Understanding Zones

When you shop around for receivers, pretty much every one out there advertises “multizone!” capability.  This includes all but the most entry-level Denon AVR’s.  But what does “multizone” mean, and how do you get it to work in your home setup?  This can be a confusing endeavor, complicated by the fact that receiver manufacturer’s aren’t always up-front about the actual capabilities and limitations of their multizone setups.

First things first: what is a “zone”, and how is this different than the good old “A/B” speaker switching that has been in stereo amps for years?  The key difference is that a “zone” is fully independent from the main room, multichannel audio setup.  That means, if your receiver has Zone 2 capability, you can turn that other zone on/off independently, you can control volume independently, and, most importantly, you can play a completely different source in the 2nd zone than what is playing in the main zone.  So, for example, your wife can be watching TV in the living room, while you listen to stereo music and sip a cocktail out on the patio where the Zone 2 speakers are located.

With basic “A/B” speaker switching, on the other hand, the “B” speakers simply play a mirror image of the signal going to the “A” speakers.  That means you cannot control source or volume independently from what’s happening in the main zone.  The “B” speaker setup is primarily useful for when you have a secondary, dedicated 2ch speaker rig that you use for listening to music, and you want a way to easily switch between the two alternate setups.  In this case, it’s not important to have independent control, because you will either be using one or the other depending on need, not necessarily both at the same time.

Note that in the text below, I will typically refer to “Zone 2″; however, some higher level models feature three or even four zones.  The same rules and limitations generally apply to these additional zones as well.

How to hook up Zone 2 speakers

There are two ways to hook up Zone 2 speakers to your Denon AVR:

Option 1: If you are only running 5.1 in your main zone, you can reassign your SURROUND BACK amplifiers to power the Zone 2 speakers. To do this, go to the AMP ASSIGN setting in your receiver’s menus and set the assignment to “Zone 2″. With this setup, you will hook up your two surround speakers with normal speaker wire and connect them to the SURR.BACK LEFT/RIGHT speaker posts on the back of the receiver. The receiver will power the speakers, and you will also be able to control the volume for Zone 2 in the receiver.  These speaker terminals are labeled “AMP ASSIGN” (seen in the image below) to denote that these two amplifier channels can be reassigned to tasks other than powering Surround Back speakers.

Typical 7 channel speaker binding posts showing “assignable” Surround Back terminals

Option 2: The second option (and your only option if you are running 7.1 in the main zone) is to connect an external amplifier to the “ZONE 2 OUT” pre-outs on the back of your AVR. You will use standard RCA cables (red/white analog) to connect from the Zone 2 pre-outs to the inputs of your external amplifier. In this setup, the external amp will provide the power and (with most setups) volume control for the Zone 2 speakers.

Zone 2 Pre-Outs – connect these to the external amplifier with RCA cables

Helpful Hint: Before you buy, make sure to take a gander at the back panel of the receiver you are considering.  Not all models offer the second option (pre-outs); typically, this feature is only offered on “CI” models (now called “X Series” as of 2013) in the recent Denon model lineups.  So, for example, the 1913 model can only utilize Option 1 above, meaning if you are running a 7ch setup in your main zone, you cannot run Zone 2 speakers!  The step-up 2113ci model, however, does have Zone 2 pre-outs, meaning that you can choose between the two options for Zone 2 speaker connection.

Limitations of Multizone Setups

Remember what I was saying above about how manufacturers aren’t always up-front about the limitations of multizone?  The primary limitation, which is true for the vast majority of receivers from any brand (not just Denon!) is that Zone 2 is ANALOG ONLY!!. This means your cable box hooked up with optical audio, your PS3 hooked up with HDMI, etc. will NOT be output to Zone 2!  This unpublicized factoid, typically only disclosed in the fine print somewhere deep in the manual, comes as a shock to most consumers who wonder why they get silence when they try to turn on their Zone 2 speakers.

All is not lost, however. All you need to do is, for any source which you would like to output to Zone 2, just “double up” your connection by running a second set of analog RCA cables (red/white) from the analog outs of your source to the corresponding input on the back of the Denon.

For example, let’s say you want to set it up so you can hear the football game on the deck using your patio speakers. Your cable box is hooked up to the “TV/CBL” input with HDMI. To get the Zone 2 speakers to work, you just have to run a pair of stereo RCA cables from the red/white output on the back of the cable box to the corresponding inputs labeled “TV/CBL” on the back of the Denon.

Now, when you select “TV/CBL” as the Zone 2 source, the Denon will be able to take the audio as it will automatically grab the audio from the analog inputs.

With certain higher level Denon receivers, there is a bonus capability in that you can output digital audio to Zone 2 as long as it is 2.0 PCM via an S/PDIF connection (optical toslink or digital coax). So, practically, this will only really help with something like a CD player or MP3 player that is outputting two-channel digital PCM. It still won’t do much for your cable box outputting Dolby Digital. And it still won’t work with HDMI, only optical/coax. So, the analog cable solution described above is probably still your best bet.

What about network audio?  The good news is that, for all of these great new networked Denon receivers, internally tuned network audio WILL go to Zone 2!  That means you can enjoy Pandora, Spotify, AirPlay, or Internet Radio streams on your Zone 2 speakers.

That said, there is one final limitation to be aware of: prior to the xx13 models, there is a quirky limitation with AirPlay with respect to multizone audio.  When you choose the receiver as your AirPlay speaker, the AirPlay stream “hijacks” the entire receiver.  That means you cannot listen to AirPlay independently in Zone 2!  If you are playing AirPlay in Zone 2, you also have to play the AirPlay stream in your main zone.  This restriction was finally lifted for the xx13 models; however, note that there will still be an initial “hijack” when the AirPlay connection is initially made.  After the AirPlay stream is initiated, you can then switch main zone source back to something else.

Multizone Changes for 2013 Models

As of 2013, Denon has expanded the digital multizone capabilities of multizone receivers by adding a feature called “All Zone Stereo”.  This “Party Mode” zone feature debuted on the high end AVR-4520CI in 2012, and then trickled down to the consumer level models in 2013 with the newly rebranded E and X Series lineups .

Engaging All Zone Stereo allows you to play ANY source (digital or analog) in all zones simultaneously. It requires you to turn on the other zones first, and then when you engage All Zone Stereo the receiver will create a stereo downmix of any incoming input signal, and then lock into MultiCh Stereo mode for the main zone and broadcast the stereo output to all other zones.  It still doesn’t allow independent digital audio to other zones, but it’s a big improvement.

As an additional enhancement, some models (only the X3000 and X4000 as of 2013) have expanded the ability to send digital audio independently to Zone 2 by also allowing two-channel digital PCM output from an HDMI input in addition to S/PDIF.  This is a major feature enhancement for those with sophisticated multizone installations who don’t want to have redundant digital+analog connections for all sources.

Finally, some of the newest models have an HDMI “Zone” output, which effectively is a built-in HDMI matrix switch allowing an independent HDMI feed to another zone.  So, in other words, you could have all sources hooked up with HDMI, and watch a Blu-ray movie in the main zone while piping the cable box HDMI signal to the TV in the next room where someone is watching a football game.  All with HDMI only.  However, it is important to note that the HDMI Zone output is unprocessed (passthrough) only and thus requires an additional HDMI “sink” on the other end to receive and process the signal.  For example, an HDMI display or another HDMI receiver.  The HDMI signal played in the other zone is not decoded and processed, rather it is simply passed along for another processor to handle.

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