Several Smaller Audio Systems Are Better Than A Whole-house System

Why having multiple audio systems throughout the home is a greener alternative to a single whole-house audio system.

When I managed a large computer network which spanned several buildings, we planned our server locations very differently than conventional wisdom would suggest – they were distributed to several locations rather than in one central “super” data center. This was a conscious decision because we wanted to guarantee greater up-time. Aside from considerable cost savings, this model had several advantages: little beyond standard cooling was needed, no large power backup systems were needed, and if one location went down, it only represented a percentage of our network, so people could continue to work – we supplanted this with considerable redundancy so that downtime was often not even noticed – there was never one single-point-of-failure. Most importantly, because of the lower cooling and power requirements, it was more green. So this makes one wonder if this same principle could be applied to a home’s audio / video needs. Hmmm….

The Single Point Of Failure Problem

I have a good friend who had a very nicely integrated whole-house sound system with a large amp and centralized management – very sophisticated stuff. However, when his amp overheated due to electrical problems (we do live in SoCal, after all), he was without sound for months as the cost of repairs/replacement seemed to be insurmountable. Additionally, this sophisticated system that was originally purchased at premium  prices was now worth far less due to advancements in technology, and replacing it would be another considerable investment. This was a classic case of single-point-of-failure. It bears noting too, that even while it was operational, the whole house system also required a significantly larger amount of energy on average because even when one wants to listen in a single bedroom, the whole system needs to be on.

In contrast, I’ve followed the distributed model in my home. I have a separate sound system in each room. Granted, not all of these are the most energy-efficient (i.e. my surround sound system uses extremely power-hungry planars), but then I don’t need to turn this system on when I just want to listen in the dining room. Right off the bat, it’s more energy-efficient. As an added bonus, if one system is down, I can still listen to music or watch movies in another room – not ideal but workable. Even when my pre-pro in the main TV room went on the fritz, I used one of my spare 2-channel preamps while the unit was being repaired. It wasn’t surround sound, but we could still enjoy a movie.

Other advantages of Distributed Smaller Systems

  1. It allows me to try different equipment and to try different pieces in different combinations to see what sounds best
  2. It allows me to custom tailor each system to the room because what works in a large living space may not work in a small bedroom
  3. I don’t really have any heat-problems, even in my home theater / planar setup
  4. While it does require a bit more equipment over all, the equipment itself does not need to be complex because it has a more specialized purpose (rather than a jack-of-all-trades / master-of-none)
  5. These more specialized pieces tend to be less expensive
  6. The pieces and even whole systems are more movable – if I re-arrange a room or have some construction done, I can more easily move things as they are simpler, smaller, and modular
  7. If I grow tired of a piece, I can resell it on the used market and find another (and used the other systems while I do this)

I’m sure I could think of a few more advantages, but you get the general idea. It does require a little more work to get this all set up, and I realize not everybody has the time, but for most folks in the audio hobby already, this is a small price to pay for greater flexibility. Just one question remains: does it stand up to our 7-point GreenHiFi rating system?

Comparing to the Whole-house Super System using GreenHiFi Ratings

Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation (+1)

It needs less energy because I only need to turn on those parts that I’m using in that room, whereas a whole-house system has to be on everywhere all the time. As for heat, even with one or two high-powered systems, the heat is distributed to several locations around the house. This typically does not require additional cooling, thus also reducing power requirements.

Product Quality and Simplicity (+1)

Because the pieces are more specialized to each location, they can be simpler and of higher quality. This also contributes to a longer-lived product.

Adequate Packaging (-1)

Well, this would not be a green advantage. More equipment requires more packaging and more shipping (i.e. more green-house gasses).

Toxicity of Components (0)

While this is obviously dependent on the type of equipment purchased, the fact that it is more specialized, of higher quality and simpler, this does help reduce pollution in the production and disposal of the equipment. It also is less likely to off-gas during use. That said, because more equipment is needed, those advantages are diminished, hence the (0) rating.

Labor Relations (+1)

This has two parts: the labor to produce the equipment and the “labor” to own it. For the first part, if I am concerned that the equipment is of higher quality and simpler, then I would typically also take the time to ensure that it is from a company that has better labor relations. Moreover, since I would typically purchase the system in parts, I would have something in place to listen to sooner, so this would take some of the pressure away from a rushed purchase, which would give me the time to research the product and company further.

As for the “labor” to own it, a sophisticated and complex whole-house system is more likely require a specialist to set it up – if it requires construction into a specialized space, that would also require non-technical labor, some of which may be unfairly treated. I could do this myself, but then I put myself at risk. However, a simpler and more specialized system for each room is less likely to need this and I could do this myself more easily. If so, then the issues with labor are likely to be less acute.

Product Recycling (+1)

Again, because the product is likely to be of higher quality for all the reasons listed above, then I could also take the time to ensure that the manufacturer includes a recycling program in place. As for the additional packaging that is required to ship more equipment, I could take it upon myself to recycle it, maybe better than a company would. Finally, if the manufacturer does not take back the equipment, I could still take it upon myself to ensure that it is repurposed, disassembled and/or recycled properly at the end of its useful life.

Fair Pricing (+1)

Because I would be buying more pieces, over a longer period of time, I would be better able to ensure that the product is priced fairly in comparison to the competition. Also, a single super-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink system is going to have less competition – there will be fewer choices and so prices will be high across the board. It will be stuffed with features and buttons, most of which will seldom be used, but they will still increase the product’s price. This is all less likely in simpler and more modular products.

Total Score: +4

Conclusion: Distributed is Liberating

It all boils down to being able to get products that I can take more time to select and configure over a longer period of time. This gives me choice and freedom, and who would not want that. And just so that I don’t come off as being completely off my rocker, the trend all over the country is distributed rather than consolidated. Just consider the desire for people to buy local, to bank at smaller banks rather than big multi-nationals, to install their own solar panels rather than purchasing electricity from large power companies, and to favor simple Apple iPhones/iPads over big PCs with too many features. Even in the home, distributed power, heating, and cooling systems are being adopted. One interesting new trend is to install small in-line water heaters under the kitchen sink and the bathroom tub rather than wasting gallons waiting for the water to warm up.

Yes people, being green is to favour specialized, simple, distributed, modular, and quality products over the bloated super-everything systems of the last century. Even millionaires drive Priuses! Don’t agree? Then drop me a note below.