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Finessing Systems

It is much easier to design systems starting with a blank canvas, but the challenges that retrofitting systems present can sometimes be even more rewarding.

There is nothing better than when a client comes to us before starting construction of their new home, and asks us to design a no-compromise system, assuring us that they will build their home theater and other areas that will have A/V systems to our specifications. But in the real world, these situations are few and far between.

What is more common is a client who would really like a nice system that will blend into his or her existing home, with little or no changes to the home itself.

It is much easier to design systems starting with a blank canvas, but the challenges that retrofitting systems present can sometimes be even more rewarding. My company works hard to provide creative solutions that can be installed in an existing home, and I thought I would share some of my favorite retrofit solutions in this month’s column.

One of the most common requests that we get is to upgrade clients’ existing TV systems to large widescreen HD displays. This is not too hard to do if we are talking about replacing a tabletop direct view CRT TV with a plasma monitor on a table stand. Things start getting a little more complicated, however, when their TV is installed in a custom cabinet or flush in a wall.

Sometimes the plan for an HD system with the least impact to an existing room is to add a projection system. This seems illogical to most when we first present the idea, at least until the scenario is described in detail. Often it is more practical to open up a ceiling to install a motorized screen than it is to rebuild a full cabinet or rework expensive millwork. Projectors are small enough these days that they can be ceiling mounted without becoming the centerpiece of the room’s attention. And for another intrusion into the ceiling, a projector lift can make it disappear completely when not in use.

An increasingly popular plan is to install a plasma monitor, rear-projection TV or even a direct-view TV for daily or informal viewing, combined with a custom front-projection system. We utilize Stewart MicroPerf screens, dropping down over the smaller display device. This allows us to share the surround sound system as well as all source machines.

Our clients love their “dual-mode” systems, which provide uncompromised viewing for a wide range of purposes, allowing them to use their systems without closing the window coverings and dimming the lights, yet deliver the full theater experience when appropriate. One problem we discovered the hard way is that in some installations, reflections can be seen through the screen perforations from the smaller display behind. The solution is to install manual or motorized shades over the plasma or monitor for use when the screen is in the down position.

Speakers are probably the easiest to retrofit as a result of the huge selection of products. Countless flush-mount, box and specialty speakers are available, at almost any price and quality level. There are even transducers available that will turn existing glass or other surfaces into speakers. They don’t sound anywhere as good as even moderately priced conventional speakers, but considering they turn existing surfaces into speaker cones, it is not really fair to directly compare them to each other.

The most significant recent enabling technology is audio and video distribution using standard Cat-5 wire. There are an increasing number of line drivers, switchers, matrixes, amplifiers and even powered flush-mount speakers that use Cat-5 wiring. We have a current project where the client wants us to provide a center speaker for her great room plasma, but the original installer didn’t run any speaker wiring to the plasma location, and there isn’t anyway to run wiring without making holes in their ceiling. We are considering a little SpeakerLynx amplifier from NetStreams, which would utilize the extra Cat-5 cable that was run to the plasma location.

Almost anyone can take great equipment and install it in a new house, but it takes some skill to finesse systems into existing homes without negatively impacting the aesthetics.