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Upgrading In-ceiling Speakers for Whole Home Audio with Niles

by October 19, 2011
Upgrading In-ceiling Speakers for Whole Home Audio

Upgrading In-ceiling Speakers for Whole Home Audio

While many of us would love to spend the majority of our day locked in our man-caves or home theaters listening to music on our big audio rigs, the reality is that we don't.  In fact, most of our time at home is spent in the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom or family room.  This being the case, whole house audio should be a part of your home if it is not already.  And it shouldn't be an afterthought.  Many newer homes, especially in tract-housing developments, come with pre-installed systems, but many times these consist of cheap speakers with paper cones that have been installed by the alarm guy who "specializes in home audio."

The good news is, it's not hard to replace cheap speakers that may already be in your ceilings.  If you have never had a system in your home, get on the phone and talk to your local custom integrator and find out what your options are.  Are you a do-it-yourselfer?  If you have access to your attic and you are pretty handy, it can be a simple weekend project. 

Our project home is about 15 years old, and has easy access to the attic.  Although we had some entry level speakers in many of the rooms, we felt it was time to upgrade into a more audiophile-worthy level of speakers, so we contacted Niles and arranged for some speakers from their ICS directed soundfield ceiling-mount series to replace the smaller, cheaper speakers we had been using.  In addition to the speakers, Niles provided us with the fully configurable SI-1230 Power Amplifier.  This is the ultimate power source for a multi-room system, providing twelve channels x 30 watts of clean power that can be configured in an endless variety of setups.  The SI-1230 is a cost-effective solution for any whole-house application. This amp provides a consistent and flexible source of power for all of the zones in the house.  Each channel's output can be adjusted at the amp to compensate for the acoustics or challenges in each room.

We combined the SI-1230 multi-channel amplifier with source components from SONOS, and now have access to not only our digital music collection that resides on a dedicated Mac, but also a world of music via the internet through sources such as Spotify, Pandora, and literally thousands of radio stations around the globe.  For a whole house audio system, it is hard to beat this combination of sources for our home.  The SONOS system allows us to control the system from our MacBooks, iPhones or iPod Touch from anywhere in the house.


Since we had existing speakers in all of our rooms, all of our wiring was done and our installation was pretty simple. The Niles speakers were larger than those that we replaced, so the first step was to check in the attic and make sure that we had plenty of room between beams to enlarge the holes that had been cut.  Then it was back downstairs to our ladder, and we unscrewed and removed the existing speakers.  Using the cardboard patterns supplied by Niles, we traced the larger circle around the existing holes and used a hand drywall saw to make the cuts If you have a cordless one-handed reciprocating saw, this job can be much easier). Using an empty cardboard box positioned just under the hole helps to cut down on the dust and debris in your room, and makes cleanup very minimal.

marking diameter

One thing that drew us to the ICS series was the built-in enclosure that ships with the speakers.  All Niles' ICS Ceiling Mount Loudspeakers feature a unique, integrated custom-tuned Rear Wave Control (RWC) enclosure.  Such an enclosure creates a controlled and predictable sound from the speaker, regardless of where it is installed.  In addition, it reduces significantly unwanted sound from bleeding into adjacent rooms via the open attic space.  While the shape is unusual, looking a bit like the head of the creature from Alien, it is designed for ease of installation. It fits easily through the round hole that has been cut in the ceiling for installation.  This makes it a great solution, not only for new construction, but also for retrofit applications such as ours.

attic view ceiling speaker

A peek from above at an in-ceiling installation

Niles' build-quality is really on display here - these are quality speakers with fittings to match.  They ship with your choice of round or square ultra low-profile grills with a thin bezel.  The grills attach via powerful magnets, making installation simple. This simplicity is important in a home such as ours with 14 foot ceilings where you are teetering on a 10 - 12 foot ladder during the installation. There is additional flexibility with Niles' patent-pending spring-loaded mounting clamps, which accommodate a variety of mounting applications.

The ICS Ceiling Mount series speakers we installed all features Niles' patented and award-winning Directed Soundfield pivoting woofer and tweeter technologies.  This enables the woofer and tweeter to be pivoted independently up to 15 degrees in any direction. This is helpful when you have an aesthetic or installation issue which requires you to mount the speaker in a less-than-desirable location - the pivoting speaker can be adjusted to direct the loudspeaker sound into the optimum listening area.  The ICS speakers are designed with premium components including copper caps, high-level crossovers, and Kapton voice coil formers.

Installation was very simple, especially since we already had holes and wiring in place.  One thing worth mentioning is that these speakers are really BIG.  They are large, beefy drivers with the alien enclosures on them, and can be a tad cumbersome to handle as you climb a ladder and try to attach the speaker wire via the spring-loaded clamps.  Doing this one-handed while standing on the top of a 10 foot ladder proved to be quite a delicate, if not outright dangerous exercise - so grab a friend to help out.  Coincidentally, it is possible to remove the RWC enclosure if your application does not have space to accommodate it.  This is an excellent benefit that just adds to the flexibility of the speakers. 

Here is the breakdown of the speakers we used in each room:

Master Bathroom: RWC7SI – 7" Stereo Input Directed Soundfield Loudspeaker

  • 7" glass fiber woofer cone with a curvilinear profile
  • Dual 1" UltraSilk soft dome tweeters and woofers—pivot together up to 20º in any direction
  • Bridge-mounted Stereo Imaging (SI) tweeter array directs the high frequency sounds from both channels at opposing angles

The "SI" model includes both a dual offset tweeter array as well as a dual voice-coil woofer to deliver stereo imaging from a single loudspeaker, which is why we chose this speaker for our small master bathroom.  We felt that two speakers in this room would be too much, so we opted for this single "stereo" speaker.

The speaker has held up well in this steamy, humid environment, and has plenty of power to cut through the noise of the shower, hair dryer, and other... um... unmentionable sounds that tend to emanate from this room.  As for the stereo separation, in my real-world use over the past several months, I cannot say that I notice actual separation the way I would have with two separate speakers.  The speaker is dynamic and often has classic rock pumping through it in the mornings as I try to wake up in the shower, but I can't honestly say that it is anywhere close to the experience of discrete left and right speakers.  But considering its purpose and daily use, it has performed well. If I had it to do over again, I might go for a pair of speakers. That being said, the quality of sound from the 7" woofer is good.  It is warm and delivers adequate bass for an in-ceiling speaker.

Great Room & Kitchen: RWC8.7 - 8" Left/Center/Right Directed Soundfield Loudspeaker

  • 8" IMPACT (Improved Aluminum Ceramic Technology) woofer cone with curvilinear profile and extended pole
  • 1" titanium nano-coated IMPACT dome tweeter and 1-1/2" titanium nano-coated IMPACT dome midrange—pivot together up to 20º in any direction
  • Kapton non-conductive voice coil former and copper shorting caps
  • Dialog switch for center channel applications
  • Tweeter level switch

Since these rooms connect and are the largest in the house, we opted for the larger, 8" woofer models.  The ceilings are 14 feet high and there is a lot of area to fill in this room that connects to a dining room area, as well as the kitchen and breakfast rooms.  We installed four speakers in the Great Room and two in the Kitchen/Breakfast room. Coverage is excellent. While there is no doubt that a subwoofer would add tremendously to the sonic character of these (or for that matter, most any small speaker), they perform very well. There is almost never a moment where we do not have music playing through these speakers. If we have people over at the house hanging out, we tend to keep the volume low - typically The Beatles catalog is shuffling.  As background speakers, the ICS series outperforms other in-ceilings I have tested, as well as those I hear in other people's homes and in restaurants.  The highs cut through enough to add some sizzle, and the bass and midrange are very balanced. My previous experience with entry level speakers left me with overwhelming midrange.  I experienced little to no bass, and the highs were decent, but did not stand out.  The Niles' have much more balanced tone across a range of musical styles.  

When alone in the house, the wife and kids can often be found rocking' out at pretty impressive volume levels.  The music at our house is quite diverse - you can walk in and hear The Kooks one day and Aaron Gillespie's worship record the next.  As with most of the whole house systems I have auditioned, I find that singer-songwriter material shines.  Acoustic guitars sound great, and rich vocals from the likes of Jonatha Brooke float through the rooms begging to be turned up.  The go-to playlist seems to always be The Beatles catalog, which always sounds great whether buried in the background or cranked up for everyone to enjoy.

Game Room: RWC7.7 – 7" Elite Performance Directed Soundfield Loudspeaker

  • 7" IMPACT (Improved Aluminum Ceramic Technology) woofer cone with curvilinear profile and extended pole
  • 1" titanium nano-coated IMPACT dome tweeter and woofer—pivots up to 20º in any direction
  • Kapton non-conductive voice coil former and copper shorting caps
  • Dialog switch for center channel applications
  • Tweeter level switch

Our game room connects to the large, open Great Room that is described above. Its highlight is a two-story bay window stretching from floor to ceiling, which gives the room a half octagon shape.  Originally designed as the dining room in the house, we added built-in bookshelves along one wall, and replaced the dining room table with a game table for cards and board gaming.  There is a ceiling fan with lighting hanging from the center of the room.  Although this room gets plenty of bleed from the large RWC 8.7 speakers in the Great Room, we felt it would be good to cover it with a pair of smaller, 7" RWC 7.7 speakers.

ceiling install below

Although this room also has the ridiculously high 14' ceilings, the RWC7.7's provided plenty of coverage for the small footprint of the room, blending seamlessly with the voice-matched RWC 8.7's.  The grills are identical and at a glance it is not apparently obvious that they are a smaller diameter.  This is a perfect solution for a smaller and more affordable speaker to compliment adjacent rooms where you are using the large, flagship 8.7 models.  Like their big brother, you can pivot the tweeters if needed to direct sound to specific listening areas.  Sound was smooth and voices articulate, keeping a consistent sound as we move through the large, open floorplan of our home. 

Dedicated Theater Room: RWC7.5 – 7” Left/Center/Right Directed Soundfield Loudspeaker

  • 1" fluid-cooled Teteron® dome tweeter and woofer—pivots up to 20º in any direction
  • Dialog switch for center channel applications
  • Tweeter level switch

wood ceiling speakerThis room is separate from our main home and has 8-foot ceilings. This represented a situation where we wanted to use the 7" Niles in-ceiling speakers to deliver Surround and Surround Back audio to a wide seating area. The room is decently sized, around 25 x 22, and we had already configured the front soundstage with a really nice set of RBH Sound Signature Series 61-SE/R Reference speakers. The surrounds, however, really required some thought due to the block wall construction and difficulty of getting wiring to anything other than an attic-access point. An in-ceiling solution just made a lot of sense and we were able to cut in and mount these speakers quite easily through the 3/4-inch tongue-and-groove pine ceiling.

What we liked about the RWC7.5's was the ability and flexibility we had to point both the woofer and tweeters. While we don't recommend drastic changes here, it was possible to create a more diffuse surround field by directing the speakers slightly over the seated area. The sound from these speakers was clean and clear and was absolutely perfect for this application. We don't typically advocate in-ceiling speakers for your mains, but for surrounds and the surround back channels it was absolutely the right move and a great sound solution for the room.

Garage: OS 6.5 Indoor/Outdoor Loudspeaker

  • Impedance: 8 Ohms
  • Recommended Amplifier Power: 5W To 125W
  • Frequency Response: 75Hz - 21kHz +/-3dB
  • Sensitivity: 90dB For 2.83V Pink Noise
  • 6" Interlaced Carbon Fiber Cone
  • 1" Tri-laminate Teteron Dome
  • Dimensions (includes Bracket): 12" High X 7-7/16" Wide X 7-3/4" Deep
  • Lifetime Limited Warranty

Don't you think that your outdoor speakers should exceed military anti-corrosion specifications?  Niles does too.  And that is just one of the things that makes the OS 6.5 Indoor/Outdoor speakers great.  I have a pair of these speakers that are probably at least 15 years old, and after living outdoors through the changing seasons in Nashville and now in the salty air of coastal South Carolina, it was time to replace them.  When I told Niles about this, they were excited to replace them with a pair of the OS 6.5's.

fronts rear outdoor

These speakers, simply put, ROCK. They have solid, booming bass and excellent highs.  They are a rock and roll speaker, perfect for your back porch, garage, or even for use indoors.  They feature an Integrated woofer/baffle assembly that increases the 6" cone area (adding to the bass output) as well as a fluid-cooled 1" tri-laminate teteron dome tweeter with ultra-wide dispersion.  The woofer is a 6" interlaced carbon fiber design that is rigid, producing lower distortion and reduced breakup. And did I mention these are water and weatherproof?    Designed to withstand both frigid and hot conditions, they are equally at home in arctic conditions as they are in the humid tropics. 

I have mounted these speakers both on my back porch, and also in my garage.  I must admit that in these locations, they most frequently have classic rock such as Boston or Tom Petty cranking through them at pretty high levels. These speakers sound twice their size, with serious volume output. They are very efficient and easy to drive with either the SONOS digital amp or using available 30-watt channels from the Niles SI-1230 multi-channel power amplifier. The biggest problem I am having with them right now is deciding whether to keep them in the garage or out on the back porch! 

Niles' line of indoor/outdoor speakers is a no-brainer when trying to decide what to use in weather-sensitive environments. They have a wide range of sizes and styles available, and all will give you years of excellent performance. Take a look at the side-by-side of my old speakers versus the new ones. These things are built tough and sound great.  I can highly recommend them for your home or workplace.


Although we used the Niles ICS speakers in a retrofit situation, they are equally suited to new construction.  But if you are considering upgrading your whole-house audio speakers, the ICS line is the way to go.  These large speakers with their integrated custom-tuned Rear Wave Control (RWC) enclosure will work great in a situation where you have existing holes that you can expand for larger speakers.  If you have limited space in your ceiling, such as in the corner of a room with a tray ceiling or an area that has hidden duct-work, the RWC enclosures can be removed for easier installation, although sound quality may suffer a bit.  Niles remains a leader in professional audio for integrated home audio solutions.


About the author:
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Over the years J. has constantly found himself to be an "early-adopter," spending way too much money on "new" technologies such as Compact Disc, LaserDisc, and DVD. He is one of the few people who actually purchased (and still owns) a CORE programmable remote control (bonus points if you remember this product).

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