Multi-Zone Audio Streaming on a Budget

Note – all the parts I refer to in this project are listed at the bottom of this post…

Not long ago, we purchased a rental property that came with “architectural” (or in-wall) speakers in several rooms and outside on the deck. I spent some time ruminating on what to buy to hook them all up to so that we, and guests, can listen to music in the different zones and – in the case of the speakers mounted on either side of the TV in the living room – pipe the cable tuner audio through those speakers.

You can get multizone tuners, but I have several issues with them:

  • They’re pretty pricey
  • They tend to only support a couple of independent sources –  you can’t, for example, have different audio sources playing in three zones…unless you get REALLY pricey
  • They’re complicated! I, myself, have trouble figuring out how to get those things to play a different audio source to the second channel, especially using the remote. My wife would never be able to do it, and I think it would frustrate guests.
  • Nowadays, people tend to have a bunch of music on their phones…or maybe subscribe to Spotify or whatever…that they want to play in the room they’re in (or outside)

So I was thinking, what would be nice is a system that let’s you stream music from your phone to any one of the various zones (or, in the case of the living room, choose Line-In to get the cable audio). Does such a system exist? Sort of.

After some googling around and looking at various devices currently available, I settled on the Dayton Audio WF40A “Multi-Room” WiFi 2x20W Amplifier. This is a little device that hooks up directly to your speaker wires and can connect to your network via either WiFi or Ethernet. It also has a line-in connector.  It can also operate in “Stand-alone” mode, but you’d have to connect phone to it’s access point instead of the general house WiFi. Using a phone app, you can stream music directly off your phone or use one of the supported streaming service, including iHeartRadio, Spotify, and a couple others. Actually, it’s a DLNA device, so any app that can play to a DLNA “sink” device should be able to stream to it (including the iPhone music player). You can also select Line-In as the source. It costs around $100.

So, my trial with that device went pretty well and I was considering adding 3 or 4 more zones…maybe over time rather than plunking down several hundred bucks at once. But, being a gadgeteer, I thought I’d look into whether weren’t some inexpensive components available that I could put together to do the same thing for a lot less. Naturally, the answer is YES!

There are a whole plethora of devices for around $30 that give you the streaming ability, including the WFA02, also from Dayton Audio (which seems like a somewhat more “reputable” company), although they don’t include integrated amplifiers. I actually went with an even cheaper version that was available under a dozen different names (but all say AudioCast on the case) on aliexpress.com for about $24 a piece. Heck, there’s this one for $17 (so cheap it scared me off). There area ton of cheap little stereo amplifier boards that claim to hand up to 50W per channel available online for about $5 though! They take line-in and drive a pair of 8ohm speakers. You have to provide power to them, They tend to take 5 to 24V DC as input. A little research revealed they’re all using one of a couple different audio amp chips, so it’s mainly a choice of form factor, what kind of jacks are integrated (if any), whether there is a volume knob, etc.

“AudioCast”

Audio Amp Board

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So… I wound up buying three of the little “AudioCast” WiFi gadgets for about $24 each, three audio amp boards, and a hefty 10Amp, 12V power supply intended for driving LED light strips – I think it’s pretty much just a switching power supply very similar to the ones that come with laptops. I chose an audio amp board that has an audio-in jack, making hookup easy, and a volume know (so I can potentially limit how loud guests drive the speakers). All-in, it cost me $104.

I also bought some plexiglass and some nylon stand-offs so I could put the whole thing together in a somewhat neet and “protected” package – that was a few bucks more. For convenience, I also bought a power strip that includes 4 USB ports, so I can power the whole contraption from the one power strip.

Here are a couple pictures of the assembly (not yet wired to speakers):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The audio boards, though quite small, seem to pack a pretty good wallop. I don’t have a good, decent poser speaker at home – I could only hook it up to a PC I had – but I turned the volume up till it was pretty loud. I didn’t want to blow the speaker, so I was afraid to turn it up all the way. Even at “pretty loud”, it wasn’t turned nearly all the way up, and the heatsink didn’t even get warm. Despite being small and inexpensive, I’m optimistic that these will drive the in-wall speakers pretty well. Hopefully, the 10Amp power supply is sufficient to drive all three zones at once, but I have a feeling if all three are cranked all the way up, it may be insufficient…we shall see.

A couple interesting things about these inexpensive WiFi streaming units…  There are probably a half dozen different varieties of them, and the “AudioCast” shows up under all kinds of different brand names. Different varieties point you to different phone apps – the two Dayton Audio devices say to use “Hi-Fly”, other products direct you to “AudioCast”, “MUZO Player”, “ESON”..and probably others. The funny thing is…they’re all essentially the exact same app, except with minor branding variations and slightly different streaming service choices (some of which are quite bizarre Chinese things):

Dayton Audio Hi-Fly

“MUZO”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, these function just the same, use essentially the same app…who wants to bet they have the same guts? And low-and-behold! On one Aliexpress AudioCast-type device, they show the guts – its essentially just a carrier board with a few components and a Linkplay A31 plugged into it. Parts-Express.com is the authorized distribution partner for these Linkplay things – they sell just he A31, as well as an eval board and, yes, a combo with a little carrier board that includes an ethernet port and line in/out connectors. So yeah, probably most of these devices are incorporating the same little board and the manufactures license the same app (which the get to brand a bit). Sadly, these little bare-bones kits cost more than buying a product from China (or even from Dayton Audio) that has one inside it!

I’ll post an update on how the installed system behaves soon.

Parts I used:

Dayton Audio WF40A Multi-Room Wi-Fi 2x20W Amplifier with IR Remote

Dayton Audio WFA02 Multi-Room Wi-Fi Audio Adapter  (no amp)

“AudioCast Wireless Multi-Room Music Streamer”

12V, 10A Power Supply

Nylon standoffs

Power Strip with USB ports

 

Interesting LinkPlay stuff:

LinkPlay main page on Parts-Express

LinkPlay A31 on it’s own

LinkPlay A31 eval board

LinkPlay A31 Integration Board w/IR Remote

 

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