Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
Almost two years ago, I installed Russound's MCA-88X system as part of a review I was working on, to distribute and control sound to several rooms and the backyard. Fast forward a couple of years and there is another bedroom I would like to use the Russound system in, but I do not have any structured wiring from this room to the rack with the Russound controller. While I could have paid for someone to run the wires from this room back to the main rack, it would have also required opening drywall, painting, etc. I figured there had to be an easier way to expand the system without the additional wiring.
Russound recommended their new MBX-AMP ($549) and XTS+ in-wall touch panel controller ($719) as the ideal solution to my multi-room music distribution woes, since it can extend a system to any room that can be reached via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Finishing off the system, Russound also sent a pair of IC-620 ($299 per pair) in-ceiling speakers.
Before going any further, I should point out that the MBX-AMP is capable of powering any moderately efficient speaker, so the decision between architectural and freestanding speakers is up to you and you space considerations.
The MBX-Amp is small, measuring only 8-3/8 inches by 9.5 inches by 1-7/8 inches. Its small size allows it to be tucked into out-of-the-way spaces or even mounted on the back of a television with Velcro. In addition to Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity, the 50 watt-per-channel stereo amp also has Bluetooth built in. Audio connections include analog and digital inputs and a subwoofer output in addition to a pair of binding posts. The MBX-AMP supports a variety of streaming protocols, such as AirPlay and Chromecast, in addition to all the sources compatible with the MyRussound app, which I discussed at length in my review of the Russound MCA-88X. The main functional difference is that the MBX-AMP is a single zone that can also be used by itself as it has the streaming capabilities built-in. The internal streamer somewhat addressed the lag I experienced in the MCA system, as the MBX was more responsive to commands, particularly when we used the XTS+ touch panel to control it.
The XTS+ is a touchscreen control panel for Russound media streamers, including the MCA and MBX series units in my system. The five-inch display screen can be installed in either a landscape or portrait orientation. I went with a portrait installation, as it blended in better with the nearby light switches. I connected the XTS+ by a single Ethernet cable to my Netgear GS728TP switch, which provides Power over Ethernet. The single-wire installation was particularly easy, as the cutout in my drywall was already there from a prior volume control. I think the whole process took less than five minutes. The XTS+ runs the same MyRussound app as your smartphone, but it does so slightly faster and is always exactly where you left it. So, while it is not necessary, I think it is a worthwhile addition to a room that you will be using the Russound system in on a regular basis.
The last component in this setup is the Russound IC-620 speakers. As the "IC" portion of the name implies, these are in-ceiling speakers. The "6" means it has a 6.5-inch woofer and the "20" means it is part of the mid-line Russound speaker series. There is also a 610 and 630.
The IC-620 is a two-way speaker with a 6.5-inch injection molded polypropylene woofer and an aimable one-inch silk dome tweeter. What made these speakers stand out from other in-ceiling speakers I have installed was the "SwiftLock" system. Most in-ceiling or in-wall speaker systems are secured to the drywall by three or four dog-ear brackets, little clamps that are typically secured by using a screwdriver to rotate them into place once the speaker is in position, then turning the screwdriver even more to tighten them. While this is pretty simple, it is usually done standing on a ladder holding a speaker over your head. Russound has traditionally used three dog-ears, speeding up installation time by 25 percent. The SwiftLock system takes it to the next level, as all you need to do once the speaker is in place is push a button at each of the three dog-ears.
Competition and Comparison
There is no shortage of multi-room and distributed audio systems on the market. Sonos and HEOS are among the most popular systems, and each has a variety of powered speakers with built-in networking and control systems, as well as boxes that can be used to integrate into traditional systems and speakers.
Control4 and Niles are other popular systems that can power more traditional, wired multi-room and multi-zone systems as well as integrate with other home automation systems such as lighting and climate control.
Comparing prices and sound quality on a custom installation, multi-room system is difficult, as there are a multitude of variables, many of which will depend on your installer.
The MBX-AMP is the star of this system. While switching sources and music searches can be a bit slower than with other systems, the Russound system has been robust and simple to operate. The amplifier drove the IC-620 speakers with ease. The speakers sounded fine, with enough frequency extension on the low end to make the mid-bass sound full enough without help from a subwoofer. The aimable tweeter was helpful in directing sound toward the listening area. The higher-performance IC-630 series is available if you want to kick up the performance while staying in the in-ceiling form factor. Then again, MBX-Amp is powerful enough to drive full size speakers such as the Tekton Moabs to moderate levels, so you may opt for that route instead. The subwoofer output also makes driving a pair of bookshelf speakers and a powered subwoofer an easy option.
While I liked the convenience of an always there and always charged touch panel, if the XTS+ stretches the budget too much, there are less expensive keypads or, even better, a free app.
In short, if you already have a Russound system and would like to expand it, the MBX system is a no brainer. The XTS+ is the slickest, fastest, and easiest way of controlling the system, but no functionality is sacrificed by using the app. Even if you do not already have a Russound system, the MBX-AMP is an easy-to-use, good sounding and cost competitive streaming amplifier that has the added benefit of being able to integrate into the Russound ecosystem should you decide to expand into other zones.