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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

From an upper floor in a Manhattan skyscraper, the view is breathtaking. Central Park radiates green on a bright summer day, and the blue sky that seemed so far away from street level now hangs just outside the window. The natural and man-made bounty is almost magically reflected in a chorus of sounds that floats in the room from mysteriously invisible sources.

The speakers that unleash the music are hidden behind small, silk rectangles in windowsills, valences and across the way in the seamless cabinetry of a bird's-eye maple headboard. But what powers the sounds is in plain sight in one corner: a formidable stack of high-fidelity stereo components arrayed on a custom-made stainless-steel cabinet. This high-tech totem pole is, properly, topped by a sleek television set canted slightly forward for best viewing from the head of the bed that dominates the room. The whole setup is controlled by switches on the arm of the headboard and a custom-programmed remote control.

Of course, when it all gets to be too much--the view of Central Park, the crystalline surround-sound, the pixel-perfect laser disc--the folks lying in the bed can flick switches to close the blinds, shut off the stereo and then turn their heads to the left to contemplate the serene Ellsworth Kelly painting on the wall of the sunken living room. To do that, of course, they just need to turn on the lights by the painting from a rheostat in the headboard.

With the exception of the view, the sound and light in this sleek, modernist pied-à-terre were orchestrated by Jack Borenstein, the founder of Ultimate Sound and Installation in New York City. The company is a custom installer of all manner of high-technology paraphernalia, including security, telecommunications and lighting systems as well as audio and video equipment. As these systems become linked by wires, cables, infrared sensors and computer chips, they must also be brought under control by careful design and planning, along with thorough lessons for their owners, for whom a dead battery in the remote can cause total dysfunction.

Borenstein is part of a growing cadre of fiercely competitive entrepreneurs who have created small operations that are capable of stage managing such installations. Paul Krauth, who formed his aptly named Integrated Media Design a decade ago in New York City, says that the jobs he has done around the country have ranged in cost from three to six figures and involved everything from one piece of equipment to dozens.

At one East Side Manhattan apartment, Krauth has created an installation that is remarkable for the simplicity with which "an unbelievable array of options can be used," he says. Uniformly programmed remote controls can simultaneously access different television, video and music programming in three separate rooms, or "zones" in trade parlance. Krauth has converted the handsome, light-filled library of a South American tycoon into a media room, centered on a large-screen, rear-projection television set. Six-foot speakers are concealed in the wall behind the set, their presence betrayed only by a slight difference in the texture of the wall, where perforated metal grilles have been painted to match the wall.

To provide the much-sought-after surround-sound, whether for opera broadcasts or laser discs, other speakers--at the client's insistence--stand in full view on either side of the set. Two other speakers and a subwoofer are arranged unobtrusively around the room. Because of the artfulness with which these three nondecorative objects have been placed, they are practically invisible. "The room is so rich in detail and warmth," says Krauth, "and there are so many things to draw your eye, that we didn't worry about drawing attention to ourselves."

The equipment array--surround-sound receiver, amplifiers, video and audiocassette decks, compact-disc and laser-disc players--is smoothly ensconced along one side of a sturdy custom-built bookshelf; the room's principal occupant keeps his humidor on a shelf next to his remote control, which can activate any of the equipment--in this room and the master bedroom, where an infrared sensor provides access to the system's complete CD, laser-disc and video-cassette library as well. Wall-mounted controls operate the four concealed speakers placed throughout the expansive living/dining room.

As evidenced in these very different environments--the clean, spare lines of Borenstein's installation and the sedate clubroom atmosphere where Krauth has worked his media magic--the custom installer is part of a design project team, which in practice often resembles nothing so much as a tug of war, one which no one should win except the client. Architects, designers and decorators stand at one end, throwing their weight on materials, finishes, colors and placement. At the other end labor the craftspeople--carpenters and masons, painters and electricians. (Usually, both sides are coached by--and ignore--the same budget master.)

The media installer has to work well in both arenas, making sure his arrangements are at peace with not only the design elements of each room, but also that their physical integration with those elements is as seamless and unobtrusive as possible: it's tough to make a floor-to-ceiling rack of stuff blend in, or to make a 27-inch television feel comfortably part of a room that features lots of leather, wood and fine oil paintings.

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