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.