When you’re looking at Audio equipment you’ll hear the terms ‘Audio Zone’ and ‘Audio Rooms’ a lot. Sometimes even interchangeably, although that’s not totally accurate.

It’s a simple thing but really helps to understand so you can design your audio system the way you really want.

So let’s take a real quick look at both.

Audio Zones

A zone of audio is an area where all speakers work together.  Each speaker comes on at the same time, plays the same music, and runs at the same volume level. You control all the speakers in a zone together.   Volume up turns all speakers up. 

Changing the music selection changes it for all speakers in that zone. There’s no limit on the number of speakers a Zone can have.  And… while I don’t recommend zoning multiple rooms, there’s no limit to the number of rooms a Zone can cover.

Audio Rooms

An audio room is just like it sounds. It’s one room of Audio; so your Master Bedroom is a room of Audio. Normally a room of Audio gets one ‘pair’ of speakers.  It takes ‘2 channels’ from your Amplifier to power the pair of speakers.   When you’re shopping for Amplifiers, it will often say something like ‘6 Room Amplifier.’ That means it has 12 channels, 2 per room, for a total of 6 rooms.  

Smaller rooms like a Laundry Room often use a single speaker called a ‘Dual Voice Coil.’  This is a special speaker that has a stereo sound even though it’s just one speaker. It still requires 2 speaker cables, and 2 channels of amplification from the Amplifier.

Separate Audio Zones click image to enlarge
Control via Savant App click image to enlarge

Hardware for Zones and Rooms

This is an oversimplification, but an Audio Switch manages Zones, and Amplifiers manage rooms (channels). Sometimes designing your system by zones can give you greater flexibility and even save cost on the overall project.   Larger rooms like a large rec room, game room, or maybe a covered deck, often benefit from having multiple pairs of speakers.  

The extra speakers help generate a more even volume level throughout the space, and a noticeably better listening experience even for the non-audiophile.   Let’s look at the Covered Deck example.  You have 8 speakers spread across your covered deck.  You use your Smart Home App, select Pandora, and tell it to play out to the deck.  

The Audio Switch sends Pandora to the Covered Deck Zone. Then the Amplifier, uses 8 channels to power the 8 speakers.

So Why Does This Matter?

You’re probably still wondering why this all matters?  Let’s look at the same example of a covered deck, but with Sonos Amps. A Sonos Amp has 2 channels. If I want to power the covered deck, I would need to use 4 Sonos Amps, or $1,996 for that one ‘zone.’  

Now the benefit is that I can break the Covered Deck into 4 zones, and play each zone by itself, but you can see how the cost adds up quickly. Running the covered deck as one zone will almost certainly save you money.

Splitting A Zone With Volume Controls

Another way of zoning is to split a shared zone with volume controls.  I’m not a fan of this approach at all, but there are applications where it makes sense.   The most common place I see this, is with the Master Bathroom and Master Bedroom.  There are 2 pairs of speakers.  One in the bedroom, and one in the bathroom.

Clients start to see they can save money by combining the two rooms into one zone.   But when someone takes a shower early in the morning with, the person sleeping will hear. Because it’s a zone, all speakers in the zone come on together, and all speakers in the zone play the same music at the same volume level.  

So one way to make this work is to add in volume controls for both pairs of speakers.  Using the Sonos example again, you can use one Sonos Amp, and power both pairs of speakers.   When you turn on the zone both bedroom and bathroom get power and music. However, the person taking a shower can use the volume controls to turn the bedroom volume down, and the bathroom up.  

Now understand the volume here is 100% manual control.  You’re selecting your music from the app, and you can set the master volume via the app. But you can only control the room’s volume at the volume control.

Important Note on Volume Controls

Sonos is a 1 Room Amplifier. It’s not an Audio Switch, and it really isn’t built to Zone audio. But we can cheat the Sonos amplifier with Volume Controls, and make it manage two zones. So people start thinking that Sonos can manage zones.   But its’ just a hack. Now on the other end of the spectrum, people hear about using something like Sonos and Volume Controls to split a zone, and they assume Volume controls work with any system.

Volume Controls don’t work with every audio system.   Some systems like Sonos will accept a Volume Control. Other systems like Autonomic will not support ‘analogue’ volume controls. It will actually burn the amp. You have to use ‘digital’ volume controls, and they’re almost always proprietary to the manufacturer of the audio system you’re using.

So if you’re thinking about using Volume Controls in your Audio Design, be sure to verify the Volume Controls will work with the Audio equipment you’re purchasing.

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If you’re looking for help designing an Audio System, let us know.  We now ship Audio Systems all over the US that you can self-install.

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And if you’re looking to design a little more intricate system, check out our Design Service.

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Matt Montgomery, TYM, Salt Lake City, Ut

Matt has designed the audio/video and smart home automation systems for 4 Home of the Year Awards projects from Electronic House & CE Pro magazine, and 3 Mark of Excellence awards from the CTA™ (Consumer Technology Association), including  "Home Theater of the Year", and "Custom Smart Home of the Year". Watch Matt share his secrets on YouTube!

Matt is a Golden State fan.

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