Big Sounds: Home Entertainment Systems

Home-Entertainment Systems are Big-Ticket Items Designed to Produce the Best in Audio and Visual
| By Peter Slatin | From 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.

"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.

Peter Slatin, a free-lance writer based in New York City, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and The New York Times.