Russound CAV6.6 A/V Controller
With a handful of exceptions, truly flexible multiroom entertainment is beyond the reach of most A/V receivers. Sure, lots of manufacturers rapturously talk about their second-zone outputs like they're some sign of the Second Coming. In most cases, however, a receiver's second-zone outputs aren't much better than giving a blind man the keys to your car. Maybe you'll eventually get where you want to go, but not without a lot of anxiety.
Perhaps this is to be expected. After all, we live in an era of specialization—a time when, if you want to be the best, you need to narrow your focus. The economic benefits of specialization partly account for why outsourcing is the rage in business today. ("Mr. CEO, it seems that Chinese prison laborers are really good at putting widget peg A into gadget hole B. And did I mention that they'll work for next to nothing?" "You're a genius, Mr. Highly Paid Consultant. Give yourself another bonus.") Well, of course, the fact that it's often cheaper does add to outsourcing's allure.
Russound's CAV6.6 six-source, six-zone A/V controller and amplifier is the reason for all of these thoughts on outsourcing. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not implying that New England–based Russound uses Chinese prison labor in any way. In fact, everyone I've talked to at Russound seems pretty happy to be there, even with the ball and chains around their ankles. . .
The CAV6.6 is a highly specialized add-on to a home theater system that allows you to "outsource" audio and video signals from up to six of your system's source components to six other areas of your home (more if you chain multiple CAV6.6s together). While it's not dirt-cheap, the CAV6.6 plus six keypads is certainly less expensive (approximately $667 per zone, not including speakers) than purchasing receivers and source components for six rooms.
At Home in Any Home
What has always impressed me about Russound is the down-to-earth approach they take to things. If you're into fancy, full-color, in-wall touchscreen controllers or control systems that'll allow your security system to talk with your washer and dryer and let the cat in at night, then you're probably not going to be excited by what Russound and the CAV6.6 have to offer. On the other hand, if you're looking for a simple (but not simplistic) approach to multiroom audio and video that's easy to use and works consistently, then these guys (and gals—Russound, quite unusual for this industry, is run by a woman) deserve some serious attention.
About the size of an average receiver, the CAV6.6 includes six 20-watt-per-channel stereo amplifiers, audio/video switching for six sources, and a full multiroom feature pack, including IR output jacks (to control source components), an RS-232 port (for automation control), digital input-gain controls, paging triggers with an A/V input (for a door camera), power management for connected source components, and buffered loop outputs. You can create up to four subzones by adding Russound's A-BUS amplified keypads, such as the A-KP2. You can also connect multiple CAV6.6s for up to 36 zones and 24 subzones. It's important to note that, unlike many of the multiroom systems in this price range, the CAV6.6 provides both stereo audio and composite video to each of the six zones.
The Fateful Finger
With any multiroom system, the index finger is the final arbiter of system success. Slap an ugly, nonintuitive keypad on the wall, and you're guaranteed to end up with a system that you and your family won't use. The UNO-S2 keypad that Russound uses to control the CAV6.6's main zones is anything but ugly and nonintuitive. In fact, the UNO-S2 is exactly what most people are going to want in a keypad: a simple, elegant layout with a 12-character LCD panel; soft-touch, backlit buttons; and a "screwless" cover plate. In other words, the UNO-S2 doesn't scream, "Hey, look at me! I'm a keypad!" to everyone who walks in the room. Instead, it provides easy system control with understated, classy visuals.
Designing a keypad is a lot like designing a remote control: No matter what you do, you're not going to be able to please everyone. I like the UNO-S2 keypads because they can be programmed to do a lot with a minimum number of buttons (13 to be exact). In order to keep button clutter to a minimum, Russound uses a large source button to toggle through the available sources. To my way of thinking, that's better than stringing six smaller, direct source-select buttons across the keypad, especially when not all systems will necessarily have six sources. A PC program called "PC Power Tool" lets the installer determine which buttons do what, including assigning macro sequences, and the system can learn codes from remotes not already in the database. A built-in remote eye (and connections for an external remote eye placed elsewhere in the room) allows you to use optional UNO-LRC1 remote controls in rooms where you want more-direct control.
In order to help me test out the CAV6.6 system's full power, Russound sent one of their new ST2-XM tuners, which combines an AM/FM tuner with an XM Satellite Radio tuner in one chassis. Each tuner section has its own output, so you can listen to the local NPR station on FM in one zone while someone else rocks out to XM's Boneyard channel (channel 41: Stadium Rock and Hairbands) in another. It's situations like these when you'll be most thankful for the multizone concept.
Russound also obligingly sent a beta unit of the SMS3 Smart Media Server, which stores music on an internal 160-gigabyte hard drive and can simultaneously supply up to three zones with independent music playback. It also includes a video output for viewing CD cover art (from Muse, with metadata files coming from Gracenote) and the menu system. One of the SMS3's features that caught my attention is a technology Russound calls the "Dean of Media." After creating one or more theme categories, say "Crank It" or "Geezer Music," you can create a recipe for each theme that gives the Dean a set of guidelines for choosing the songs to play when you select that theme. You can also set up the Dean to pay attention to changes you make manually, like skipping a song, and factor that into future playback selection. Media servers are totally cool, must-have items; they sure beat the heck out of CD mega-changers. And, so far, Russound's SMS3 certainly looks like one of the best for the money.
All Together Now
You could add the ST2-XM and the SMS3 to any system, multizone or single-room, and they'll work extremely well. It's when you combine them with the CAV6.6 and the UNO-S2 keypads, though, that the whole system takes on that undeniably warm glow of a product that's built right, works right, and is something that most anyone would be happy to have in their home.
With the system connected and programmed, the UNO-S2 keypads use Russound's RNET communication technology to display station information from the ST2-XM or album, song, and artist information from the SMS3. This type of bidirectional communication of information is essential to the ease of operation of any multiroom system. Since the CAV6.6 also passes composite video, you can monitor the SMS3's menu screens in any of the six zones (as long as you have a connected television in the zone, of course).
Don't let the 20-watt-per-channel amplifier rating fool you into thinking that the CAV6.6/UNO-S2 system is a lightweight when it comes to sonic performance. The system sounded great, even with my large, floorstanding speakers. (There are preamp outputs for those people who need more power.) Just as important, the system is extremely easy to use, which means it will get used—and enjoyed—every day. I'm not sure there's any better recommendation that you can give a product than that.
• Six zones of stereo audio and video from up to six sources
• RNET communication provides status and source information on each UNO-S2 keypad