Component Reviews

Xantech Multi-Room Audio System

One of the more feature-rich and cost-effective multi-room audio systems.

Published on May 17, 2011

Xantech Multi-Room Audio System
Xantech Multi-Room Audio System

Xantech Multi-Room Audio System

Xantech LLC
18100 Telfair Avenue, Second Floor
Sylmar, CA 91342
818-362-0353 (voice)
818-362-9506 (fax)
www.xantech.com



MRAUDIO8X8m Eight Zone/Source Audio Controller/Amplifier – $2199 ea.

8 Analog Audio Pair Inputs; 8 Zone Outputs (Expandable to 16); 8 Local Source Inputs; 6 Amplified Zones (35W/ch 4-8 ohms, 55W/ch peak 8 ohms); >96dB S/N; Frequency Response: 12 Hz – 55 kHz (+/- 3dB); <.08% THD; 8 Fixed/Variable Low-level Zone Outputs; PC Programmable; 8 Zone IR Outputs (for local source); 8 Source IR Outputs; 1 Common IR Output; 8 IR Emitters (included); 2 Bi-directional RS-232 Ports (expandable to 16 with Xantech RS2321X8); 8 Trigger Ports; Doorbell and Page Support; 7.5” H x 17” W x 15.75” D; 45 pounds 2-year Warranty.

MRC88DJKP LCD Hard-button Keypad – $321 ea.
Black, Ivory or White; Fits in Dual Gang J-box; Source Feedback and Status Display; Backlit; CAT5 connection on RJ45; 4 Keypads Maximum per Zone; IR Sensor; Direct Source Selection; Power/Volume + and -/Status Buttons; 8 Programmable Buttons; IR Sensitivity Adjustment and Defeatable IR; LCD Backlight Adjustment; 5” W x 1.5” D x 5” H; 2-year Warranty.

MRKP1 Single Gang Keypad – $199 ea.
White; Optional Black, Ivory, Almond Kits; Fits in Single Gang Decora Faceplate; OLED Display with 3 lines of Meta-Data; IR Receiver; Blue or Green Color Text; Source Selection; Volume Control; Mute/On/Off/Menu buttons; Volume Indicator; 4 Keypads Maximum per Zone; 4.7” H x 2.9” W x 1.7” (including faceplate); 2-year Warranty.

XT1 AM/FM RDS Tuner – $449 ea.
Station, Frequency and RDS Information feedback for Xantech compatible systems; 32 Presets; 1/3 U rack width; IR and RS232 compatible; Memory Backup; 62 dB S/N Mono; 55 dB S/N Stereo; .2% THD Mono; .4% THD Stereo; 2 dB Capture Ratio; 6” D x 4” W x 1.25” H; 1-year Warranty.

MRCREMRP Hand-Held Remote – $54 ea.
Direct Source Access; Same Controls as MRC88DJKP; Pre-programmed; 7.125” H x 2.625” W x .875” D; 1-year Warranty.

RC68X IR Remote Programmer – $180 ea.
14,000 IR Codes; Xantech IR Codes; Programs Remotes and Keypads with Other Brand’s Codes; 7.125” H x 2.625” W x .875” D; 1-year Warranty.
ZAKIT Zone Audio Input Kit – $266 ea.
Receiver and Transmitter; Analog Audio, IR and Composite Video over CAT5 Cable; up to 300’ range; Fits Single Gang J-box; 1-year Warranty.
MRCKPSP Keypad Splitter – $86 ea.
Home-run Keypads Work in Same Zone; Additional IR Input; 2-year Warranty.

MRC44CB1 Connecting Block – $54 ea.
Add IR to Keypads; Extend 2nd Keypad to 600’; 2-year Warranty.

Associated Equipment

Paradigm AMS-150R in-ceiling speakers, Bowers & Wilkins Signature 7NT in-wall speakers, PSB Alpha Speakers, Rotel RMB-1066 6-channel amplifier, Furman IT-Reference 20i Power Conditioner, HTPC, Dish Network ViP622 HD DVR, Oppo BDP-80 Blu-Ray Player, Nintendo Wii Game System, Sonos ZP90 Media Player, Universal Remote Control (URC) MX-900 remotes and MSC-400 Automation Controller.
 

Basic Introduction

The last multi-room system I reviewed was almost ten years ago and I’ve been using it ever since.  It was a bit of a bear to set up and has its issues, but it works for listening to different sources and raising and lowering the volume in 10 zones.  It is limited to 6 sources and doesn’t have fancy connections to newer devices like the iPod.  Feedback from the system is missing completely, so there is no way to know the radio station you are listening to much less have any information about the artist or album.

If you are a music lover, you often don’t want to be limited to what part of the home you can listen in and manufacturers have answered this need by offering many options.  An article on what’s available these days and the features offered would be as lengthy as a book.  The amount of choices and complexity of many of the available systems would leave most people at a complete loss.  The Xantech is one of the more feature-rich cost-effective systems and offers good flexibility for most while not costing as much as full-blown custom automation systems like those from companies like AMX and Crestron.

Description and Setup of MRAUDIO8x8

Difficulty Level.  Like many sophisticated products, trying to tackle the Xantech system alone is probably a bit much.  You’ll want to contact one of the integrators in your area to discuss options and have a professional do the hard work.  Even with my years of experience, I was forced to get aid from technical assistance.  If you’re a hardcore DIYer then I’d put this system in the middle as far as complexity goes.  If anything, I hope this review will give those out there an idea of what is available today in a typical multi-room system.

My System.  Much of the hard work was already done for me as I have speakers already installed throughout the house and CAT5 wire run to multiple keypad locations (zones).  Things to consider when purchasing a system of this type is how many areas will have music and how many sources you’ll need.  The old system I used had six sources and I ran out!  I currently have 11 zones with individual controls.  This seemed like a good idea when I designed the system but after using the system for a while I realize that it is overkill and I can get by with less.

Zones vs. Music Areas.  My intention was to combine common areas that are almost always on at the same time (or can be without any issue).  Typically, this is an adjacent area and in my case I combined the kitchen and dining room together and a foyer and music room—it is really just a room with multiple entry points that houses a piano.  Since I already had a separate 8-channel amplifier, it was easy enough to take the output from two of the zones on the main controller (kitchen and music room) and feed these into the separate amplifier.  With the gain control on the Rotel amplifier I was able to set these secondary areas (hall and dining room) so they play at a comfortable level in comparison to the primary areas.  For zone 7 and 8 (these are unpowered) I used the other two sets of channels on the Rotel amplifier.  (Xantech makes amplifiers for this purpose as well, but I already own the Rotel.)

Multiple Keypads.  I had planned to mix MRKP1 single-gang keypads with the larger pads only to find out this wasn’t possible.  You can, however, have multiple MRKP1s control a single zone (up to 4) or use multiple LCD pads as well.  In my house this would have meant having a separate pad in the dining room and kitchen, so I could raise and lower volume without having to walk into the other area.  I’m not that lazy – it’s just that I already had a hole in the wall.  But I much preferred to use the larger controller in the kitchen and music room and it didn’t make sense to have one in the hall and dining room as well, so my system instantly got simpler.  Since I’ve made this change I find I actually like it better.  Whenever we have parties I can just pop on one controller instead of two and have music going.

Video Switching.  I was sent a gaggle of product (by request) to evaluate a full system.  The main unit has no sources included (some units have built-in tuners), so I got a separate tuner component.  There is an option to get MR88 with built-in composite video switching, but the only reason I can see to get this is for video camera capability (like a door camera).  Normally you’d want switching of a higher quality signal and for that there is a component video matrix switcher available.  HDMI switching is possible, but for that you’ll need to get a third party unit and control it via IR or RS-232.  I continued to use my separate remote control system, but it is possible to have the Xantech control external devices easily (like my serial-controlled Extron switcher).

Quick Start Guide.  Although this book is called the “quick start guide” it is longer than many instruction manuals.  It does cover the basics very effectively including: keypad mounting, cable length, speaker wiring, connecting sources, attaching IR emitters and system initialization.  The good news is that right out of the box the MRAUDIO unit has basic functions already programmed.  This means with a source playing you can get sound right away and turn areas on/off, control volume and mute the sound.  Additionally, you can adjust treble and bass, balance, maximum volume and maximum on-volume by following the instructions.

IR Sensors.  When the keypads are installed it is possible to defeat their IR capability.  For instance, the control I put outside and the controls in the bathrooms had IR set to off.  Who needs a remote in a small bathroom with no bathtub?  Outside I was simply worried about interference from sunlight.  The keypads also allow for wiring of external IR sensors.  For instance, in a bedroom, you might have a keypad that is near the entrance, but not directly in line with the bed, and decide to wire a sensor near the television to control the system as well as separate sources (like cable or satellite for instance).

Remote Controller.  Although there is a fairly advanced remote control available from Xantech I opted to get a basic remote and a programmer (and continue to use my existing remotes).  The basic remote I kept in the office (where the keypad is away from my desk) and I often raise and lower the volume with it.  With the basic remote I can turn the zone on/off, adjust volume, select sources and operate some basic functions (play, pause, skip, etc.)  It is relatively inexpensive and handy for basic remote control.  The other unit is more sophisticated and used to teach the Xantech controller commands from 3rd party devices (as well as program certain options into the main unit).  I didn’t plan to use it beyond the programming stage although it could be if desired.

Computer Programming.  Nowadays any feature-rich multi-room system should offer the option to program the system by computer—it’s just easier.  Also, it allows you to save programming in case of a catastrophic failure and/or to program offsite.  The software for the Xantech system is called Universal Dragon (~150MB download) and it’s free (and available to anyone).

Firmware Updates.  The quick start guide goes over the procedures to check firmware version and upgrade if necessary.  It includes basic programming information like how to open a new project, set up a keypad with source control and saving a project.  At this point it makes sense to move onto the programming guide (which goes step by step).

Terminations.  A few more words on some of the connections…you’ll need to terminate the keypad wiring with RJ45 connectors.  These plug into both the back of the keypads and into the back of the controller.  IR flashers are included for each source and there is a common output as well (to flash everything).  Source sensing (via optional modules) is available on all 8 sources and everyone zone offers status input and separate IR input right on the back of the controller.  This means that if you happen to have wired from a zone sensor back to the equipment location instead of to the zone keypad you are covered.  Six of the zones are powered while two are unpowered and all of the zones offer preamplifier outputs (some units don’t).  The amplifier connections are on plastic clips so the wires can be attached separately and then plugged into the unit.  This makes servicing a breeze.

Loop Through.  One of the coolest things in my book is the audio “loop through” feature.  Most units do not offer this and they most definitely should.  If you ever want to have an analog device plugged into a local system and run throughout the house at the same time this is important.  For instance, for the tuner I want to be able to play in the main room as well as all over.  I would have to get Y adapters for the output normally, but with the Xantech I just run a second audio cable out and into the main area.  What about the remote feed from my office computer?  Same thing.  With digital sources there is always an opportunity to run a digital out into a surround receiver/preamplifier and the analog audio to the house system, but what about a turntable?  Nope.  As you can tell I like this feature.

Local Zone Input. Another great feature is the local zone input.  Say you have a DVD in the bedroom and don’t need it to play through the house.  Or, you want the sound from your computer to play in the office, but nowhere else.  This can be done but the local source over-rides source 1 on the controller.  To run audio over long lengths just use a balun (see below for more on this).

Lastly, two units can be connected together with the included expansion cables to get up to 16 zones.

ZAKIT Zone Audio, Transmit and Receive Kit

The ZAKIT has two key purposes: remotely locate source equipment or use a device as a local-zone source.  In my system I have a computer that is remotely located and wired with CAT5 back to the equipment location.  You could also have an iPod dock in a convenient location or a local-zone DVD or cable box and use the ZAKIT.  The kit comes with cables, power supply and sender and receiver units.  The sender and receiver units are in-wall designs and did not come with cover plates (the outer covers around decora switches and outlets, etc.)  They are roughly two inches in depth so you need to make sure if you are going to use an in-wall box that it is deep enough or is backless.

One of the first things I noticed was the fact that the plates are actually metal rather than plastic, giving them a more heavy-duty feel.  They are also labeled “SOURCE” and “SYSTEM” so you won’t get confused about which one goes where.  The power supply connection is at the home location and these will transmit composite video (with female F connection on back of the plate and RCA on front) as well as IR so you can control the device from the main system.  The one thing I didn’t like was that the CAT5 connection was a screw-down strip instead of a standard plug in.  It wasn’t a big deal, but most people will want to terminate cables rather than using the bare wires into the send and receive units.

Range is given as 300’ and the kit includes the mono IR cable, IR flasher and a mini to RCA cable for connecting a typical portable device.

XT1 AM/FM RDS Tuner

I would hardly consider using the term “cute” for a piece of home audio gear, but that is the best way to describe the XT1.  It reminds me of a car stereo (with its plain metal casing) but it’s even smaller.  It’s about 4.5 inches in width so it would be possible to have at least three units side by side and mounted in a rack (and there is an optional 1U rack mount kit from Xantech for this purpose).  It also has holes on top and bottom so it can be oriented vertically and hung on a wall, the back of cabinet…pretty much anywhere.  On the side are the AM/FM and ground connections for antennas and on the back are the audio outputs, IR input and an RJ45 connection.  Included with the tuner are an assortment of parts—even screws, pushpins and cable hooks for neat routing and mounting.  A couple of audio cables are included (standard RCA to RCA as well as stereo mini to RCA).  A stereo output (male) to IR input (female) cable is included to use with a standard IR input as there is no flasher input on the unit.  A DB9 to RJ45 cable is included for connection to the MR88 piece for serial control and feedback.

In the back of the manual are instructions for using serial control as well as the codes for IR that can be programmed into remotes that will accept entry of codes manually.  If it becomes desirable to control more than one serial device Xantech makes a serial router that expands one output to eight.  This makes controlling a large group of serial components easy.

Tuning is available in .1 MHz steps.  I did my testing with an indoor antenna (like all my tuner reviews) although an outdoor antenna will typically improve reception.  The display on the unit is easy to see and turns off with inactivity (no button pushes, etc.)  The tuner has very few controls on the front panel and takes a little practice to work properly.  RDS information is only available on the keypads.  AUTO tuning is standard and the tuning will roll from the end of the band back to the beginning and vice versa.

I was able to receive 32 FM stations and 17 AM stations.  The local jazz station (88.1) is always a hard station to receive without noise and the Xantech was not bad—there was some level-dependent noise, but overall the station was listenable.  AM was nothing to shout about but it was not plagued with undue hum or buzz as some tuners are.

Keypads

Xantech offers a range of touch panel controls as well as a control that will display video (from cameras, etc.)  I was more than happy with the basic hard button controls.  Programming is stored in the controller unit and sent to keypads on startup—no direct programming of the pads is needed.  Each pad can be programmed the same or differently.  If a particular zone has no reason to access a device (or you just don’t want to allow access) you can leave it off.  Buttons can be programmed as macros that execute multiple functions (IR or serial) within the controller.  They can also jump to another page offering additional controls and/or functions.  In the case of the tuner, information is sent back to the pads in the form of station information.

MRKP1.  The small pad is fairly straightforward and perfect for areas where all you need is on/off, volume and source selection.  The only drawback in my system is the need to scroll through the sources to get to the desired one (although you can scroll forwards and back).  They light up nicely, indicate current volume via a bar and you can label each source with up to 8 characters that show up in the electronic display (as part of the programming).  The buttons are flush with the face of the panel giving it a sleek look although some may desire the feel of raised buttons instead.  I never had an issue with operation of this panel during my lengthy testing.  It fit nicely into a single-gang decora cover and was unobtrusive when turned off.

I should mention that when the power is turned on for the first time the keypads are lit up although not on.  A quick toggle of the power will turn this off.

MRC88DJKP.  This keypad was both good and bad.  First of all it doesn’t center in its mount so care must be taken if it is placed next to another standard light switch to make sure it lines up properly.  The next issue I have is that it is big!  Not only is it bigger than a typical two-gang box plate, it sticks out from the wall and looks a little fat.  Super design-conscious people may want to see this keypad in person before they commit.  You are limited to only four characters for the display.  This means you might have to get a little creative in naming keys.  I gave up on trying to come up with a way to abbreviate “Sonos” to four letters and just called it “Net.”  The good part of this pad is the feel of the keys.  They are raised rubber and have a nice, positive feel to the touch.  If you want to be able to easily control a source like a CD player or go up and down channels, etc. this pad will work nicely.  For satellite radio channels you can type names like “rock,” “jazz,” “rap,” etc. and jump right to those channels.

3rd Party Remote Integration

I already have a working remote system that controls a workout room and the bedroom separate from the Xantech system.  However, I wanted to use the Xantech to power the speakers in both of these areas.  As I don’t have keypads in these zones I was using the remote in each area only.  For areas with a keypad as well, this is where the connecting block listed above MRC44CB1 comes in.  It can take a keypad and IR input into the controllers.  This setup worked well for everything except power.  For whatever reason, I was having trouble getting this code to learn into my URC remote (though it had IR codes for it in its library).  I even tried learning directly from the MRCREM but to no avail.  Instead I decided to go serial control.

Once I programmed in the proper codes everything worked immediately.  I never had a problem with operation from that point forward.  Execution was quick as serial control should be.

Sample Operation

To give the reader a better idea of how I utilized the Xantech system and what can be done with it I’m detailing these examples below:

In the bedroom or workout room I was able to send a local IR command to the TV to turn on, a serial command to the Xantech to switch to a particular source and turn the volume up or down, and send RF-based IR commands to devices like the satellite and blu-ray player.

In the office I was able to listen to sound from the computer that was sent via CAT5 as a distinct source to the controller and use the MRCREM remote to turn the system on and raise and lower the volume by pointing at the MRC88DJKP.  I could also change music on the Sonos right through my computer and have the music playing through the speakers in the office.

I could walk into the bathroom and turn on the same music or listen to music from the satellite radio at a completely different volume.

If desired, the Xantech could dim the lights in the living room when I select satellite as the source, drop a projector from the ceiling, power it up, lower a screen and set the temperature for the room as well.

When friends come over and push the doorbell it can send chimes throughout the house, and I can talk to them through the phone (with the optional paging system not described above).

Listening

So I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the system connects, how to operate it and what it can do, but how does it sound?  Very good!  First of all, it sounds better than the last system I was using.  Bass and dynamics are very good and I never had any issues with the sound quality.  Zones with and without additional amplifiers have more than enough power.  The last system occasionally had ground issues that manifested as hum that took many days and hair pulling to eliminate.  This system was clean and noise-free from the start.  I never had any issues with it even after a few power outages due to storms.

Some newer systems are smaller, lighter and cooler due to the use of Class D (switching) amplifiers.  The systems of this type I’ve heard do not sound as good as the Xantech.  In fact, some companies advertise that their better products incorporate conventional Class A/B amplifier designs for better audio performance.  I should also mention that with my past amplifier I needed to run a Middle Atlantic fan system above the amplifier to keep it cool.  The Xantech actually works well enough with some space above and never gets that hot.  

Conclusion

I hate to say it but the one who has been getting the most use out of this system is my wife.  Whether it is watching TV, whipping something up in the kitchen, working out or relaxing on the porch, music is available everywhere and is finally easy to control.  There is hardly any time at all when I’m doing something in the office and the Xantech is not on.  In fact, it has been on consistently while I’ve been working on this review.

When it comes to selecting a system like the Xantech there are a lot of questions that need to be answered beforehand.  Just like planning other big projects in the house it is best not to wait to the last minute to hire someone to “run wires.”  A design needs to be put in place with specific attention to features and cost and needs should be thoroughly discussed with whoever will be working on the project.  For my use, the amount of sources and zones, the quality of sound, the ability to be controlled via serial, computer programmed keypads and the ability to expand and control other subsystems makes this system a solid recommendation.

Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com

- Brian Bloom




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