Progressive Audio's Demo Home Offers Practical Applications For 'Lofty' A/V Gear

Customers say that it's the kind of place where they would like to stay for the weekend. It literally has all of the comforts of home, but goes several steps further with the addition of a fully integrated high-performance audio, video and control system throughout its six rooms
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Customers say that it's the kind of place where they would like to stay for the weekend. It literally has all of the comforts of home, but goes several steps further with the addition of a fully integrated high-performance audio, video and control system throughout its six rooms

When Progressive Audio president Scott Ranney set out to design the Progressive Home design center in his existing three-floor store in Columbus, Ohio, he always had planned to use the best electronics that he could find, an intuitive control system and harmonious systems integration into a dcor that was very "non-techie." What he never imagined, however, was how well his facility's Ralph Lauren-esque minimalist design would be embraced by his discerning clientele.

"Customers always joke to us about wanting to stay here for the weekend," Ranney said of his new design center. "I like having it be that kind of place-somewhere that's so interesting and so vacation-like that you want to spend a lot of time there. To have created a space where a multimillionaire client wants to

stay and relax is a pretty neat accomplishment." Also unexpected has been the reaction from female visitors, a demographic that has never been the focus of Progressive Audio's sales efforts in the past. "It's making this stuff feel like a luxury to them, instead of like having to go shopping with their husbands for stereo stuff." he said. "Our female customers find themselves in an environment that's comfortable, and all of sudden they are asking a lot of questions about lighting control, drapery control and enjoying the idea of having music through the whole house."

The inviting nature of the Progressive Home's environment was the achievement of Tracie McGarity, an accomplished local interior designer. McGarity not only gave the project a signature look, she also arranged special deals with key vendors such as Nautica Home by Lexington Furniture and Masland Carpets, that enabled Ranney to stay within budget.

"She was not only great from a creative standpoint, but she also brought in her resources and helped us get better deals on things that we needed, like carpet, artwork and furniture. She is the key partner in the whole project for us."

As important as the look and feel of the Progressive Home was for Ranney, his primary objective was to create the best environment for he and his team to sell A/V systems to their wealthy customers. "I'm pretty good at explaining it, but there is nothing like a good example," he said. "We wanted to demonstrate what it is like to have incredibly good-sounding music in every room of your house. I can demonstrate that now live in a real-life environment versus playing a pair of speakers in a demo room. Lighting scenes and drapery control are exactly the same way; we show what's it like to have an early evening scene and how the lights can be set to elevate the quality of the experience in that house."

And making it all easy to use for a non-technical client is just as significant for Ranney and his team. For Progressive Audio, the ultimate compliment is watching a client walk up to a key pad in the design center and seeing them operate the system, with no prior instructions.

"We used to think that doing these integrated custom projects had to be very customized," Ranney explained about his control system designs. "Over the years, however, we have found that most people want exactly the same things."

With that knowledge at hand, Progressive Audio set out to create a handful of very well-thought-out templates for their control systems. First, Ranney and his team hired an outside design firm for touchscreen design consultation. Together they determined what user-interface colors would be most soothing to an end user, what fonts that they would find to be most readable and how they should layout the ergonomics of the touchscreen pages.

"Our industry usually thinks it's so neat just to be able to get something to work," Ranney said with a chuckle. "It's such a difficult thing to do that they tend to stop there. If they're really good at it, they get into really cool designs, but then they are often gadgety and slick and who wants their remote control to look like Star Trek? You want it to be soothing to the eye and easy to use."

In the past, Progressive Audio's touchscreens tended to resemble glorified remote controls, then later they mimicked webpages with graphical icons of specific speakers and video components on them. After working with their design firm, however, Ranney and his programmers agreed on what they refer to as a file cabinet design. "There's a row of buttons on the left; they are the big drawers-one is video and one is audio," Ranney explained. "You press that button and it opens the file drawer to show you file folders."

For instance, if you pressed the Audio folder on your touchscreen, it will open a folder labeled "Room" and a folder named "House," defaulting to whichever is appropriate. If you then presse the folder's tab, it would display your choices. All along, there is a "Help" line at the top of the file folder that tells the user what to do and explains the process a little bit more.

"I want to give people a hug when they ask me why I'm trying to teach them how to use the thing, because they think it's so obvious," Ranney said.

Progressive Audio's three decades of high-end audio and video experience are reflected in the Progressive Home's focus on high-performance electronic components. Thiel Audio and Wilson Audio speakers are used throughout the floorplan, and Krell Industries electronics and MIT cables perform most of the processing behind the scenes. Out on the facility's "porch" a customer might listen to a pair of $2,600 in-wall speakers, then when he or she strolls back to the study, a $10,000 bookshelf system from Krell would pick up a distributed audio signal. The living room features a $100,000 audio system punctuated by a pair Wilson Audio Sophias. If Progressive Audio's customer were interested a dedicated home theater, he could go back downstairs near the store's lobby where Thiel speakers and Krell electronics would provide the audio behind sheer fabric walls from Acoustic Innovations and a Runco projector would provide a stunning video display.

Throughout the Progressive Home, Lutron controls lighting and window shades. Another critical element of the system is HD routing from a central switcher. Whether its the 15-inch LCD in the kitchen, the 17-inch set in the dining room, the 30-inch panel in the office, a plasma in the living room or a plasma in the bedroom, an HD picture is available in every room of the facility, alongside with the Escient Music Management System and AMX control features.

The Progressive Home, in fact, is all about control. A PC in the system's home base enables a wireless keyboard and an on-wall touchscreen monitor to provide Internet access or TV in the kitchen. In the future, AMX's Internet Inside programming will enable the wake-up alarm in the bedroom to show a client's favorite weather information, school closings and traffic reports at a scheduled time in the morning. It can then switch to the morning show of the client's choosing. There's a computer in the Progressive Home's office and a web tablet on the front porch that can also pull up control pages for the Escient Music Management or AMX touchscreens. In all, there are only two computers, and they are both routable through the entire facility.

"A lot of effort has been made to show customers an equal balance between high-performance electronics and elegant interior design," Ranney said. "We have to be very sensitive to that, but it doesn't mean that we give up on performance. We do the absolute best we can within the constraints of what's reasonable with the interior designer. Different things are appropriate in every room, so we make it work best depending on the environment and what the interior designer is trying to accomplish."

Like the design itself, financing is a vital issue when building a multiroom design center. With the help of his interior designer's deals and his own savvy business management, Ranney has faced surprisingly little trouble paying for the Progressive Home. "We do a lot of business, and it's not that big of a stretch. Even though it's a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar investment, for us that can just come out of normal cashflow," Ranney noted. Requests to vendors for product deals achieved mixed results, according to Ranney, but a major key was existing stock. "A lot of our inventory could be moved out of other showrooms and into the store, so we don't have to display Wilson speakers twice and Krell home theater stuff twice. We could just have it here instead of in a showroom that it was in before. Sometimes it's just shuffling stuff around." Because his store had been packed with merchandise for years, Ranney's biggest key to preparing for his new Progressive Home floorplan was going out and renting a warehouse. "We started almost two years ago in signing a lease on a warehouse, designing a warehouse, buying warehouse equipment, and then moving our installation materials and a lot of our inventory out there."

Because of the warehouse space, Progressive Audio, in fact, changed the whole way the organization functioned-where they managed their installations and where everyone meets in the morning before they go out to their jobs. The cleared space back at the store helped make room not only for the Progressive Home layout, but also CAD design offices and other showroom space for the store.

"The Progressive Home is only one-sixth of our square footage," Ranney noted. In an economy that has been unfavorable to the A/V installation industry, it's easy to question the wisdom of such a large investment. To the contrary, Ranney points to his strong Columbus client base, his 30 years of experience and the store's central location as the logic behind building the project. "When we did a lot of high-end audio-only sales, people would come from Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton," Ranney pointed out. "Columbus is a lot of second-generation family businesses where the second generation was even more capable than the first and took their family fortune to become worth hundreds of millions of dollars by working really hard with it. That has really helped us in the current economy."

Most of all, however, Ranney says that his Progressive Home represents the maturation of the industry as whole. "It's the transition from neat gadgetry, hobbyist stuff to appliances," he explained. "I don't mean to diminish the performance part of the appliance. I mean, simply, that it's reliable, and it absolutely has to be that way. It's the transformation of what of what we do for a living to what we can now call a modern luxury."



Jeremy Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems

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