When we bought our house, it came with a very basic distributed audio system. Speakers in three different parts of the house, plus a fourth pair, were all run to one cabinet via cable jackets that combined a pair of speaker cables with one Ethernet cable. Only one source could be used at a time, and the combination of mutable volume controls and speaker blocks was a hard load for most amplifiers. My family wanted more flexibility and control so that we could all listen to what we wanted, where we wanted. Enter the Russound MCA-88X multi-room control system ($3,625).
The MCA-88X is an eight-zone/eight-source controller, streamer, and amplifier. Let's break this down: eight zones and sources means that you can have up to eight different sources playing at the same time in up to eight zones simultaneously. If more zones are needed, you can link up to six MCA-88Xs together to create a 48-zone system. One of the available sources is Russound's built-in XStream music streamer, which ended up being my favorite source. I added two additional Russound X-Source streamers ($379) so that I could stream three different things simultaneously. The XStream is currently compatible with Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, TuneIn, AirPlay, DLNA, vTuner, and Bluetooth (with the optional Bluetooth receiver).
In addition to the built-in streaming functionality, the controller has eight analog inputs, one optical digital input, and three coaxial digital inputs. If you want to stream from your portable device without connecting to the network, you can set up the MCA-88X's optional Bluetooth input. The neat thing about the Russound Bluetooth receiver is that it is external to the MCA-88X and can be installed up to 300 feet away. This can be important in light of Bluetooth's relatively limited range and provides the installer with increased flexibility.
Six of the eight zones are powered by a 40-watt-per-channel amplifier, and all eight zones have line-level outputs that can be independently set to fixed or variable. There is also a home theater loop and a paging interface for increased flexibility.
The MCA-88X can interface with other components through its RS-232 and 12v trigger ports and, of course, the more ubiquitous IP control. Drivers for Control4 and Universal Remote Control systems are available, as well. When it comes to controlling the Russound unit, Alexa voice control has recently been implemented, but I used the Russound app on my iPhone the vast majority of the time.
Russound also offers different keypad options, including the XTS touchscreen (shown right, $599), the MDK-C6 double-gang hard button keypad ($419), and the SLK-1 single-gang hard button keypad ($259). The XTS touchscreen provides an interface similar to that of the Russound app, including the full-color artwork. If you are plan to use keypads as the primary means of control, the XTS is what I'd select. The MDK-C6 has a large, gray-scale LCD screen that can display system status, including source, playlist, and track information. The buttons on the MDK-C6 make it easy to access and control the system. The SLK-1 provides basic control and feedback for locations where the lowest profile keypad is desired, but the small format limits the information that can be displayed on the screen, and the trimmed-down button selection provides less functionality. Both the MDK-C6 and SLK-1 also feature IR receivers that will relay the signal back to the MCA-88X.
The MCA-88X, like all of Russound's control systems, is designed to be installed by Russound-certified installer. Russound even requires that a password be entered in order to program the units. The password requirement protects dealers from unauthorized sales and end users from having a non-certified installer set up their system. For the purposes of this review system, Russound discussed my installation needs with me and then sent out the components, along with a password so that I could do the setup myself. The hardest part of the install was fishing a wire out of the wall cavity that I dropped after removing the volume control from the prior system.
I set up four zones total, three of which were in specific rooms of the house. Each of these three zones was controlled by a keypad, and the speakers were powered by the MCA-88X's internal amplifier. The keypads connect to the MCA-88X with a single run of Ethernet cable. Since I already had Ethernet cable run to each location, I simply had to terminate the cable with RJ-45 connectors. The fourth zone was in my backyard and was powered by a separate 70-volt amplifier system, which I connected to the Russound via variable line-level output.
Setting up the inputs was fairly easy. Each of the two X-Source streamers had three wires to be connected: power, Ethernet (connected to a switch), and audio, for which I used digital coaxial cables going into the MCA-88X's digital inputs. The last source I connected was the second-zone analog audio output from my AV receiver.
Once all of the physical connections were made, I accessed the Web Config system by typing in the unit's IP address, followed by the installer password. Using the Russound Web-based configuration system, I was able to easily name each source and zone. The system is extremely flexible, but I will do my best to give you an overview of the options. For sources, you can set the volume trim level and identify the type of source device so that the keypad and/or Russound app can control the device--if it's not already in the Russound database, you can even program IR controls. Zones can be configured to use speaker-level, fixed line-level, or variable outputs, and you can select which zones have access to which sources. If there are sources that you primarily use with one zone, you can designate a primary zone for each source, which means that, as soon as you start playing that source through the MCA-88X, it comes on in that zone automatically. You can also configure a paging system and designate which zones are to be included in "party mode."
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...