There’s a very cool new product being introduced at CEDIA EXPO this year, but there is no chance it’s going to win a CEDIA Best New Product award. That’s because its creator, Richard Millson, is a CEDIA Board member and his “moral compass” (and maybe some CEDIA rules) tell him that it wouldn’t be appropriate to enter the competition while serving on the Board. His product is called “CinemaFrame” and it’s a very clever all-in-one entertainment system that hides inside the wall behind a flat-panel TV and a fabric-covered frame.
Millson Custom Solutions' one-of-a-kind system (that’s not hyperbole) houses three L/C/R front channel speakers, a dual-driver subwoofer module, a 12-channel digital amplifier, an AV preamp/processor with a built-in Gigabit Ethernet switch, an AC power distribution module with commercial-quality surge protection, AV source components, and an automation processor. And all of this somehow fits within a custom steel back box that mounts inside a standard depth wall right behind the TV. Once installed, the entire system is essentially invisible.
CinemaFrame is a premium made-to-order system unlike anything else on the market, and Millson is hoping that it will stop custom integrators, like himself, in their tracks at CEDIA this year.
“If I put on my integrator’s hat, it’s the type of product that would make me stop and say, “I’ve got to have this thing because it solves so many problems,” Millson said. Clearly, Millson is proud of his new creation, and from what I have seen so far, he seems to have good reason to be.
Millson’s Vancouver-based integration company, Millson Technologies, is known throughout the industry for its highly standardized process for delivering integrated AV systems in luxury homes and MDU projects, sometimes for hundreds of homes at once. The classes he taught about the unique project management process his company has designed and implemented for its own use was one of the most talked-about courses for two years in a row at CEDIA Management Conference. For several years, the former Residential Systems magazine columnist had been working behind the scenes to create some mysterious product concept that he imagined could systemize the technical side of his offerings, as well. I figured that, much like a number of similar “big” ideas I have heard about over the years, his project wasn’t likely to come to fruition either. I was wrong.
Millson says the idea for CinemaFrame originated from his company’s realization that especially in the modern high-rise condos where many of his Vancouver clients reside, technology solutions needed to be better hidden and ideally, eliminate the need for an equipment rack altogether. With CinemaFrame, there’s no equipment rack, but there are also no tower speakers, subwoofer, cabling, or much of anything else visible either. So, from an aesthetic point of view, it’s an interior designer's dream. And it’s safe to say that homeowners will love CinemaFrame as well, as it can replace their entire entertainment system for music, movies, TV, web surfing, gaming and so on, while everything is controlled from a single remote.
“From an integrator’s standpoint, it’s a profitable, repeatable solution that can be installed in a few hours,” Millson pointed out. “And because CinemaFrame is perfect for a number of different markets, including single-family homes, condos, high-end hotel rooms, commercial boardrooms, yachts, and even tour buses, we think it could allow our dealers to approach new markets they might not currently service. We designed CinemaFrame for ourselves first, but as integrators, we thought it would be something other integrators would be very interested in as well.”
CinemaFrame behind the TV and frame
CinemaFrame really does seem like it has been designed with the integrator in mind. The Power Distribution Module includes full remote control over each of its six receptacles, making it easy to reboot cable boxes and other equipment mounted inside. There is full web-based setup for monitoring and control, including nice touches like individual volume and delay adjustments for each source in the system, adjustable turn-on volume, adjustable ramp time for the mute functions, real language device naming, and more. Even the delay settings for the speakers are designed so that you simply enter the distance from each speaker to the listening position in feet and inches, as opposed to trying to calculate how many milliseconds it should be. Millson had his engineering team include the ability to log all aspects of the system performance continuously in the background to make troubleshooting much easier if a client reports a problem, and system features and settings can be changed by uploading new firmware, which can be done remotely so dealers don’t need to roll a truck.
“We intentionally designed the major components in CinemaFrame so they could be easily and quickly installed without any wiring connections between them,” Millson explained. “That means you can’t short the speakers, you can’t hook them up out of phase, no loose connections, no power connections to fail, etc., so you get a perfect install every time.”
Millson said that the integrator simply “clicks” each component into what he calls the “Signal Back Plane,” a series of commercial-strength circuit boards pre-installed in the back box at the factory.
To make the AV preamp/processor (AVP) fit properly within CinemaFrame, all of its connections had to face left, vertically aligned down one strip. “That’s a big deal because each section is on a separate circuit board, and all of those boards had to be mechanically aligned and then connected inside the enclosure; that takes some creative mechanical engineering. But we wanted that arrangement because it allows us to modify or upgrade features on a specific section of the pre/pro without having to redesign the entire product,” Millson said.
The custom AV preamp/processor (AVP) within CinemaFrame
The integrator-friendly AVP features full control via IR, and full bi-directional control via serial and IP. “We’ve written automation drivers for Savant, Crestron, RTI, and Control4, but we’ll obviously create additional drivers based on feedback from our dealers,” Millson noted. “We wrote the drivers and tested them ourselves with real-world systems set up in our lab, so we could be 100-percent sure that when our dealers download a driver from our dealer portal, it will work.
The AVP has six HDMI inputs and one output for the display. It also includes both digital and analog audio inputs and outputs to easily connect to a distributed music system, and a microphone input for boardroom applications. It features speaker wire output connections for the internal “Dual Drive Subwoofer” and up to four dealer-supplied surround channel speakers. There is also a dedicated line-level sub output to allow the addition of a powered subwoofer in larger rooms.
“We developed the hardware from scratch using the best technology and chipsets from Analog Devices, Silicon Image, etc. and then we wrote all of the custom firmware and software specifically with the needs of the integrator in mind,” Millson explained. “This is not intended to be an entry-level or compromised product in any way. We have intentionally designed CinemaFrame to be very high-performance, exclusive, and yes, expensive, but that also means it will be profitable for our dealers.”
The complex engineering took almost five years and millions of dollars to complete, but Millson said that one the most difficult aspects of the project was getting the attention of DTS and Dolby. “They’re incredibly strict about who they license because they have real, and frankly legitimate, concerns about smaller companies reverse engineering their technology and selling products using counterfeit chipsets,” he noted. “They met with our engineering team and once they saw the caliber of what we were building, they took us much more seriously. Eventually we were able to meet all of their requirements, and now we’re fully approved and licensed by Dolby and DTS. We also have all the required approvals and licenses from HDMI and HDCP, UL, etc., in short, everything required to properly and legally bring a complex product like this to market. We’ve also applied for multiple international patents to protect not just ourselves, but our dealers as well.”
The front L/C/R speakers include a total of nine midrange drivers and three tweeters, all positioned in a horizontal arrangement at the bottom of CinemaFrame so that the sound exits below the TV. But don't confuse this setup with any sound bar you’ve ever seen, Millson said. His driver components are housed in three separate solid aluminum enclosures, one for each of the left-, center-, and right-speaker channels. The speakers contain no passive crossovers as they are fully bi-amplified and all signal processing, including the crossover functions, are handled in the digital domain by the DSP engine located inside the 12-channel amplifier.
Millson custom builds its own speakers
“We have control over phase, delay, compression, limiting, everything we need for each of the 12-amplifier channels,” Millson stated. “Because it’s a closed system, we can monitor and control the power being fed to the loudspeakers at any time, regardless of the input source. Whether you’re listening to rap, classical, jazz, reggae, or watching an action movie, we wanted the system to play loud right up to, but not beyond, the point where the system is safe. We have done extensive testing and the fact is that CinemaFrame will play at extremely loud levels and not break. That’s great for the homeowner, but it’s just as important for our dealers. Nobody wants to roll a truck if they don’t have to.”
The “Frame” part of CinemaFrame refers to the slim fabric frame used to hide the internal components and allow the sound from the speakers to exit the system. The “Fabric Trim Bezel,” as it’s called, is custom fabricated for each project to precisely match the size of the TV being used and to allow the client to select the exact fabric he or she prefers. Millson currently offers 57 styles and colors of fabric (they say more are on the way) and every one they offer has been individually tested for acoustic transmission properties to ensure they meet CinemaFrame specs.
For external sources such as gaming consoles, Blu-ray players, and turntables, Millson has created a dedicated solution designed to work with CinemaFrame. The company offers an in-wall back box and designer-friendly connection panel that includes all of the power and signal connections for extending and controlling sources that are not mounted within CinemaFrame. To complete the solution, Millson even offers its own HDBaseT extender sets certified to work with CinemaFrame.
Millson plans to recommend to dealers that they include one of these in-wall back boxes in every CinemaFrame installation, even if it’s not required initially. With the box and a few runs of Cat-5/6 in place, it’s a snap to add a turntable or other device at any point in the future.
To simplify communication with the builder, Millson designed the rough-in components to always fit a 48-inch-by-48-inch framed opening, regardless of the size of the TV being installed. Once the rough-in kit is in place, you drywall around it. When the project is ready for trim out, the dealer orders the appropriate trim kit and can install everything in a few hours.
Other installer-friendly features? How about paint covers that protect the rough-in kit from dirt and dust, which are made from high-quality treated cardboard, so they don’t sag and fall apart if they get wet? Or what about factory-installed metal spacers to ensure that the rough-in kit goes into the wall square and straight the first time, leaving little or nothing for the installer to measure and “figure out?” And even though Millson calculates the exact height of the TV bracket and which screws and spacers to use so the dealer doesn’t have to, the company also includes screws and spacers for every other scenario because, as Millson pointed out, “We’ve been installing technology in homes for 25 years, and if we have learned anything, it’s that things change on a job site, and you have to be ready to adjust on the fly. That’s why we include not just all the screws and spacers you need, but extra ones of each. No one wants to have to head to the hardware store just to get that one last screw because you dropped one and lost it.”
Talk about attention to detail: Millson special ordered all of the hardware that it provides with black plating to eliminate any chance of anything reflecting light and shining back through the fabric around the TV.
Last but not least, the CinemaFrame installation manual is like no other. “I can say with high confidence that no product in our industry has ever provided anything like it,” Millson boasted. “We intentionally designed the installation manuals to result in successful installations with no issues. We gave it to technicians we know who had no involvement whatsoever in the development of CinemaFrame and simply said, ‘Install this.’ With no supervision or assistance, they had the rough-in kit completely installed in two hours, with no mistakes, the first time they tried. That’s the kind of solution we think integrators expect and deserve.”
Dealers interested in selling CinemaFrame should contact Bob Brown, general manager at MCS America.