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Rank Newbie Needs Advice on Distributed Computer Music/Media .... Please Help!


helenek

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I don’t know if this is the appropriate forum for the following, somewhat large question, so please feel free to direct me elsewhere as appropriate.

 

We are rebuilding our home and are at the studs/open wall stage. It is a 2200 sq. ft., 3-storey, semi-detached townhouse … the house is only 12 feet wide, but each floor ranges 65-70 feet in length. Because it is 3 floors, we’d like to have a music distribution system installed. The $64,000 question is … what music distribution system?

 

We currently have a standalone stereo system consisting of: Linn Kan bookcase speakers, NAIM amplifier, NAD AM/FM tuner, Denon single disk CD player and Rega turntable … this system is about 18 years old. We listen to classical music and opera about 60-70% of the time, with the rest of the time being pop, jazz, rock … you name it. We do not own an iPod. We do have a Windows XP laptop computer and a high-speed Internet connection (I believe it is 5 Mbps). And we have in the neighbourhood of 300 CDs, not to mention almost as much vinyl.

 

We are looking for a system that provides a quality listening experience in two locations (living room on main floor and family room in basement), along with decent listening in three others (main floor kitchen and two second floor bedrooms) … in other words, we want two rooms equipped with excellent but reasonably priced speakers (hopefully one of those sets can be my existing Linn Kans) … the other three can have decent ceiling or wall-mounted speakers.

 

The idea of ripping our CDs (and if possible, our vinyl) to a central music server has a lot of appeal, given the 3-storey configuration of our home. Ideally, we would want to store the music in uncompressed or lossless format, and be able to play a minimum of two different, simultaneous streams of music from the music server, and have the ability to direct each stream to a different room in the house.

 

We are not fans of in-wall controllers … a lot of wall real estate is going to be occupied with light switches … having more stuff in the wall just doesn’t cut it. Ideally, in the living room and bedrooms, where there is no TV, we’d want hand-held wireless devices that communicate two-way with the music system … allowing us to see what is currently playing and to select what we next want to hear via a menu … display of cover art would be a plus. In the family room and kitchen, where TV screens will be located, it would be nice not to have to squint at a 3-inch screen on a hand-held, and be able to see the menu system displayed on the TV screen.

 

We have been to a number of audio stores in town (Toronto, Canada) and they all want to sell us systems based around Crestron, Elan or Niles. None of the stores talk about using a computer as a music server, with the exception of one dealer we encountered who has Sonos distribution systems.

 

So, keeping in mind that we do have a budget (a $5,000 DAC is not in the cards), and that we are neither computer nor audio geeks, but appreciate an excellent sounding system, how do we get a great system put together? Can we stick with a Windows-based PC (seeing as we have absolutely no experience with Macs), or are there excellent reasons for using a Mac? Do we need some sort of wired network in the house, or can wireless support a system like the one described above without playback “glitches” … is Sonos or Logitech Squeezebox Duet the answer for distributing the music around the house?

 

And, should we keep media separate from music? We are not DVD collectors … we tend to only watch movies once … but we want to be prepared for the day when there are no DVD (or Blueray) rental stores and everything is downloaded from the Internet. Where does that fit in?

 

I guess what we’re asking for is not only a list of hardware and software, but how do you actually put it together? What connects to what? Any and all help/comments, etc. gratefully accepted. And, if you think a Crestron or Niles is the way to go, please let us know that as well.

 

Thanks in advance for your help!!

 

 

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Hi helenek - Welcome to Computer Audiophile. You've come to the right place for solid advice without any attitudes and plenty of people in your same situation as well as people who've already setup similar systems.

 

I think this one will take several posts back and forth to get a proposed solution in your hands. You are certainly right to list all your requirements and I hope you're willing to work with some of them to get the best price v. performance v. convenience solution.

 

In my mind the best solution for your specific requirements can be based on a PC or Mac. Using iTunes, Airport Express, Apple TV, and iPod Touch can most likely accomplish all your goals. The toughest one will be playing different audio streams to different rooms. You can easily stream the same music to multiple locations, but you may need a cheap laptop or PC to stream a difference track etc...Not totally positive, but that's what comes to mind right now.

 

Airport Express wireless devices will allow you to stream to several locations. Apple TV will allow you to stream and view everything on your TV. You can also download and rent movies from the iTunes store right from Apple TV. An iPod touch will give you full control and cover art etc... All of this is much cheaper than any Crestron system and can be setup by you in one night. Of course there is plenty of help available here when or if you get stuck.

 

I'm not a fan of the Squeezecenter software and find the interface very clunky. Apple has great design and will continue to be updated as necessary.

 

What do you think of this iTunes based solution on your PC? We can take it from there.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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"are there excellent reasons for using a Mac?"

 

Yes. Core Audio, built into the Mac operating system, keeps everything bit-perfect without the need to even think about it. Just turn on the error protection in iTunes, import all of your music as Apple Lossless files and it takes care of the rest automatically.

 

I work at a place that sells the Sonos and the Squeezebox systems and, even with an impressive discount, if I had this to do over again I'd do it on a Mac. You just need a Mac Mini, an external hard drive for music files, an iPod touch as a full graphic remote control and an Airport Express everywhere you want to tie into a system. It's all wireless. If you are picky about fidelity, you may want an external DAC in your critical listening rooms. In the casual listening rooms the DAC built into each Airport Express should be fine.

 

At $600 for the Mini, a couple of hundred for a big drive, $229 for an iPod Touch and $80 each for Airport Express it's not only the best solution, it's a very competitively priced one. You could spend that money wiring your new house.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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As a fellow GTA-er and frequent visitor to Chris' great forum, you've definitely found the right place to get the advice you need.

 

I have two seperate server systems, so I'll comment briefly on different aspects of each. First, use of an external DAC. For a small amount of money, I would strongly endorse using a DAC in your important room(s). A night and day difference. I just happened to A/B my USB DAC against my PC connected digitally to my AVR (a nice NAD with 24/96 DACs) tonight, driven off my server PC running bit-perfect output. No comparison. This particular DAC was about $300 but there are many choices in that range and more that will make a material quality difference to your listening - where it counts in your home. The AVR sounded fine until I switched it out about a year ago and heard the difference.

 

Second, regarding distribution. My other system uses an Apple TV to get music over the network to a theatre room on a different floor. We've enjoyed the video features of the unit, but the audio services are very solid. The ATV talks to any iTunes libaries on your network and either syncs or streams from them. A great device with very adequate sound, which again can output analog directly, or feed a DAC or AVR digital inputs. Great interface, very good sound, and very high utility factor. Refurb shipped from the Apple website or new anywhere in Toronto, for $200-300 each an absolute bargain.

 

If you run a solid PC or MAC as your server, with iTunes for management, to a DAC in your main room or to a combination of ATV (and DACs as desired), controlled, as Chris suggests, by iTouches, you've got a great cheap whole house system.

 

good luck in the journey

 

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I'll throw a different slant on things..I've JUST done exactly what you are planning. Been through it with full reno. So practicle tips:

 

Stop right now. You Don't need to spend $64,000! You can have a great multiroom system for less than 10% of this!

 

I'd strongly recommend the following:

 

1/ My wife also hated wall mounted controls. Who needs them anyway? Ditch the expensive Crestron/ wired mulitroom Audio idea. It's yesterday's technology anyway. You DON't need this! However, this doesn't mean go completely wireless either. If you can, get CAT5e (or even Cat6) put in where you can NOW. THIS is the key...particularly in a large multi story installation. The idea is to put all the digital source material in a central location (preferably were the router is, on a NAS (eg out of the way in secure space - were you can't here fan noise etc) and stream the digital content out to the peripheral rooms via CAT5/6 (if you can) The CONTROL of this is via wireless hand helds. If you can't get CAt5/6 everywhere, dont panic...you can add wireless distribution network points to cover the other rooms. But some wired ethernet really helps re interference and drop outs etc.

 

2/ The choice of system then depends on your computer experience, how much you want the computers to play a part in music distribution, and budget. I went for a combination of sonos and itunes on mac mini's: all on an Apple network. Both of these systems can now be controlled really cooly via iphones/itouches, in addition to the sonos handhelds. I tried doing all this originally via older PC's/ non apple network gear but gave up: mainly because networking PC's using xp or Vista is a complete pain in the %^&xxc#$. The key here is LEOPARD. Apple Leopard is a SINCH to network. Do youself a big favour right now and switch to Apple networking! Go out and get an Apple extreme, or Time capsule as the basis for your network. Ditch everything else.

 

New simplified setup: STEREO- Primary listening Area: Cullen Circuits Mod ZP90> Benchmark DAC1>RotelRKB250 Power amp>KEF Q Series. Secondary listening areas: 1/ QNAP 119P II(running MinimServer)>UPnP>Linn Majik DSI>Linn Majik 140's. 2/ (Source awaiting)>Invicta DAC>RotelRKB2100 Power amp>Rega's. Tertiary multiroom areas: Same QNAP>SMB>Sonos>Various. MULTICHANNEL- MacMini>A+(Standalone mode)>Exasound e28 >5.1 analog out>Yamaha Avantage Receiver>Pre-outs>Linn Chakra power amps>Linn Katan front and sides. Linn Trikan Centre. Velodyne SPL1000 Ultra

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I wired our last condo and will ponder on this more, but here's quick thoughts that come to mind.

 

Although I'm not entirely clear on what you are after, as in there is a big difference in sending the same music or whatnot to all those locations versus being able to select say a different song in 5 or so locations simultaneously you might consider these suggestions -

 

1) while the walls are open in the kitchen and those two bedrooms at least mount some boxes so at a later date you have the option of easy in wall speakers. Stuff insulation above and below those stud bays and run speaker wire to a logical termination point. I'd probably run them into the closet and put an outlet with cat, 120v and the speaker wires. That gives you choice down the road. Can stuff a cheap tuner/amp in the closet and kids or guests have music. Run audio RCA from the TV location to that location too.

 

2) running PVC as conduit allows you to pull all kinds of wire down the road thru them. Say in 3 years you wanna go fiber optic or the newer standard whatevertheheckitscalled.

 

3) a very simple and cheap way to get all this going, if you can live with basically the same music in different places is to take advantage of the zones on a typical AV receiver to cover several locations and then set up a simple FM transmitter for your home. They are pretty cheap and you can broadcast a signal thus you can use a FM radio anywhere around the house to listen.

 

4) pulling speaker wire to the dead spots in your house will be appreciated down the road. Course I have no clue about your house. Hallways, etc. Terminate in a box in the ceiling or wall. You can drywall over these if you don't want to see them, but they are there for the future. Measure how to re-find them.

 

5) I'd invest in flexibility myself and get the wiring right and go FM broadcast until you can afford all the bells and whistles. I'm talking a couple hundred bucks (I think). If you go down that road I can find some more info.

 

And - Install a water softener loop while you can, heh!

 

 

 

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I agree with wappinghigh, run Cat 5 or 6 everywhere you think you may want it.

Wireless for me has been marginal at best, with frequent dropouts.

I believe AES is also working on a protocol for distributing media specific files on ethernet.

 

I know nothing about fiber optics, but were it me, i would look into "wiring" certain rooms with fiber optic "cable" in lieu of the new fiber internet services that are now becoming more available, where HD movies etc. are being streamed over the internet. At least to where your modem/router music server will be.

 

Apple TV will give you a good on screen display, and a good DAC with TOSLINK in will give very good sound.

The limitations of this will be bandwidth and the new hi-rez music files now available.

 

Jeff

 

\"It would be a mistake to demonize any particular philosophy. To do so forces people into entrenched positions and encourages the adoption of unhelpful defensive reactions, thus missing the opportunity for constructive dialog\"[br] - Martin Colloms - stereophile.com

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First, I want to thank everyone who responded for their help. I have to admit that there is a ton of information to digest, especially for someone who is not at all familiar with the Mac world (other than their highly entertaining TV commercials!).

 

So, what I have done, to try to gain some familiarity with things is to download iTunes to my PC. Since we are “living through” the reno/construction process, our audio equipment and CDs are in storage … I could only find 2 CDs kicking around that I could experiment with, but I have to say that I found iTunes to be very cool … I ripped both CDs onto my PC’s harddrive, and iTunes grabbed the cover art, etc., and away I went. At this stage, I just let iTunes go with its default compression algorithm … time to discuss the pros and cons of the various possibilities later … and played the ripped CDs through the PC’s attached speakers. So far so good.

 

Then I went onto the Apple website to read up on Mac Mini, Airport Express/Extreme, Apple TV and the iPod Touch. So, needless to say, I have a lot more questions. However, one of the items on my “wishlist” doesn’t seem to be addressed by any of the above Apple hardware … and Chris mentions it in his response, namely the ability to simultaneously stream two different songs residing on the server, to two different rooms in the house.

 

So, the question is … is there any way to do this? This is what those Crestron/Elan/Niles systems manage to accomplish … maybe that’s why they are so expensive?? The only other system I have physically seen, which seems to be able to do this is the Sonos … but I believe that Sonos has its own iTunes-like software that you have to use … or can it be interfaced to iTunes in some way?

 

I guess what I am trying to say is having several things going on at the same time, in different rooms, is an important requirement for us … I don’t want to waste everyone’s time, talking about how to put a system together, if this function is not possible.

 

Once again, thanks everyone, for your input so far … I’m really hoping that there is a solution out there!

 

 

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Just thinking out loud... I wonder if you could use 2 apple TV's each in a seperate room, each playing the same song being served by a computer or network attached storage?

 

Jeff

 

\"It would be a mistake to demonize any particular philosophy. To do so forces people into entrenched positions and encourages the adoption of unhelpful defensive reactions, thus missing the opportunity for constructive dialog\"[br] - Martin Colloms - stereophile.com

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As far as I am aware the only way to stream 2 or more different tracks to 2 or more separate "zones" is with Sonos. I'm not sure itunes can do this as yet. The good news is Sonos networks really well on an apple network, so the two systems work really well together. Wifi control of each is also not a problem because sonosnet is a different wireless setup than apple wifi, and you can chose different channels for each in any case. You can also stream interent radio, and even itunes as unique source through sonos. AB

 

New simplified setup: STEREO- Primary listening Area: Cullen Circuits Mod ZP90> Benchmark DAC1>RotelRKB250 Power amp>KEF Q Series. Secondary listening areas: 1/ QNAP 119P II(running MinimServer)>UPnP>Linn Majik DSI>Linn Majik 140's. 2/ (Source awaiting)>Invicta DAC>RotelRKB2100 Power amp>Rega's. Tertiary multiroom areas: Same QNAP>SMB>Sonos>Various. MULTICHANNEL- MacMini>A+(Standalone mode)>Exasound e28 >5.1 analog out>Yamaha Avantage Receiver>Pre-outs>Linn Chakra power amps>Linn Katan front and sides. Linn Trikan Centre. Velodyne SPL1000 Ultra

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We may have overlooked something very simple here. I believe the Apple TV has the ability to either play music directly from its own hard drive or stream music from a wireless / wired iTunes library. Thus, you should be able to playback different tracks in different locations. The Apple TV allow one to pull and push music from the server whereas the Airport Express allow one to push music from the server.

 

Please jump in on this one as I may have overlooked something very simple.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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That is what I was getting at, the Apple TV can request a stream from a computer, thus it is a pulling action, not a pushing one. So I suspect ( I only have one ATV, so I cannot confirm) that 2 Apple TV's can request the same file, and the computer would serve it up to both simultaneously ala a server, serving up the same file to 2 computers at the same time.

 

Jeff

 

\"It would be a mistake to demonize any particular philosophy. To do so forces people into entrenched positions and encourages the adoption of unhelpful defensive reactions, thus missing the opportunity for constructive dialog\"[br] - Martin Colloms - stereophile.com

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I currently use VNC as my way of playing music on my stereo. Older pc hooked up to stereo with dac. VNC in from another computer to play songs. In this way all you would need is a computer in each room, i guess. It may not be the ideal solution for you though. Each computer would have a different IP you could VNC viewer in to, allowing you to play multiple songs off different computers. Each computer could use cat5 or 6 or stream the music from any of the other computers. Like I have all of my external HD plugged into my main computer, not my stereo computer. So I just add all of my network shared music folders into the foobar library. It's probably a pretty convoluted way to do it, but I am not a huge mac fan. And I use a lot of computers lol.

 

ANother option are some small amps from Trends or something to power sets of speakers. I'm not sure what's involved when you have one receiver or something feeding multiple speakers in different rooms. I know some receivers can set up multiple zones and stuff, same with sonos (I think). I'd probably have multiple computers/amps/sources or something though so it's hard to compare to what I think you want.

 

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Guys, correct me if I am wrong. But even if say one apple TV was able to "pull" one track from the itunes library and say another apple TV in a different room could "pull" a different track from the library (or even "push" from it's own hard disk), the issue is all about playback CONTROL.

 

I'm not sure itunes can control all this. Either from the itunes program on the mac itself, or more importantly from the "remote" app on say an iphone or touch. The real edge (and it's just about the last remaining one) SONOS has right now over Apple's multiroom setup is playback control. Instantly switching different tracks in different rooms from the one remote.

 

Walk around with either a sonos handheld or the "Zones" app running on an iphone/itouch and you can select which track/stream to play in which zone, real time. You can switch different tracks anytime and then switch back to party mode anytime. You can add zones/drop zones real easy. And it all remains synced realtime on all ALL wireless connected remotes and all MAC's running Sonos desktop controller.

 

I'm not sure itunes can do ALL this. (yet!)

 

AB

 

BTW I'm not a sonos rep or anything...quite the contrary. Was bullied off their forums a while back for picking the flaws in the system.....

 

New simplified setup: STEREO- Primary listening Area: Cullen Circuits Mod ZP90> Benchmark DAC1>RotelRKB250 Power amp>KEF Q Series. Secondary listening areas: 1/ QNAP 119P II(running MinimServer)>UPnP>Linn Majik DSI>Linn Majik 140's. 2/ (Source awaiting)>Invicta DAC>RotelRKB2100 Power amp>Rega's. Tertiary multiroom areas: Same QNAP>SMB>Sonos>Various. MULTICHANNEL- MacMini>A+(Standalone mode)>Exasound e28 >5.1 analog out>Yamaha Avantage Receiver>Pre-outs>Linn Chakra power amps>Linn Katan front and sides. Linn Trikan Centre. Velodyne SPL1000 Ultra

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SONOS sounds pretty cool with a multi-room remote and controlling different zones. Damn, now I will have to check out that system!

 

I am in no way saying the ATV is better, just trying to think if it can work in this situation.

 

As far as the control function, each ATV has its own IR remote that is paired with that unit it controls itself, it is a semi-smart unit with its own operating system, hard drive etc.

The tracks playing are controlled by the remote at each unit not by iTunes (unless you specify to use it as an AE output). So ATV in room 1 will play, pause, etc its track based on commands from its remote. The ATV in room 2 would be controlled by its remote. So iTunes running on the computer does not have to control either, I believe it acts as a slave, with the requests and control coming from each ATV, it is merely a server.

 

This is all theoretical as I only have 1 ATV.

 

PS it can access libraries on multiple computers that you authorize.

 

Jeff

 

\"It would be a mistake to demonize any particular philosophy. To do so forces people into entrenched positions and encourages the adoption of unhelpful defensive reactions, thus missing the opportunity for constructive dialog\"[br] - Martin Colloms - stereophile.com

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Hi Everyone!

 

Thanks once again for all your input … and I beg pardon, in advance, for another long post which demonstrates my total newbie-ness!

 

I’ve done some more reading about Sonos and about AppleTV. I guess the problem is that no one seems to have two ATV units attached to the same music server, so it is difficult to know if the ATV solution is truly viable. Jeff/machinehead has said that each ATV has its own controller, but I don’t think it’s anything like the Sonos controller, with its own integrated screen. So the question is, if you’re in a room without a TV, how can you select a particular song/track to be played using the ATV’s controller?

 

It’s therefore beginning to look like Sonos is the most cost effective way to distribute music to each location and give the person in that location control over what is playing. I know that no system is perfect, but wappinghigh mentioned that he was “bullied off” the Sonos forums for picking on flaws. So the question is, what flaws do you see in this system and are they serious?

 

A number of folks have advised that I wire the house with cat5e despite the fact that Sonos is a wireless solution. I have a tendency to agree with that, as being downtown, in a semi-detached house, we are very close (physically) with our neighbors on either side. Putting much of the system on wires may help to cut down on any potential interference.

 

So, if we assume that Sonos is it, how do I actually pull all the bits and pieces together? Right now, I have high speed, wireless DSL from Bell Canada. The “modem” that attaches to the telephone line is not only wireless, it has additional ports for wired connections. Can I assume that this box can also act as a router, or do I need a separate router attached to it? If a separate router is required, do I go with an Airport Extreme or something else?

 

Once I have the router (if required) in place, presumably I attach a NAS drive to it. I’ve been reading about the Drobo and like the fact that it appears to require no expertise to set it up and have it perform automatic RAID for back-up. Is there a better solution than the Drobo?

 

Then, assuming I’m using Sonos, I believe I have to attach one Sonos Zone Player directly to the router. If I were going completely wireless, I think that that’s where the wiring would stop and other Sonos units simply get plugged into the AC power in each room you locate them, and they communicate wirelessly with the station that is wired to the router. If, however, I’m going wired, am I correct in assuming that the Zone Players would still be placed in each room, but they would get attached back to the router via cat5e wiring? If so, then it would probably make sense to have a cabinet/closet where the Internet modem, router, NAS drive and all the cat5e cabling from the outboard Zone Players would reside, correct?

 

Now, in the rooms where music quality is not a concern, I would use the Sonos Zone Players that have an integrated amplifier. Anyone think that this is a bad idea? And then each of these players would be wired to ceiling or unobtrusive wall-mounted speakers (anyone have any suggestions as to which speakers to use?).

 

In the living room, where we want high quality music, we would attach a Sonos Zone Player with no integrated amp, into my NAIM amp, which in turn is connected to my Linn Kan speakers. Presumably I would need a DAC in this set-up. Am I correct that it would go between the Sonos and the NAIM? Any recommendations for an appropriate DAC, knowing I have a NAIM amp and Linn Kan speakers?

 

Finally, in the family room, we plan to have a large flat screen TV. All the audio shops are telling us to go for surround sound (naturally), but we want this to be another area where we can listen to high quality music. So given that, is there an audiophile surround sound system, or am I better off with two good speakers and maybe a woofer? And, assuming we do go surround, do I need an AVR? If using an AVR, presumably the Sonos Zone Player (amplified or non-amplified?) would connect to the AVR and the AVR to the speakers. Since this would also be for quality music listening, I assume I need a DAC … does it go between the Sonos and the AVR?

 

Once again, thanks everyone for your patience … I really appreciate all the time everyone has taken to post!!!

 

 

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I didn't think about the need for a TV with each ATV, you are correct, sounds like SONOS would be the better choice.

 

For my opinion as far as surround sound that will still play audiophile quality music, for speakers I believe

ATC's would make an excellent system, they make small enough monitors that could be used as the mains and surrounds and a sub to complement.

 

As far as the processor, I know Naim makes a surround unit.

 

I am sure there are others. If your surround processor is not audiophile quality, you will want your HiFi preamp to pass the signal through to your surround sound. I know the Conrad Johnson PV-15 does this.

 

Jeff

 

\"It would be a mistake to demonize any particular philosophy. To do so forces people into entrenched positions and encourages the adoption of unhelpful defensive reactions, thus missing the opportunity for constructive dialog\"[br] - Martin Colloms - stereophile.com

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