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Building in audio-video; ready to bring your system really up to date?

Building in audio-video You've remodeled your kitchen and your bath; now maybe it's time to remodel your audio-video system.

What audio-video system, you say? Well, those big speakers in the living room you bought years ago that you keep bumping into, and the stack of components (probably recently joined by a CD player) that were once de rigueur on your bookshelves, and that big TV that the salesman assured you would deliver real hi-fi sound from your VCR (but never quite has) are, if you stretch the definition, your audio-video system.

But not really.

Since you bought those components, a new generation of audio-video entertainment gear has entered the Western home. With one of today's top-notch systems, you can easily listen to and control audio and video signals in several rooms in your house. Equipment is built into custom cabinetry; speakers are built into the wall or ceiling, becoming virtually invisible and taking little or no space away from the room.

Sound for your television can be fed through the audio equipment, and digital surround sound processors produce movie theater sound, or, if you're listening to music, "concert hall," "stadium," "night club," or any number of other audio environments.

Here's an introduction to this relatively new phenomenon with some guidelines to help you be a knowledgeable consumer.

Custom home electronics: a return to

that console we grew up with

Not only has the equipment evolved, but the way it's integrated into the house has also changed. There are designers who have followed every twist and turn of the home electronics industry and also understand house design and construction. They choose, sometimes even devise, and build in audio-video equipment to meet a client's needs in a particular house. Where did they come from?

Custom electronics designer Chris Stevens of Phoenix Systems in Foster City, California, told us the marketplace created them. "By and large, my clients aren't hobbyists. They don't care about watts per channel, lines of resolution, or any of that stuff. They just want a good-looking, great-sounding system that's easy to use. "It's like a return to the console stereo of the early '60s. That console performed well, it fit into the home and it was simple to use. It also had 65 percent market penetration.

"As components took over and got more and more complicated in pursuit of better and better sound, people dropped out--and market penetration went down to 30 percent.

"The '80s gave us CDs--great sound and simplicity again; the A-V dropouts who grew up listening to that console started coming back."

They came back to a staggering array of possibilities, and not only in the vast choice of media available--CDs, high-fidelity video cassettes, laser disks, audio cassettes. They can also have all this equipment interconnected, fed through remote controllers, and sent to virtually every room in the house.

Also, audio and video have merged. Witness stereo TV, video disk--CD players, surround sound decoders, super hi-fi video cassettes, and remote video monitors.

Not quite as simple as plugging in that console.

How do these designers work?

For the sake of argument, let's say that an audio-video system is as important to your house as, say, the configuration of your kitchen or bathroom. It's not the focus of the house, but it's a significant part of family life.

The idea, then, is to incorporate high-quality audio and video into the overall design of the house.

Architects routinely work with interior designers, security consultants, landscape architects, and specialty contractors. Homeowners often call directly on the same people. Perhaps electronics designers should be added to this list.

Custom home electronics designer-installers bring specialized knowledge and skills to bear on a project, and engineer appropriate solutions. They are experienced at coordinating custom installation jobs with house construction or remodeling, or interior design projects.

A good custom installation can improve the resale value of a house. And, if the gear is built in, it's all mortgageable.

Getting an idea of what you might want

Getting back to the old console idea, first set three basic ground rules: the system must sound good, the system must look good, and the system must be easy to use. You then have to figure out a few things. In which rooms do you want music? How high a quality does the sound need to be in each room--serious listening or background music? In which rooms do you want linked video? What about the sound for the TV: do you want theater quality? Would you want to control more than the volume from more than one room? Would you want a system that provides different audio or video in different rooms at the same time?

And, finally, do you want to see the stuff? One fellow we spoke with definitely did: "For the kind of money this costs, I want to see what I paid for."

This will cost ... WHAT?!

You were no doubt surprised when you found that remodeling that little bathroom of yours cost as much as it did. Well, you're in the same general ballpark here, and sticker shock is a common malady.

It's hard to nail down a specific cost. As Marin County designer Russell Herschelmann told us, "My jobs can vary in price from $500 to $500,000." The two installations you see on the opening pages--both designed by Herschelmann--are in the $15,000 to $25,000 range.

You could likely get a multiroom system with infrared remote control for about $5,000, Chris Stevens told us. Put many factors affect cost.

First are the factors associated with any remodel. Cabinetry costs vary just as they would for a kitchen or bath. Labor costs vary widely depending on how easy it is to snake the wire through the house, to build in speakers, and to refine the installation detailing.

Costs also go up as sound quality goes up; there's a wide price range for speakers, amplifiers, and the like. Surround sound adds the price of the processor (a separate component) as well as two to five or more speakers, depending on the installation. Video options range from basic TV monitors to wall-wide screens and projectors that rise out of custom cabinetry.

The degree of control you have over the system may have the most impact on cost. Controllers that let you work it from a keypad or a hand-held universal remote are very sophisticated pieces of equipment. That ultimate simplicity will cost you; wiring the system so that pushing one button turns on all the components is complex--and that's what you're really paying for with a custom installation.

As when you replumb or rewire your house, you're paying a lot for something you can't see. When plumbers, electricians--or custom installers--have finished their work, the house looks essentially the same.

More on control: rooms versus zones

With a multiroom system, every room in the house gets the same audio or video signal. This is the most basic custom set-up: a main stack of equipment built into the main viewing-listening room, with additional pairs of remote speakers scattered in other rooms.

A multiroom, multizone system lets you receive different audio or video signals in different parts of the house. The kitchen and dining room might be one zone, the den or media room another, the bedrooms another. A controller is built into each zone to allow you to select listening or viewing material and volume control.

Zone controllers add about $2,000 per zone, and that's not including speakers. The controller, either a keypad or an infrared eye, is wired to another component in the main stack of gear; it pulls the desired source (FM, CD, tape) from the main stack and pipes it to the zone.

From the keypad or the infrared remote, one zone can listen to one source while another zone listens to another. It's a great convenience, but multizone systems can be one of the first sacrifices on a tight budget.

Getting on board with a designer

Tracking down a designer is a little tricky, but not impossible. Word of mouth is still the best way, but you can try two other sources.

Check at a quality stereo store; it may have a division that does design and installation, or it may recommend a professional designer-installer. Many designers, however, aren't associated with a retail store, which is neither bad nor good.

The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) is a trade group for the industry. You can call the group at (800) 233-4230 for the names of members in your area.

A qualified installer must be a licensed low-voltage contractor, and should be bonded and insured.

Ask about the designer's background, ask for references, and go to see other installations. Ask references how the project went, if there have been any subsequent problems, and how the installer has responded. These are complicated systems; a good designer installs systems that are relatively trouble-free, and corrects problems promptly.

You don't need a building permit to do a custom installation, but the wiring must meet code. Speaker and controller wire must be CL-2 rated (referring to the outer shielding). Since many installations are done as part of remodeling or new construction, inspectors may check this wiring while they're at your house to inspect the rest of the work.

Going through a typical installation

If you're remodeling anyway, talk to an A-V designer as early in the remodeling process as possible. You can do things in phases, putting only part of the system in place to begin with, but don't lose the opportunity to run wires when walls are opened up. It's infinitely easier to do it then, burying the wire in the wall for future projects.

Designers are just that, and the sooner they can see plans, blueprints, and the like, the more thorough and unrushed their design solutions can be.

Leave the component choices to the designers; they know more about what's available, and which ones are best for your situation. As Russell Herschelmann said, "If you've bought the components, you've already made your first mistake." You'd probably pay more for the components shopping on your own anyway; also, some designers give credit toward labor installation costs if you buy from them.

Sticker shock can set in; you may have to scale down your expectations. Designers can be flexible and can work within your budget. Make sure the designer is listening to you and meeting your needs, not forcing something on you. You can make equipment choices now that will allow you to add to the system later.

Parts, labor, cabinetry, wire, and the like eat up much of the budget. The components themselves could make up as little as a third of it.

Finally, make sure you know how to work the system. Good designer-installers will set everything up for you, program the remote control, and make all the adjustments so that all you have to do is turn the system on. "We set it, you forget it," Herschelmann says.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jun 1, 1991
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