Russound MCA-88X Streaming Housewide Audio Controller Review

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PRICE $3,499 ($4,477 as reviewed)

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Fast setup/programming
Supports modern and legacy sources
Integrates with many third-party systems
AirPlay gives virtually unlimited access
Minus
NAS streaming has quirks
Native app support is fairly limited

THE VERDICT
Russound delivers whole-home audio entertainment in a single, massively expandable chassis, allowing you to enjoy legacy analog/digital sources or modern streaming.

Streaming and app-based control may be all the rage for music listening, but they ignore the fact that many people still have older, legacy gear they want to enjoy around their homes. Sometimes, whether it’s a CD player, turntable, or cable/satellite set-top box, “stream it from the cloud” isn’t a workable solution. Also, most modern wireless streaming music systems, such as Sonos and Play-Fi, eschew any type of wall-based control, relying solely on a smartphone or tablet interface.

If you want to fill your home with music from virtually any source— and you like the idea of being able to have a go-to, always-ready, inwall controller—then Russound’s MCA-88X might be the perfect solution

A Legacy in Audio
If you’ve looked at audio distribution gear in the last, like, ever, then Russound is probably a name you’re familiar with. Founded in New England in 1967, the company has been a constant fixture in audio distribution, serving both the entry-level DIY market and the high-end custom installation market.

Russound is known for volume controls and A-Bus products, along with stereo and multichannel amplifiers, unique ComPoint intercoms, and architectural speakers. With the new X series of products, Russound is integrating streaming as well as AirPlay into the mix, taking full advantage of modern music needs without abandoning the past.

The MCA-88X leads Russound’s distributed-audio lineup, delivering as many as eight sources to eight zones, with one onboard XStream source. It has 12 x 40 watts of onboard digital amplification for driving six zones; an external amp is required to power zones 7 and 8. If eight zones aren’t enough for your home, rest assured that you can link together as many as six of these bad boys, resulting in a whopping 48-zone system that would be suitable for even the most Vanderbilt of residences.

Certified Installer Required
Today, Russound is based in Newmarket, New Hampshire, where the company has a close relationship with the custom installation market. So close, in fact, that they have developed the “Russound Certified Installer (RCI) Program,” of which the MCA-88X is a part.

According to Russound, “The RCI Program is designed to provide the best possible product and installation experience to our consumers while maximizing the value that the thousands of Russound installers in the U.S. and around the world offer to their customers throughout the sale and installation process.”

RCI products ship in a “locked” state and will function only after they’ve been enabled by a certified installer. Fortunately, this is a simple authentication process that merely requires the installer to key in his e-mail address and password while the unit is connected to the internet.

This not only aims to cut down on unauthorized internet sales but also guarantees that a trained installer will be involved in the installation, (ideally) ensuring it is done correctly. Russound also feels that the “aftersales support of a Russound Certified Installer provides enormous benefits to the end-user and is the principal way that Russound can provide a consistent product experience.” As a professional installer myself, I couldn’t agree more. (And, for the record: Yes, I did get certified by Russound, too.)

Packed in the Back
The MCA-88X’s rear panel is all business, with virtually every inch of real estate packed with a connector of some kind. Fortunately, Russound’s engineers laid out the panel with great thought, and setup for the installer is actually quite straightforward once you find your bearings.

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Along the bottom left are eight sets of analog RCA source inputs/outputs for connecting up to eight components. To the right are eight fixed or variable line outputs for connecting external amplifiers. A killer feature is the MCA-88X’s ability to handle three digital audio sources—terrific for integrating modern devices that have eschewed analog audio, such as a Blu-ray player or an Apple TV. There’s also a dedicated RJ45 connection for Russound’s BTC-1X Bluetooth module.

The rear panel uses tool-less, Phoenix-type speaker connectors for directly linking speakers to zones 1 through 6, and it has RJ45 ports for connecting Russound’s MDK-C6 or SLK-1 keypad controller to a zone. (The XTS touchscreen I received connects directly to the network, not physically to the MCA-88X.)

On the control side, Russound offers a slew of options to make the MCA-88X as setup friendly and agnostic as possible. Virtually every component made today can be controlled via infrared (IR), and the MCA-88X includes seven routed IR minijack connections, one of which is an always-active common output. (Sources 1 and 7 share a connection, as do sources 2 and 8.) This is where an audio controller differs from a streaming system like Sonos or Play-Fi, in that it can actually control other equipment—say, powering on/off devices, skipping tracks on a CD, or changing channels on your cable tuner. An RS-232 interface enables bidirectional communication between the MCA-88X and an automation system; however, most modern systems will instead opt for IP-based control using the Ethernet connection. (Russound integrates with Control4, RTI, URC, Key Digital, Fibaro, and Pro Control. Unfortunately, the Control4 driver was going through final testing and certification at the time of my review period, so I didn’t get a chance to experience it.)

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There are also several trigger inputs and outputs that can perform some handy functions. For example, one can be used to trigger external amplifiers. Another one, a paging trigger input, can be used to interface with a telephone or doorbell system to mute music in all zones and play the chime or page. Lastly, a trigger that’s labeled Home Theater can be used to make sure the MCA-88X doesn’t power down sources that might be shared with another (i.e., home theater) system based on the AVR’s status.

Setup
Configuring the MCA-88X is performed using either Russound’s SCS-C5 software or a Web Config browser. Logging into the MCA-88X’s IP address prompts you to enter a password to access the configuration settings; that done, setup is simple and fast. You can choose which zones are active and name them, set whether the analog outputs are fixed or variable, name sources, choose which sources are available in each zone, configure network settings, etc. Additional customizable options include things like loudness, bass, treble, and balance, as well as source and level trim, zone turn-on volume, grouping zones together, and whether a zone participates in Party mode. Many of these settings are also available within the MyRussound iOS and Android app, which lets end users personalize and tweak performance without involving the installer. All told, basic setup configuration took me about 15 minutes.

Diving deeper into the process, you configure the internal streamer and which services to display. The system currently supports Pandora, Spotify Connect, TuneIn, SiriusXM, and vTuner, but according to Russound, the company is looking to grow this roster and is “in talks with all key services.” Fortunately, because AirPlay is on board, you can play anything your iOS device is capable of streaming. You can optionally password-protect the AirPlay stream, requiring someone to enter a password before they can broadcast—a cool feature to keep a tech-savvy partygoer from bogarting your audio mix.

Another potentially cool feature is the ability to set up a Primary Zone for streaming, and to use the optional BTC-1X Bluetooth module. With this configured, the Primary Zone automatically starts playing whenever you begin streaming from AirPlay, Spotify Connect, or Bluetooth. Why is this “potentially cool”? Well, at first, I configured my master bedroom as the Primary Zone, but whenever I started Spotify in a different room, the music would automatically play in the bedroom, too, frequently waking up my sleeping wife and newborn. Fortunately, this “feature” is easily disabled, in case you don’t have a Primary Zone you would always use.

The installer will also do the programming to set up the IR control for connected components. Russound makes this easy on the programmer by dividing this into categories, such as Device Type (Satellite, CD, etc.), Manufacturer, and Device Code. If your component doesn’t exist in Russound’s library, codes can be learned by shooting commands from the original remote at the front of the MCA-88X.

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Along with the MCA-88X, Russound sent an XSource single-zone streaming media player ($379) and an XTS wall-mounted touchscreen controller ($599) so I could get a more complete user experience. The XSource can be used as a standalone with any system or incorporated as an extra streaming source with the MCA-88X. Besides offering the same streaming features as the MCA-88X, the XSource includes a USB connection for attaching an external drive, making it very simple to add more music. It requires a hardwired hookup to the network, and then it links to the MCA-88X via coaxial, optical, or analog audio connection. The XSource is configured using the same Web Config tool, making it super installer-friendly.
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The form factor of the XTS controller is incredibly similar to that of the iPhone 6. It mounts in a standard single-gang wall box and can be oriented portrait or landscape. The 4.7-inch QHD (960 x 540) display is amazingly bright and sharp, and it provides an “always on” point of control for the system. The XTS runs the same MyRussound app, which makes for a very simple learning curve. Since it uses Power-over-Ethernet, it requires only a single Cat cable to your network to receive both data and power. (Optionally, the XTS can be powered via 12VDC.)Streamin’ at the Savoy
I installed the MyRussound app on my iPad Air and iPhone 6, and even though the iPad version makes terrific use of the additional real estate, I found myself using the iPhone as the principal controller about 90 percent of the time. Fortunately, the app is well designed and gives easy access to every option and feature you need in a simple, uncluttered manner. It even offers a nice “tutorial” when you access a room that is off, with a visual explanation of what each icon represents.

The XTS experience is virtually identical to using the iPhone, except that the XTS is quite a bit brighter and responds more quickly. While I didn’t use it nearly as much, it was nice to have that “permanent” point of control for times when I didn’t have my phone handy (say, when it was charging).

The currently selected room appears at the top, with the selected source and volume displayed at the bottom. The middle of the screen displays cover art and metadata of the current track playing, along with transport controls. A settings icon in the upper-right corner takes you to adjusting audio settings and multiroom options like Party mode, where all zones instantly turn on to the same source, with a master zone linking volumes in all areas.

The phone/tablet app features a really cool “Launcher” that lets you quickly jump into another app, web widget, or web page. For example, you could add a webcam, your Twitter app, YouTube, or practically anything else, and switching back and forth is practically seamless. I added my Lutron lighting control app to easily jump back and forth between controlling my lights and music, and it worked great.

I didn’t have any issues using any of the streaming services, listening primarily to Pandora and Spotify. Pandora gives you the full suite of features, such as adding new stations and giving thumbs up/down to a song. If you’ve ever used Spotify Connect, then you know exactly how that operates. AirPlay also worked great for enjoying my Google Play Music channels.

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My biggest criticism of the MCA88X’s streaming was its handling of stored music files. I use a Western Digital My Cloud 3-terabyte NAS drive to hold my music, and it was a bit laggy and glitchy in operation. Sometimes, I would just get a spinning circle that would time out; other times, I’d get a “Drive Unavailable” error message. Once music playback began, it would do fine, but browsing could be frustrating. (Conversely, I never have any issues streaming from this drive with my Control4 system or Marantz AV8802A processor.)Also a bummer: There wasn’t any kind of search feature, at least with this particular NAS drive (see below). When I wanted to find music, I was relegated to scrolling through alphabetized lists of artists, tracks, albums, genres, etc. After 20 items or so, the system had to load the next batch of information, a process that occasionally resulted in an error. An “Artist Index” option helped to speed up the search by breaking things down to ABC, DEF, GHI, etc. Russound responded that it was the drive’s implementation of DLNA that determines what menu and search choices are available, and that another NAS drive could yield a different interface.

Along the same lines, and common with some other streaming systems, there was no way to queue up songs. Picking a new album or song starts that selection playing immediately and wipes out what had been playing.

In the win column, the MCA-88X handles hi-res audio (FLAC and WAV) up to 192 kilohertz/24 bits. My collection of HDtracks.com music sounded great, especially playing through my 10-inch Origin Acoustics in-ceiling speakers. I listened to numerous albums, and they played without issue.

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The MCA-88X uses Class D switching amplifiers that are highly efficient and cool running; however, they shouldn’t be expected to have the chutzpah of traditional stand-alone power amplifiers. For example, the 12 amp channels are rated to handle a minimum of 8-ohm loads—meaning that they shouldn’t drive more than a single speaker system each—and the gain seems a bit low as I found myself bumping levels a bit higher than customary for my regular housewide amplifier (Niles SI-1230 Series 2). Still, the amps coaxed plenty of bass performance out of those big Origin Acoustics in-ceilings and drove my poolside speakers to backyard-filling levels. Further, if you ever need more power, an outboard amp can be added to any zone.

Conclusion
Even though the MCA-88X is a journeyman audio controller, it isn’t going to be for everyone. If you’re looking to pare down a system to as few components as possible, and you only intend to stream cloud content to a few rooms, then it likely will be overkill. But if you have a large home, want to continue enjoying legacy equipment while having access to streaming and hi-res audio, need advanced features like paging/doorbell and automation control integration, and still enjoy an in-wall control system, then Russound has delivered a single-box solution that offers a lot of bang for the buck.

Specs
MCA-88X: 12 x 40-watt amplification; built-in streaming; AirPlay and DLNA support; 17 x 3.5 x 17.2 in (WxHxD); 28.8 lb; rack-mountable with included ears
Inputs: Stereo RCA line level (8), coaxial digital (3), Toslink optical digital (1), RJ45 (11: Ethernet, RNET, Bluetooth BTC-1X module, 8 keypad ports), 3.5mm trigger (2), RS-232, USB (for firmware updates)
Outputs: Phoenix-type stereo speaker connection (6), RCA analog stereo source (8), RCA analog stereo line (8, fixed or variable), 3.5mm trigger (2), 3.5mm routed IR (7), RJ45 RNET link, detachable power cable
Music Services Supported: Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn, SiriusXM, vTuner
File Formats Supported: AAC, AAC+, MP3, OGG; FLAC and WAV up to 192/24
XSource: AirPlay and DLNA support; 4 x 1.75 x 6.375 in (WxHxD); 1.2 lb
Inputs: USB, Ethernet, power
Outputs: RCA analog, coaxial digital, Toslink optical digital
XTS: Wall-mounted color touchscreen, 4.7 in QHD Display; 3.2 x 5.2 x 11.3 in (WxHxD); 1.1 lb
Connections: RJ45 Ethernet (with 802.3af POE), optional external power
Price: $3,499 ($4,477 as reviewed)

(soundandvision.com, https://goo.gl/mDvMtG)

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