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."
This is the section where we normally discuss the quality of the audio and/or video of the product being tested. For this review I am going to focus more on the overall user experience. The interior speakers to which I had the Russound connected were from a variety of speakers mounted in ceilings or in the corners of the room, making it nearly impossible for me to evaluate traditional audiophile parameters such as imaging and soundstage. That said, I can compare the sound quality of the MCA-88X system to my prior system, which utilized an Integra amplifier feeding a distribution block that fed each speaker pair through an auto-former volume control. The MCA-88X sounded cleaner and more dynamic with all three sets of interior speakers.
I installed the Russound app on several different iOS devices, but I used it primarily on an iPhone 7. When using the app, the phone screen is dominated by the artwork from whatever music is playing. Above the artwork is a power button, which uses color to indicate whether power is on in the indicated zone. Tapping on the zone provides a drop-down menu to select a different zone. The top right contains an icon that resembles sliders from an analog equalizer. Tapping the icon provides access to audio settings, such as loudness and tone controls, as well as multiroom options. The bottom of the screen contains the mute button, the identity of the source, and a button to mark something as a favorite. Most of the everyday control elements, like the transport controls, are located between this bottom row and the artwork. When the streamer is selected as the source, the control area lets the user choose between the streaming services--mine were Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, and the media server function. Some controls are unique to the source. For example, when Pandora is selected, the thumbs-up and thumbs-down controls are available.
I found operation of the Russound app to be mostly intuitive, but there were a few things that were frustrating. The app could be very slow to respond. When I access Pandora or Spotify through the Sonos app, the commands are executed without delay. But through the Russound app, the delay can often be several seconds. While this is still relatively quick, the lag is very noticeable to those of us who use streaming apps on a regular basis.
I found the Russound media server function to be nearly unworkable for accessing my very large music collection. You can search your collection by artist, album, track, etc. So far, so good. The problem comes when you are scrolling through collection: you have to scroll A-Z in small chunks while the files are loading. This can be very tedious because you cannot skip to a section of the alphabet or type in a name to search. Thankfully, I found a great workaround: Roon. Using Roon I was able to select any of the three Russound streamers as my endpoint and use the Roon interface to select music from TIDAL or my own library. Other music programs that can stream to AirPlay devices should also work. A downside to this type of workaround is that you will need to switch between apps to control music selection and the Russound system.
I did not try the XTS keypad other than at a trade show, but it appears to be very similar to running the Russound app. The MDK-C6 keypad (shown right) let me access my favorite sources, switch between Pandora stations, set timers, etc.--all without reaching for my iPhone. The SLK-1 (shown below) is much more limited but still let me access basic playback and control functions.
Overall the Russound system performed very well, but there were a few quirks. As I mentioned above, the handling of local audio files on my NAS drive was quite frustrating until I figured out the Roon workaround. I am sure other music management software would work, too. Still, I would like future versions of the Russound app to better integrate with DLNA servers to provide search capabilities so that it's easier to navigate a larger library.
Lastly, given the system's capability to handle up to 48 zones, it is likely that some zones may be located outside--so I would like to see an outdoor keypad to control at least the most basic functions.
Comparison and Competition
A couple of other competing systems come to mind--including those from Speakercraft and Niles, both veterans in the audio industry. The Speakercraft MRS-664 ($2,099) is a six-source/six-zone, eight-channel amplifier. The Niles MRC-6430 ($1,999) is an eight-channel amplifier that can be configured with up to seven zones and six sources and includes a built-in streamer. The Niles unit can be linked to a second MRC-6430 to create a 12-zone system. If you would like to integrate control of climate and lighting systems, the Niles system can accommodate this, with its Auriel software system.
The Russound MCA-88X system has provided a reliable, easy way for my family and I to listen to music around the house. We use the system regularly, with multiple zones playing at moderate to loud volumes for several hours at a time, and we have never had problems with pushing the amplifiers too hard or unexpected shutdowns. In fact, the Russound MCA-88X was boringly reliable, just the way I like my audio systems.
I appreciated the flexibility and control that are built into the app, as well as the keypads that let us access music in each zone, whether we have our iPhones handy or not. The Russound app made listening to the various streaming services easy to accomplish in whichever zone (or zones) we desired. In addition to playing music from the internal or external streamers, it was easy to play music from any iPhone using AirPlay, and Bluetooth is an option for non-iOS devices. Of course, the ability to control other legacy sources through the Russound system is an added benefit, for those times when you do not want to be limited to the streamers, iPhones, or Bluetooth. When your old-school friends bring over a CD, you can put it in the player connected to your MCA-88X, and the Russound system can remotely control play back of the CD to whatever zone or zones you like. Remote control of a CD player from another room is not a feature I think I would use often, but it might be important for other people.
If I have been able to hold your interest so far, then you know that the MCA-88X system can accommodate and control a wide variety of sources and play music through powered or unpowered zones. It is this type of flexibility, coupled with reliability, that makes the Russound MCA-88X easy to recommend for a wide variety of installations.