Connoisseur's Guide to Home Theater Systems

  • Brent Butterworth

Most of today’s advanced home theater systems are designed and built by custom electronics installation firms. Such a firm can, if asked, provide a turnkey home theater with little involvement on the homeowner’s part. However, great home theaters are usually the result of close collaboration between the custom installation firm and the client.

The budding audio/video connoisseur can get the best from a custom installation firm if he or she understands the basic structure of a home theater system, takes the trouble to select the right custom installation firm for the project, and works with that firm to ensure the desired result.

Home Theater or Media Room?

The terms home theater and media room are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there is a difference between the two, and understanding that difference is important.

Professionals generally agree that home theater refers to a dedicated space for enjoying home entertainment. A typical home theater seats at least 6 people (and as many as 25), usually in luxurious reclining seats. The video image comes from a projector with a separate screen. The speakers are usually concealed, and all of the other equipment hides in a cabinet or in a separate room. Decor often echoes the look of classic theaters built a century ago, but contemporary styling is also popular.

A media room is a more casual space, often incorporating a couch, a table or two, and the same style of decor found in the rest of the home. Indeed, many media rooms are just living rooms or dens with audio/video systems. Most families use a media room more often than they would a dedicated home theater. The system may employ a large flat-panel TV or a video projector with a screen that retracts into the ceiling when not in use. Speakers are often placed on shelves or mounted on a wall, although they can be concealed completely. Other components may sit on a rack or hide in a cabinet.

Neither a home theater nor a media room is right for every occasion and every homeowner. In fact, many homeowners have both: a dedicated home theater for more formal entertainment and a media room for hanging out with the family.

Finding the Right Custom Installer

Most custom installers are hired through referrals from neighbors and friends. However, it is best to talk with two or three different firms. After all, the decision is both personal and technical. A home theater or media room usually takes weeks and sometimes months to install, so the client will be interacting often with the firm’s principals and employees.

Many homeowners find an installer through a referral from their interior designer. The advantage of this is that the installer will almost certainly be dependable and will have a good working relationship with the designer. However, interior designers often gravitate to the installers who are most willing to compromise audio/video performance for the sake of design. Homeowners who demand top audio and video performance may be better served by hiring the installation firm first, then asking the installer what interior designers he or she prefers to work with.

The best way to find a qualified installer in your area is to visit www.cedia.net, the Web site of the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association. The site’s referral service lists local installers, the brands they carry, and the training they have undergone.

The scale of your project may eliminate some firms from consideration. Firms who install modest media-room systems seldom have the resources to design and build a $250,000 custom home theater. And firms who specialize in custom home theaters often shy away from small projects, although they sometimes do them as favors for their best clients.

Those who desire a world-class home theater should consider using a firm that specializes in theater design and furnishings, such as Acoustic Innovations or First Impressions Theme Theatres. These companies design home theaters for clients worldwide and work with local installation firms to complete their projects.

Working With Custom Installers

Even the best custom installers have projects that don’t work out as well as their other ones. In these cases, the problem often lies in the client’s expectations and demands.

In any given year, a custom installation firm’s revenue is but a fraction of what the nearby Best Buy store might sell. With so little volume, installers must charge full price for the equipment they specify. Clients who take to the Internet to find better deals and who either demand a price break from the installer or demand the use of bargain-basement equipment can be assured of an unsatisfying result.

Home theaters are complicated, and the systems that control them more complex still. After all, a home theater control system may trigger a projector, a sound system, a satellite receiver, a DVD player, room lighting, and air conditioning all with the touch of a single on-screen button. Thus, audio/video systems designers specify equipment they know will work properly with the control system they use. If the client demands the use of a certain piece of equipment that the installer is not familiar with or does not sell, the result is often an unreliable audio/video system.

Here is what any client should expect of a custom installation firm:

  • The firm offers system packages designed to meet the client’s needs and budget and sticks to that budget within reason.
  • When the demands of interior design and audio/video performance clash, the firm works with the client or the interior designer to find satisfying compromises.
  • The firm carries all necessary local and state licensing, as well as insurance.
  • The firm finishes the project at the time promised (again, within reason). However, note that poor performance by other tradesmen often causes delays for the custom installation firm, who are usually the last guys in. The firm should not be held responsible for such delays.
  • The firm fully documents the project structurally and electrically. Ideally, the firm should give this documentation to the client upon completion of the project, so that other tradesmen are able to work on or around the system in the future.
  • The system is warranted to operate for a period of time agreed upon by the installer and the client, and the installer agrees to return for fine-tuning and minor alterations once the client has used the system for a few days or weeks.

By investing the time and effort to locate a qualified and conscientious custom installation firm, and letting the firm do its job without trying to micromanage it, you stand the best chance of getting a home theater system or media room that not only fulfills your dreams, but greatly exceeds what you thought possible.

Resources:
TK Theaters, www.tktheaters.com
First Impressions, www.cineloungers.com
Acoustic Innovations, www.acousticinnovations.com

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