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Big Sounds: Home Entertainment Systems

Home-Entertainment Systems are Big-Ticket Items Designed to Produce the Best in Audio and Visual
Peter Slatin
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 1)

"That's the most difficult part of a job," says Borenstein. "We wear many hats and work with all the trades." (Those hats fit easily on his head: before starting Ultimate Sound, Borenstein had his own general contracting firm and installed closed-circuit television equipment in hotel rooms and security systems in offices.) "Some architects don't want to see any equipment, or very little," Borenstein explains. "But a good architect or designer will know where he can steal space from to give the audio-video installer room to work."

Conflicts between what a designer or decorator envisions and the demands inherent in powerful audio and video equipment, notes Paul Krauth, often turn out to be rooted in the warfare that accompanies many a home renovation. "The designer is usually expressing the wishes of the more style-conscious partner in a household," he says, "and if the electronics buff is the other partner, then a compromise has to be worked out. In many apartments and in houses as well, rooms often do double duty." Krauth prides himself on being sensitive to both considerations.

One way to avoid such problems is to work as often as possible with a trusted designer; indeed, some design professionals will bring in their own media installers at the beginning of a job. For example, Krauth is the sound-and-light man of choice for Kevin Walz, a New York designer and a recent winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome, awarded to people in classical and fine arts fields.

Of course, all this costs real money, Krauth's three-figure jobs notwithstanding. According to Borenstein and Krauth, the price to outfit each of the two apartments described above was between $30,000 and $40,000; most jobs range from $30,000 to $60,000. The cost comes not so much from the equipment, which is a large component of the expense when it is spread throughout a home--including outdoor spaces like pools or sundecks. But the real budget breaker is in the painstaking planning and design execution, especially when the systems are linked together invisibly. Precise plans must be drawn up for the location of all wires and cables throughout the installation area. Once the plans are finalized, the work must be carried out with great care behind walls and under floors of wood, plaster, stone, brick and tile. Naturally, then, it's best to install a system during a renovation or redecoration, not afterward. That way, the designer can be consulted at each step.

Installers like Krauth and Borenstein find their clients through word of mouth, working with architects or designers who are familiar with their work. Of course, they are also referred by previous clients. But anyone installing a new media room should look at the work of the design professional before hiring them and always get a firsthand look at an installation they have completed. Ask previous clients if they are pleased with the work, which problems to anticipate and what they might have done differently. Once these systems are installed, it is costly to shift them around because of the labor involved in rewiring the room and then refinishing it.

The architectural types are responsible for the surfaces of a room, which determine its sound quality. The media specialist should take those into account before designing a system and choosing components. As a group, the specialists do not appear wedded to brand names and ideally are able to make their selections on a per customer, per room basis--passing the costs along to their clients. That beats the need that retailers have to purchase and sell large volumes of merchandise, notes Chris Horgan, who operates Sound Contact, a New York City-based audio, video, electronic-design installation firm. "How we choose depends on the clients' tastes in music and on getting the best sound possible within their budget range," Horgan says.

Horgan started his firm 11 years ago when he noticed that "a lot of people weren't being properly treated by their local stereo stores," yet the stores were promising installation services. "They had no idea of construction, building codes, wiring and they were getting people the wrong stuff. It had nothing to do with custom installation."

One specialty of Horgan's business--remote keypads--are standard issue. However, that keypad may soon be obsolete, says Borenstein, who is providing some clients with a portable computer touchscreen that controls and commands the system.

There is another conflict inherent in what Krauth and Borenstein do: the audiophiles' delight versus clients who want foolproof operation of background sound throughout their homes. Krauth recalls that when he first began designing and installing custom systems, he focused on providing the highest fidelity possible. Over time, he has learned how to balance that desire with the need for convenient operation and the demands of real-world hard-surface rooms. It hasn't been a terrible sacrifice, however. "There is generally one room where people do their primary listening. In that room we have a little more design latitude," says Krauth--and a little more fun, because that's where he can really enjoy the challenge of creating an environmental poem.

Borenstein agrees: "Nothing can really prepare you for the final day when, after you've installed a system, you're balancing it, tweaking it, listening to what the acoustics of the rooms are like. That's the most fun for me." Chances are that's when the fun begins for the hands that inherit the remote control, too.

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