Using a Speaker Selector Switch for Whole Home Audio
I’ve written much about whole-home audio distribution, but one of the easiest and least complicated ways you can get audio throughout a home is through the use of a speaker selector switch. These switches allow you to route a single audio source (and sometimes more than one) through a switching system that distributes the audio to various speakers or speaker pairs throughout the home. In this way you can choose, or select, which areas of the home you want to have audio. While simplistic, there are things you want to take into account when using these devices so that you use them properly and also maximize the way you distribute audio to various speakers in your particular application.
Typically, a speaker selector switch is placed after an amplifier or AV receiver, so that it can take a source—be it a radio, iPod or other streaming music source—and pass that on to speakers throughout your house. These are typically passive devices intended for use with already-amplified speaker-level signals. This also means, of course, that you’re only going to get so much mileage off a single amplifier or AV receiver.
If you’ve ever had “a friend” who’s taken an amplifier or receiver and connected every speaker he ever owned to it—only to find that the amp got really hot (or worse, burst into flames) you will begin to understand why you may need a special device to facilitate your desire to send audio to multiple locations. You see, a speaker selector switch does two things (actually it potentially does a lot more, but let’s stick to the two main duties): 1) It distributes audio, and 2) It makes sure that the overall speaker load isn’t going to cause your amplifier or AV receiver to overheat and shut down.
Options and Controls
Speaker selector switches can range from handling two pairs of speakers all the way up to 8 pairs of speakers or more, but they all work in basically the same way. They turn on and off pairs of speakers in the system, and they may or may not adjust the volume for each pair. More sophisticated models may even support more than one source, serving as a sort of matrix switcher for routing any audio to any pair of connected speakers. These are rarer, however, and for the most part when you hear of speaker selector switches you’re looking at a system that sends audio to one or more pairs either independently or at the same time (think of the difference between moving your music from the office to the garage vs. wanting all speakers playing simultaneously for a party.
Connecting a Speaker Select Switch
Hooking up a speaker selector switch to your system is child’s play as you can see in the diagram below. All you do is feed it a powered output and then choose which zones to send your audio to. In this first diagram, we show a simplistic speaker selector configuration with integrated volume controls:
If your speaker selector switch lacks volume controls, then all speaker pairs will be raised and lowered whenever the output volume of the amplifier or AV receiver is changed. This can be problematic for scenarios when you have differing speaker efficiencies and impedances. To make it a tad more complex, this next diagram has us adding volume controls to each room in the system. In this way each room gets its own volume control and the speaker selection switch merely distributes the source to each room. You will want to avoid doubling up on the impedance-matching properties of the speaker selector switch and simply use a switch since the impedance matching will be done in the volume control modules in-room:
Obviously, a huge benefit to this type of system integration is that you can control the volume on a per-room basis—and right from the room itself. This is one of the least expensive methods of achieving whole home audio that you will find.
The Basics of Connecting a Speaker Selector Switch
You really are just wiring the system whereby the speaker level outputs of your AV receiver or amplifier get connected to the speaker level inputs of the selector (see the diagrams above). Then, you take the outputs of the speaker selector and route them either directly to the speakers in your various rooms or the volume controls which feed those speakers. Since everything is speaker-level wiring, you do want to make sure you pick up a spool of 14AWG (2-conductor) or 16AWG (2-conductor) wire to handle all of the individual runs you need. If you’re not sure what gauge speaker cable to use for your application, see our article entitled What is Speaker Cable Gauge?
As a general rule, remember that many in-ceiling and outdoor speakers use spring clips or other cable connection systems that are not really designed for 12AWG cables. You may simplify your life greatly just by using 4-conductor 14AWG cables on runs less than 50-75 feet in length. And remember, these systems work in pairs, so you are making four individual cable runs at once for each zone. With even a small house and a few rooms, that can add up very quickly once you factor in the walls and any non-direct routes you may need to take. Depending on how far apart your speakers will be in each zone, you may also want to look into CL2 or CL3-rated cables that contain two pairs each (commonly referred to as 2-pair or 4-pair). Running two pairs at once may save you some hassle, but if you do have significant separation, pulling wires from two spools and taping them together can yield a similar time-savings.
Label Those Cables!
Since you’re bringing all of these speaker cables back to a single location, labeling your cables is of the utmost importance. Labeling your speaker pairs with “bedroom 1”, “kitchen”, “den”, etc will enable you to have a much easier time wiring up your selector when you’re ready. It will also allow you to make equipment upgrades and modifications without having to go through the trouble of identifying each zone all over again.
Limits of AV Receiver or Amplifier Power
Because these are simplistic analogue devices, and because they serve to level the impedance of all connected speakers to your AV receiver or amplifier, speaker selector switches have limitations as to how much amplification power they will accept. All that means is that they aren’t designed to get placed downstream of a dedicated 300 watt-per-channel powerhouse that’s cranked to maximum output. Most switches are rated for anywhere from 60-120 watts given an 8-ohm load.
Choosing the Best Speaker Selector Switch
To end up with the best speaker selector for your application, start by reading our article titled Wiring for Whole Home Distributed Audio and then come back here and answer the following questions:
- How many speakers and zones do I have or need to support?
- How much amplifier power does the speaker selector need to handle?
- How and from where do I want to control the volume?
- What gauge wire should I use?
After answering the above questions, it’s a matter of making your purchases and picking up the appropriate amount of cable to wire everything together. Choosing the best speaker selection switch can turn your home theater into a whole home audio system—or at least get you into the game. From there you can decide how you want to improve the way your system works and even choose whether you want a more sophisticated control system to give you additional flexibility in creating an environment where you can send audio anywhere you want it and at whatever levels you desire.
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