (no matter the $$$). We also tend to want to take our “controller” with us as we roam in and out of the house and from room to room. We are not only fine with smart phones & tablets as controllers, we prefer them. Oh … then there’s also voice command 😊
- After having a house full of keypads, we know we don’t like them! We are fine with controlling volume through the same device we are using to control content (see above).
- We most often only play music locally in a single room at a time. We do like the ability to let different users select different sources while in different parts of the house. We also want something simple enough for kids and guests to use. Finally we do want to preserve the ability to play the same source in multiple rooms using user defined “groups”.
- While I appreciate audio quality, I’m not playing source material through an expensive dedicated audio system in an optimized space. I am using good (to very good) quality speakers, but this is a whole house application.
- I am an avowed (more like fanatical) DIY’er! I won’t even consider solutions that require a dealer for purchase, installation, and/or recurring programming.
- I want a solution that is modular so that I can change out the sources, amps, etc. separately in the future as new things show up. “All in one” systems offer convenience, ease of installation, and stability, but you are locked into a total (often proprietary) solution if you ever want to upgrade.
- And of course I didn’t want it to cost anything (dream on ...)! Realistically, I’ve found that I trade off how much I spend on a tech solution with how long I feel I’m stuck with it! For me it’s never just the up front cost, it’s how soon I want to upgrade or play with a different solution.
Your mileage may (and should!) vary. This was my shopping list …
Enter Chromecast Audio!
I kept watching developments in WHA systems, hardware streamers, software solutions, etc. but nothing ever really checked all my boxes. Then I remembered my friends at AVS Forum! Searching started turning up mentions of using Google & Amazon devices for WHA applications. Ultimately I found Mike’s thread at https://www.avsforum.com/forum/36-hom...use-audio.html
and had my “eureka” moment (thanks Mike!). Although I confess I had a huge mental battle with "can it really be that simple?" ...
From the beginning I planned on this being a total replacement for the current equipment. I started by pulling out all the Russound keypads and blanking over the openings. I also stripped out the CAV’s, Russound Amp, XM Receiver and patch cabling out to all the keypad locations. The only original hardware left were the 3 A-Bus wall panels (more on that later).
Here was the replacement equipment list …
13 CCA Pucks (Multi-Channel Amp Zones) = $35 x 13 = $455
1 CCA Puck (A-Bus Source) = $35 x 1 = $35
3 CCA Pucks (H-T Receiver Zones) = $35 x 3 = $105
17 CCA Ethernet Adapters = $15 x 17 = $255
3 Dayton MA1260 12-Channel Amps = $600 x 3 = $1,800
Russound A-H4 A-Bus Hub (+ Existing In-Wall Keypads) = $150
Ethernet 24-Port Switch = $80
14 CCA – RCA Cables = $5 x 14 = $70
3 x CCA – Optical Cables = $5 x 3 = $15
Total CCA System Cost = $2,965
I also ended up picking up a Google Home Mini ($49) and an Asus ZenPad 8 ($125) to evaluate as options for front end control (in addition to our phones). Before you ask about the A-Bus hardware, remember my initial stupid decision not to home run speaker wiring to 3 of my zones (all guest baths)? I couldn’t access these areas to retrofit with direct speaker wiring, so I still needed a way to support A-Bus. Which set me back the extra $150 … lesson learned!
I’ve attached pictures showing how this all turned out.
- Pic 1 shows the 14 CCA pucks feeding the Dayton amps and A-Bus hub. If you pay close attention you can see I have trouble with labeling my "6's" and "9's" - ugh!
- Pic 2 shows part of the CCA Ethernet Adapters. There are actually 3 "banks" of these. I added a dedicated switch close to these to minimize patch cable runs - it links back to my main network switches.
- Pic 3 shows the back of the Dayton amps. Some of the CCA's directly feed specific Zones and some tie to the bus inputs on the amps. Looks like I've got 1 amp zone left ...
- Pic 4 shows the front of the amps, Ethernet adapters, and swich. All the amps are in "sleepy" mode since I'm not driving anything.
Bottom line this has been a great project and delivered exactly what we were looking for at a cost that was a lot less than I expected! We don’t miss the keypads at all and find our music search and playback experience a lot easier and more intuitive than it was before.
Here are some candid observations after living with things for a relatively short period of time. If I’ve missed anything on this part of the write-up please just let me know! I’m happy to share any of our personal real-world pluses or minuses ...
- Setup: While initial setup and configuration of all the CCA’s was tedious (17 of them!), it wasn’t difficult or complicated. I used the Google Home app to initialize each CCA, assign a name, and tweak the sound settings (Full Dynamic Range). Once all the CCA’s were configured I then created custom Groups for multi-room playback. All the CCA’s fed into the Dayton amps via RCA – either directly into a Zone or through one of the Dayton’s buses. One CCA fed the A-Bus hub and three were connected to H-Theater receivers via optical input. I linked Google Home to my Spotify and Pandora accounts. I didn’t have to do any setup on these apps installed on our phones and tablets
- CCA “Organization”: I originally wanted to stack all the CCA’s together neatly (to appease my inner neat freak). I find that they do intermittently generate a fair amount of heat, so I just ended up “spreading them out” since I have plenty of room.
- Signal / Control Stability: I can’t say how the system would have performed if it was all wi-fi based. I can say that with everything connected via the CCA Ethernet adapters it has been rock solid and very responsive – no strange drop-out’s, freezes, or buffering delays.
- Groups (Simultaneous Playback Across Zones): The CCA’s perform flawlessly when playing the same source together as a multi-zone Group. I’ve output to all 23 zones simultaneously (whole house!) and cannot detect any lag as I walk from room to room. Unless I throw a party for the entire neighborhood I probably won't use this "everything everywhere" option, but it is admittedly cool!
- Multiple Zone Playback (Different Sources): It is entirely possible to play back different content in different Zones (rooms) at the same time! This is largely limited by the number of different devices you have that can start a casting session. I’ve used the Asus tablet in the Kitchen to play one Spotify account in that room, my phone to play a second Spotify account in a different room, a Google Mini to play Pandora in a third room, a different Google Mini to play iHeartRadio, my wife’s phone to listen to a podcast – all at the same time. What doesn’t work is to try to use the same device to start multiple casting “sessions” in different rooms. For example I can’t use my phone to play one source in one room and a different source in a different room.
- Complexity: This is a lot of “moving parts”, but the user experience/interface doesn’t feel that way! Direct casting from Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and other native streaming apps works very well and is very intuitive for selecting playback to Zones/Groups. The Google Home app adds an additional level of control in case I need to “tweak” the volume level for each room in a Group. I’ve been able to successfully “pass” control from Spotify on one device (phone) to Google Home on another device (tablet). All the individual casting sessions show up as notifications on my Android phone (don't know about iOS) and I can control them from there. Once we understood the playback flow, it has really become second nature.
On the negative side, I find that I do have to rely at times on the Google Home app to stop a casting session. Fore example, I can pause playback in Spotify but that doesn’t really stop the signal (cast). I end up either using the notification widget on my phone or the Google Home app to actually stop the session completely. This is only an occasional issue that I run into if I’m flipping rapidly between different sources/apps while I’m in the same location (zone).
- Control Devices: We typically default to the streaming apps that are already installed on our phones / tablets. It’s the way we intuitively play music now where ever we are, and at home we only have to add the step of selecting the casting destination (Zone or Group). The device volume control logically controls the CCA volume playback. We can walk to a different room, switch casting destinations and the music stops playing the previous room and starts playing in the new location. I’ve placed the Asus ZenPad in the kitchen as a “kiosk”, and we are getting used to walking over to it to browse and search for new music. For “casual” playback we are defaulting more and more to the next option …
- Voice Control: We were so used to directly using our streaming apps to select and play music that I really didn’t think we would use Google’s voice recognition much. Chalk up another wrong assumption for me! We are still just getting used to being able to “ask” for what we want to hear , but we already find it ridiculously convenient. I’m seeding Google Mini’s in the rooms we use most often and have them set to default to CCA playback in those specific rooms. That way we can just ask Google to play a specific album/artist/song and it will automatically play in that room. Otherwise can just specify the name of the destination zone to play in a different room.
- If you do a search across this forum, you will turn up a lot of great CCA threads that expand on other features and capabilities that we really aren’t using (yet) in our application. This includes casting from other sources, using Plex to cast stored media content, other options for “controllers” (low cost pre-paid Android phones), etc.
Parting Thoughts (Finally!) …
I couldn’t be happier with the way this whole project turned out! It isn’t 100% perfect, but I have learned along the way there ain’t no such thing! It will be fun to watch how casting technology, the Google Home, and music streaming services & apps continue to evolve and improve. So whether you are considering solutions for new construction, system replacement (like me), or playing with your first audio zones, here’s my parting “wisdom” (remember what they say about free advice) …
- No solution will be perfect (yes I’m repeating myself on purpose). If you manage your upfront cost, maintain flexibility (especially with wiring), and stick with open solutions then you can roll with the changes.
- You need to be honest with yourself about what YOU (and your family & friends) really want from YOUR system. Always take any advice (including mine!) in that context – it’s your decision! Try not to get hung up on any one “have to” thing – you may miss a really cool option or solution. If it helps, I always find that how I envision/dream I will use a new system is rarely how things end up getting used IRL. That's especially after I spend much time reading these forums ... 😊
- Everything is a trade-off. It is easy (really easy!) to drop a ton of $$$ on A-V systems! That isn’t necessarily better, it’s just more expensive. Know what you want, experiment/play if you can, and pick a reasonable starting point. Plan on learning along the way so you can make even better decisions in the future. The options we have available to us today will most definitely not be the options available in the (near) future.
- Simple is better! If you are like me, you will end up using less “neat stuff” than you think you will, but you will use the “good stuff” more than you thought you would. Extra features, bells & whistles, fancy hardware, etc. are the first to go (if they are used at all). I can't tell you how much fancy/complicated/(expensive) stuff I've stopped using and ripped out over the years. What absolutely does get used and loved is simple, easy access to the music you like where you want it, a rich browsing and search experience, and the ability to just play music (“Hey Google play Needtobreathe on the patio”)!
Huge thanks again to all the contributors! Your help and inspiration have been of far greater value than you will ever know ...