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Home Audio Installation: Install a Whole-House Audio System

Run wire and install speakers and distribution modules so that you can control music by remote control throughout the house.

How to install a whole home speaker systemFamily Handyman
New high-tech components make it easier than ever to install your own whole-house audio system. We'll tell you what to buy and show you how to run the wires and mount the speakers and controls. The rest is simple plug-in hookups.

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Time
Multiple Days
Complexity
Intermediate
Cost
$501-1000

Get familiar with the whole home speaker system

Figure A: Audio system components and locations

This simplified drawing shows a possible simple set up of the audio system.

Note: You can download and print Figure A from the Additional Information section below.

Keypad

Amplifying keypad and speaker Keypads amplify the sound signal and send it to the speakers. You can control the speaker volume by pressing the keypad or by using a remote control. The keypad also relays infrared remote control signals back to the system components, allowing you to change songs, switch from a radio station to a CD player, or activate any other command available on your receiver’s remote control.

Speaker

Special speakers from the kit are controlled with the keypad or remote.

Audio source distribution module

This module mounts near the components. Connect the output of your component to the input of the module with standard RCA jacks. The module converts the signal and sends it along a standard Cat-5e cable to the distribution hub.

Close-up of distribution module

The module sends the signals to the distribution hub.

Audio source distribution hub

The distribution hub divides the signal from the audio source module into outputs, in this case for four rooms. Run a Cat-5e cable from an output to the amplified keypad in each room. A transformer plugs into the distribution hub and provides low-voltage power through the Cat-5e cable to the keypad amplifiers.

Optional connection for iPod or MP3 player

Installing a universal input module before the keypad in any room allows you to use the keypad and speakers as a single-room stereo system. Just plug your iPod, MP3 player, portable radio or computer into the RCA jacks on the module and it’ll play through the speakers. Install the universal input module in a convenient location, near the computer for example. Run the Cat-5e cable from the panel distribution module to the universal input module first. Then run a Cat-5e cable from the universal input module to the keypad.

Bringing music into every room isnt the complex, high-cost project it was several years ago. Now, thanks to simplified systems, you can easily install speakers and remote control access throughout your house for a modest cost. Well tell you what to buy and show you how to run the wires and mount the speakers and controls. The rest is simple plug-in hookups.

The whole-house audio system were showing in this article uses a technology called A-BUS. A-BUS technology uses a standard Cat-5e cable (four-pair communication wire) to carry all the signals from a central source. The wires carry audio signals to each room, where theyre amplified to speaker-level audio by the keypads. In addition to amplifying the sound signals, the keypads transmit infrared remote control signals back to the audio equipment source. Anything you can do with your source equipments remote control, you can also do from any room that has a keypad.

With this system, the audio source chosen from any one room plays in all of the rooms. Systems that allow you to play different audio sources simultaneously are significantly more expensive and complicated to set up, and we wont deal with those in this article.

Speaker System for House Parts

A-BUS components are available from many manufacturers. The Channel Vision kit we purchased includes speakers and controls for four rooms and cost about $1,000. Youll also need Cat-5e cable, speaker cable and a few other parts that weve listed in the Additional Information section below. Keep in mind that you wont get rock the room amplification like you would with powerful amps, but its plenty loud enough for average listening.

The hardest part of this project is running the wires without tearing up walls and ceilings. If you live in a single-story house with open floor joists over the basement or crawlspace or if you have easy access to the attic, then fishing the wires will be straightforward using the techniques we show in Photos 3 and 4. In this situation, youll come close to finishing a four-room installation in a weekend. But two-story homes and homes without basements or attic access present unique wire-fishing challenges. You may have to spend a little more time fishing wires and patching walls and ceilings. Youll need a drill and 3/4-in. spade or auger bit to bore through framing members. An electricians fish tape ($12 to $15) is handy for pulling wires through the walls (Photo 4).

Connecting the equipment is straightforward and only requires a few tools. Youll need a scissors or side-cutting pliers to remove the cable sheathing and trim the wires. Buy a punch-down tool ($4 to $6) to press the wires onto the punch-down blocks (Photo 7).Youll also need a wire stripper ($12) to remove insulation from the speaker wires.

Choose the best locations for the home sound system components

Locate the panel distribution hub on a wall in a room thats easy to reach with wires from every room (Figure A). Put it right next to the audio equipment if you want. We chose a spot on the basement wall. Keep in mind that youll need an electrical outlet nearby to power the transformer.

Keypads are most convenient if theyre mounted near the light switch at the entry to the room where youre locating the speakers. But youll also want to make sure to place them in locations that allow easy wire fishing from the panel distribution module and to the speakers. Make sure theyre in the line-of-sight from where you plan to use the remote control.

You can mount speakers in the ceiling or walls. For the best sound, place wall speakers about a foot from the ceiling and centered on your listening position. Locate ceiling speakers above and to the side of your listening position. For example, in the dining room, the ideal location for ceiling speakers would be centered above the table and about 8 ft. apart

Cut the holes for speakers and keypads

Photo 1: Cut the hole for the low-voltage box

Choose a location for the keypad and trace around the box, making sure to mark the notches for the clips. Probe for obstructions with a stiff wire, then cut along the lines with a drywall keyhole saw.

Photo 2: Cut the holes for the speakers

Mark both speaker locations with masking tape and probe for obstructions. Trace around the template and cut out the opening with a drywall saw.

Dont cut any holes for keypads or speakers until youve located framing members with a stud finder and probed the wall for obstacles. Mark framing members with blue tape. Then push a stiff wire (a cutoff clothes hanger works great) through the drywall to feel for obstacles like electrical cables, heat ducts or wood blocking. Avoid exterior walls because theyll be packed with insulation. For round ceiling speakers, bend the wire at about 4 in. Push it into the center of your desired speaker location and spin it to see if anythings in the way. When youre confident that the space is clear, use the template included with the speakers to mark the hole, and cut it out with a keyhole saw.

Photos 1 and 5 show the installation of a low-voltage remodeling box (available at most home centers and hardware stores). After tracing the box outline, cut the hole carefully so the box fits tightly in the drywall. There isnt much room for error. Pull the wires first, then mount the boxes. Itll be easier to reach into the wall and grab the fish tape or string.

Fish Cat-5e to the keypads and speaker wires to the speakers

Photo 3: Pull the wires through the walls

Poke a reference wire through the ceiling, then in the attic find the wire and measure over to find the center of the wall. Drill a 3/4-in. hole down through the top plate. Drop a weighted string through the hole. Attach the cables and pull them up into the attic.

Photo 4: Pull the wire from below

Push a reference wire through a small drilled hole along the baseboard. Measure over from it and drill a hole up through the bottom plate. Push a fish tape (or stick) up from below. Attach the cable with tape. Pull the cable down through the hole.

Photo 5: Pull the wire through the box

Slide the low-voltage remodeling box into the wall and tighten the screws until the clips are snug to the drywall.

For this system, youll need to run one Cat- 5e cable from the distribution hub (Photo 10) to each keypad location. Youll also need to run one Cat-5e cable from the distribution hub to a Cat-5e modular jack located near your audio equipment. And finally youll run speaker cables from the keypad location to the speakers in the same room. Use CL-2 speaker cable. Its rated to run inside walls.

Photos 3 and 4 show how to reach interior walls from the basement or attic. Use a coat hanger or other stiff wire as a reference point to locate your drilling spot. Snip off a 10-in. length of coat hanger wire and tighten it in your drill chuck. Then, from inside the room youre fishing to, drive it through the wall or ceiling next to where you want to drill. Locate the coat hanger from the basement or attic and figure out how far to shift the hole in order to come up inside the wall. Drill the hole and youre ready to fish the cable. After pulling the wires, seal the holes with foam or insulation.

To maximize the efficiency of the Cat-5e cable, its important to take a few precautions when youre installing it. For the best performance, follow these guidelines:

  • Make bends gradual with no less than a 12-in. radius.
  • Pull gently; dont tug the cable.
  • Support it with special cable staples made for communication cables.
  • Cross existing electrical cables at a right angle. Never use the same holes or run the new cable side by side with electrical cables unless theres a 12-in. separation.

Connect the wires

Photo 6: Leave about 6 in. of wire outside the box

Strip off a few inches of sheathing and pull the exposed string (unzip) to expose another 2 in. of wires. Snip the sheathing. Clip the wires to 2 in. and untwist the pairs.

Photo 7: Match the wires to the keypad

Lay each wire into its corresponding groove on the back of the amplified keypad and punch them down with the punch-down tool. Trim the ends of the wires with a scissors or end cutter.

Photo 8: Connect the speaker terminals

Strip 3/8 in. of insulation from each speaker wire, twist the strands together and push each wire into the speaker hook-ups (red to positive and black to negative). Tighten the screws. Plug the block into the keypad and mount the keypad in the wall box.

Photo 9: Install the speaker

Strip the speaker wires to expose about 3/4 in. of stranded wire and connect them to the speaker. Press the speaker against the ceiling and tighten the screws until the clips are snug to the drywall.

Photo 10: Prepare the Cat-5e cables

Run the Cat-5e cables through the attic, crawlspace or basement to the distribution hub. Prepare the Cat-5e cables using the technique shown in Photo 6. Punch them down, using a separate block (labeled 1 through 4)

Photo 11: Punch down the wires

Run a Cat-5e cable from the distribution hub to a low-voltage remodeling box located in the wall behind your audio source. Strip the sheathing and punch the wires down into the terminals of a Cat-5e module jack. Use the ‘A’ wiring pattern. Snap the jack into a cover plate and screw the plate to the box.

Connecting Cat-5e wires is easy. You simply remove a section of the plastic sheathing, untwist the pairs of wires, and use a punch-down tool to push them onto special punch-down blocks. You have to be careful not to nick the tiny wires when youre removing the sheathing, though. Thats why we recommend the unzipping method shown in Photo 6. Photo 7 shows how to punch the wires down onto the keypad connectors. The wiring order is indicated by small icons with color codes written on them. The slanted lines indicate striped wires. Line up each wire with its matching icon before punching it down. Use the same punch-down technique to make connections at the distribution hub (Photo 10) and at the Cat-5e modular jack (Photo 11).

Strip the sheathing from the speaker wires using the technique shown in Photo 6. Then strip and connect the wires (Photos 8 and 9). Make sure the bare stripped section fits completely into the holes with no bare copper showing. Connection details may vary slightly from one manufacturer to another. To prevent heat loss through the ceiling, build a sealed enclosure over the speaker from drywall scraps or foam insulation, taped together with foil duct tape. Then cover the enclosure with insulation. Wall-mounted speakers will sound better if you plug the stud space above and below the speaker with fiberglass batts.

Connect the equipment with standard cables

Photo 12: Connect the audio source with RCA cables

Connect the source distribution module to the jack with a Cat- 5e patch cord. Connect to the audio source with RCA cables.

Photo 13: Plug in the IR emitters

Position an infrared (IR) emitter over the IR receiver of each audio source component you wish to control from the amplified keypads. Plug the IR emitters into the source distribution module (Photo 12).

Photo 12 shows how to connect the source module. You can connect any audio source to the module. If youre connecting a receiver, plug the RCA cable into the tape out outputs on the back. With this setup, youll be able to listen to any component (CD player, radio or turntable, for example) thats plugged into the receiver.

If a component has remote control capability, you can control it from the keypads. But first you have to stick a flasher in front of the components infrared (IR) receiver. This isnt as complicated as it sounds. Photo 13 shows how. You may have to experiment a bit with the placement of the flashers, since its not always easy to spot the exact location of the IR receiver on the equipment.

The Channel Vision remote control is programmed to operate the keypads, but you have to teach it to send IR signals to the other components. Instructions are included. You can also use your own learning remote or programmable remote, but youll have to use the Channel Vision remote to teach it to control the keypads.

With a little luck, youll turn on the music and everything will work perfectly. If it doesnt, you most likely have a loose connection or mixed-up wires. Double-check all your connections. Be sure the wires are punched down completely and connected in the right order. If youre still having trouble, contact your salesperson for help.

Figure B: Wiring Diagram

This is what you’ll need to get tunes in all your rooms.

Note: You can download and print Figure B from the Additional Information section below.

Additional Information

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you startyoull save time and frustration.

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Cordless drill
  • Drill bit set
  • Drywall saw
  • Dust mask
  • Electrical tape
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Safety glasses
  • Stepladder
  • Stud finder
  • Tape measure
  • Utility knife
  • Wire stripper/cutter
Punch-down tool, Fish Tape, 3/4-in. auger bit

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • See Materials List in "Additional Information"
  • You'll also need a plywood panel and mounting screws.