Review: Casa Tunes Multi-Zone Audio with Media Center
For years I have been slowly building up a multi-zone audio system in my home. The first system I had was based off of my Yamaha AV receiver that had a second zone output, to which I used to feed speakers in my garage. Later on I expanded that to also feed audio into my kitchen/living room area, but was still only based off of two audio sources so the garage and living room still only played the same audio. In those early days I really only had three audio sources, my receiver that had FM Tuner, my cable box that had the on-demand music channels, and my HTPC connected to my receiver playing back mp3’s stored on my network and even then I couldn’t get each zone to have independent audio. For what I had at the time it was great, I could feed audio into my home theater room in my basement, my living room up stairs, as well as my garage. Another issue other than not being able to separate the audio source was how to control all the audio. If I wanted to the channel on change to another song, or change my cable box to another music channel I would have to go all the way to the basement, and change the channel on the cable box or turn my projector on so that I could see what music I had on my htpc. This became cumbersome to use and eventually the novelty of having multi-zone audio lost its appeal, until now that is, after learning about Casa Tunes.
Casa Tunes originally was a software solution that integrated Media Center into Russound and NuVo multiroom audio systems, where you could control and send audio from your htpc into a Russound audio system. Last year all that changed when Casa Tunes came out with their own hardware to support multi-zone audio. With their XLi (6 zone) and their XLe (12 zone up to 48 zones) audio hardware. Casa Tunes allows you to add their hardware (sound cards) to your existing htpc and instantly turn it into a true multi-zone/whole home audio system.
I spend a lot of time on AVS Forums and I was catching up on what people are doing for DIY projects in the whole home audio and distribution solutions and trying to figure out what I could do to rejuvenate my whole home audio project, which is when I came across a post about Casa Tunes. I contacted them to get a review unit of their XLi system after I tested out and played around with the 15 day trial period. I contacted their customer support to see about getting a review unit, and to ask about some issues I had (will cover that later) and within a few days I had an XLi unit to review.
Over the years I’ve played around with Jriver Media Center, Logitech Squeeze box, and have even played around with a sonos system. Jriver is a great system as it manages all your media content in a nice easy to use interface, and allows you to remotely control your music from a htpc via a web browser. Squeeze box is another solution similar to Sonos, however it is not a true multi-zone system as you can’t control the entire system from a single remote like you can with Sonos. Sonos is considered the top of the top when it comes to multi-zone audio and easy of use, however it comes at a steep price. For only two audio zones, and a single remote it is upwards of a thousand dollars and the second zone still requires an external amplifier (AV receiver or two channel amp) as well as speakers. If you run more than two audio zones like I do it’ll run you another $350 or $500 depending on if you get amplified or un-amplified zones, and that doesn’t even include an additional remote control. Casa Tunes is expensive in its own rights, however for the same amount of money, roughly $1000 – $1200 you can get a fully functioning 6 zone whole home audio system that fully integrates into your Windows Media Center ecosystem including Media Center Extenders as well as supports any pc that runs a web browser as well as any portable touch screen device with a web browser. Media Center integration was the big selling point that attracted me to Casa Tunes in the first place, being able to use my Media Center Extenders to control my whole home audio without the need to purchase expensive remote controls (like you do with Sonos) is ideal for someone like myself who has a huge investment in Media Center already.
One of the biggest complaints about Media Center from the Media Center community is the lack of multi-zone audio support. Media Center has a huge void and has a vast untapped potential when it comes to multi-zone/whole home audio, however Casa Tunes is aiming to fill that void and provide an end to end product that integrates with Media Center and provide the easy to use end user experience that Media Center so drastically needs. That is what intrigued me the most about Casa Tunes was the integration the Windows Media Center. If you have ever been to my home, seen my posts on AVSforum, or follow me on Twitter you know I am a huge Media Center enthusiast and that the video distribution in my home is entirely driven through Media Center. I have three tv “zones” in my home, the home theater, my living room and my bedroom. Both my living room and my bedroom run off of Media Center extenders, Linksys DMA-2100 to be exact. My home theater is driven with my htpc directly connected to my projector setup. From any tv zone in my house I can watch live and recorded tv, listen to music from Media Center and watch downloaded content like video podcasts from any tv. The only downside to Media Center is the lack of true multi-zone audio. I can’t listen to the same audio source at each tv, and I can’t sync them at all. Again Casa Tunes is aiming to change all of that.
Casa Tunes installed in Windows Media Center with a tile on the main screen of Media Center.
The Casa Tunes XLi system that I am reviewing supports 6 independent audio zones, includes 5 unique audio sources, 4 internal (windows media, unprotected itunes collection, your mp3 collection, as well as shoutcast and other streaming radio). the 5th source, is the external audio source. The XLi sound card is the key to the whole home audio solution for Casa Tunes, the XLi sound card has the 6 zones of balanced audio output, which are 6 individual 3.5mm head phone style ports. The XLi then also has a single 3.5mm head phone audio jack input, which is the 5th audio source. With this 5th audio source you can feed it anything with a head phone jack. You can feet it audio from an XM/Sirius tuner, ipod, zune, smart phone, you name it. You could even feed it another PC audio source by taking the audio out from the sound card are your mother board and feed it back into the XLi sound card so that you could play Pandora in a web browser on your pc and feed that audio back into the XLi card in Casa Tunes and distribute it around your home.
The XLi card. PCI express based sound card, top 3.5mm jack is the line 1 in (ie external source), the next 6 are zones 1 through 6, and the last is IR out. I was told the IR out is currently not supported so you can’t remotely control your external sources through Casa Tunes.
The XLi comes with 6 3.5mm head phone to RCA cables. This allows you to run your audio into external multi-channel amplifiers or AV receivers. In my case I sent two of the zones to my AV receiver, and sent another two zones to two separate two channel amplifiers
Currently in my home I am using a single Squeeze box, as well as Jriver Media Center and use my netbook and my laptop to control Jriver. Squeeze box is in my living room and I send the audio output back down into my basement connect it to my AV Receiver and then the speakers are back up in my living room. The system in my home is quite complicated and at times hard to use. I still have to go down to the basement, turn on my receiver and set the inputs so that my htpc or the Squeeze box is set to my second zone (my Living Room and Garage two zones, single audio source) on my receiver so I can feed the audio to my garage and living room. Recently I started looking around for new solution to my multi-zone audio system and something I could control via my smartphone, or my netbook or possibly even a keypad of sorts. Casa Tunes does all that and more. Casa Tunes can be controlled by almost any PC, UMPC, Netbook. Anything that runs a web browser can control Casa Tunes.
You can control Casa Tunes from UMPC devices like above, which instantly turns your UMPC into a remote control from your whole home audio system.
You can also use Nokia N800 series units as well. I was able to borrow a nokia N810 (not pictured) from a friend and with a little bit of work, I was able to perfectly control Casa Tunes from the nokia anywhere in my house. Casa Tunes web server supports a special UMPC/Nokia mobile page that better formats the page to be used with mobile devices. The only down side is there was a slight lag when using the nokia, I am not sure if it was Casa Tunes software or the nokia device itself. All in all it was a great experience. What I am looking forward to is the Zune Hd, because the Zune HD has a web browser, it would make a perfect compliment to Casa Tunes and create a seamless control experience in your home.
Along side being able to use your Media Center PC, your Media Center Extenders, your UMPC, Nokia N800, Netbook, Laptop and more, Casa tunes also sells key pads that install into your wall for the true custom integrator look and feel. With the Key Pads you can control almost everything you can with a web browser, you can select zones, turn zones on and of, adjust the volume, and more. I did not get a chance to test out or play with a Key Pad if you want to read another review of Casa Tunes and how the Key Pads work head here.
Casa Tunes key pad. Connect via cat5/6, wall mount like an electrical outlet, and connect to your pc with the supplied USB keypad hub.
One thing I like about Casa Tunes is their user interface. It is simple, easy to use, and straight forward. It is also standardized, so no matter if you are using the control interface on your Media Center PC with the remote, are if you using it on a Nokia N800 the interface is universal. If you are like me and need to have a system that is high on the WAF (see Wife Acceptance Factor) having a universal interface no matter where you are using the system is a good thing to have.
Here you can see the layout of casa tunes and your album art.
When you first get Casa Tunes installed on your HTPC it sets up IIS web server to run on your pc, to most that won’t matter and there is nothing special you have to install, but what it means is that it runs a web server on your pc so that you can control Casa Tunes from any device that runs a web browser (see above about control options). Casa Tunes is a web browser based application so that you can control it not only from inside of Media Center but also through other web browser based devices. Another way to install Casa Tunes is you can install the XLi card into a secondary system, say a Windows Home Server pc. Run the setup software and server on your WHS system and then you can run the Casa Tunes client on your HTPC. Both installs work the same, the only difference is where the hardware (in this case the XLi card) is located. If you have more than one dedicated HTPC, for example you have one for our bedroom and one for your home theater, and you have the XLi installed and setup and running on your WHS box in your rack in your basement. You can run the clients on each of your HTPC systems and you would still get the same easy to use interface on each pc and web browser in your setup.
When installing Casa Tunes it is pretty easy and straight forward, you point to your music collection, let it scan your music and you are ready to go. With the XLi card you setup your zones, you can customize Casa Tunes and name your 6 audio zones however you want, as well as your audio 5th audio source. Once Casa Tunes is up and running and you are using it you can control the volume, Balance, Bass, Treble and Loudness per room. The XLi sound card is not like any ordinary sound card. The XLi card has an on board digital matrix switch, so that if you are listening on a single audio source, say your mp3 collection through Casa Tunes, you can send that music to just one zone, or all six zones all at the same time and because the XLi has its own on board digital matrix switch every single zone is in perfect sync with zero lag issues.
Once up and running I was able to control Casa Tunes from within Media Center in my home theater directly from my htpc, as well as from my two Media Center extenders. On the extenders I can choose what zones I want to play music to, what sources each zone can play, as well as the volume of each zone.
In Casa tunes you can turn on and off each zone, set the source for each zone or sync each zone.
You can view each source/zone per room, so if you are playing one song in one room and another song in another room you can control each room independently of each other.
Along with controlling each zone, what sources you play, you can also control each zone to go to sleep at given times, or wake up at given times, you can separate it per zone, per source, and per day of the week. A great feature of you want your favorite music to wake you up in the morning and each person in the house hold could potentially have their out music playing each morning for them.
While using the system some of the things I didn’t like about the Media Center integration was the interface, in Media Center it uses the web browser in Media Center, the plugin is not a true Media Center plugin and is not based on the MCML platform so you don’t get the seamless Media Center integration you get with other plugins. You don’t get any animated transitions, or smooth flowing through your music, or out of the box remote control support. With the remote you can use the directional pad, the ok/enter button, play/pause/stop, you don’t get skip, next functionality, and you can’t click on your menu button or home screen to go to the main Casa Tunes menu. It is a little clunky when trying to navigate your music collection, Casa Tunes in Media Center is more conducive to navigating it with a mouse and keyboard than it is using the Media Center remote control. When using the Media Center remote and navigating through Casa Tunes, you find that the most you can do is use the directional pad on the remote and going from one option to the next, so say you are on playing now menu, you have to navigate with the directional pad, over to another menu, then have to click multiple times before you can get to where you want to go. If you had say a HP Touch Smart PC, or a UMPC with a touch screen this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. If I was running Casa Tunes in my home I would honestly consider getting an HP Touch Smart PC just so that I could move through the Media Center plugin easily.
Another thing I would have loved to see is additional streaming radio support, something like Pandora or Last.FM would have made this product even better. The is one reason I like Sonos so much is its third party support for streaming radio especially the Pandora support that is integrated into Sonos.There is shoutcast support in Casa Tunes but its not Pandora. One way I got around that was I used the 3.5mm head phone external source input and plugged in my blackberry storm and used the pandora app on my phone. I was then able to send the external source, in my case my blackberry running pandora, to any zone in my house, which actually worked quiet well. I left my phone on the counter in my kitchen and ran a long headphone cable into my basement (I am basically doing a home made version of this audio balun) and into the XLi card. What is great about this solution is when I have people over they can plug in their zunes or ipods and play their own music from their own devices through my whole home audio system and it worked out really well. So even though there is not native Pandora support there are plenty of ways to get audio into Casa Tunes via the external audio source option.
As mentioned above I did have some issues with Casa Tunes when I first used it during the 15 day trial. I was having issues using it inside of Media Center and using the play/pause/stop buttons, for some reason they wouldn’t even work. They would work if I used the mouse, and clicked the on screen buttons within the Casa Tunes interface but just wouldn’t respond to the Media Center remote play/pause/stop buttons. I contacted Casa Tunes support, they emailed me right back (within 3 hours if I remember correctly) after a few emails back and forth they found the issue, corrected it, and pushed out a new update on their webpage. I was wowed. I wasn’t even a paying customer, and they responded to my issues in a matter of hours. Their customer service is top notch if you ask me, and the product they supply, even though it isn’t as polished in the UI end of things as Sonos is, it is still a great buy for what you get.
All in all the Casa Tunes XLi system for $499 gets you the Casa Tunes software, the 6 zone XLi sound card, and all the cables you need to get it up and running. Just add an external amplifier (like this HTD 6 zone/12 channel amp) and speakers and you are ready to have a complete 6 zone whole home audio system. So for just over $1100 you can get 6 audio zones, 5 sources, and can control it from any Media Center pc, Media Cener Extender, Laptop, Netbook, UMPC, Nokia N800, or any other device with a web browser. Not bad considering you get 4 more zones than what you can get over the Sonos baseline system.
For more info head over to Casa Tunes there is a 15 day trial so its a no brainer if you want to download it and give it a try.
Also check out the review from CE Pro via CE Pro