The Custom Installer: Golden Age of Wireless?

My spirits were hovering somewhere between disdain and contempt when Press Day started at this year's Consumer Electronics Show back in January - but man, did that change in a hurry! It seemed like every manufacturer had something big, new, and important to say, and I felt a strange emotion welling up. Dare I say it? I was actually excited!

One of the things that excited me most was that so many companies are finally embracing wireless distribution. For many reasons, cutting the cord between components - whether amp and speaker or source and display - has been high on consumers' wish lists for years, and it appears that those wishes are about to be fulfilled.

Wireless transmission isn't something new, but it has been implemented so poorly or restrictively that it's essentially useless. With video, wireless has been confined to analog standard-definition signals, and has been prone to dropping out or limited to line-of-sight applications. Things have gone better with audio, largely because the signals take up much less bandwidth. But even there, wireless technology has mainly been reserved for lower-quality outdoor or multiroom speakers or for the surround channels in some home-theater-in-a-box systems.

Video's Holy Grail is to take all the precious 0s and 1s that make up a 1080p signal and whisk them from one side of a room to the other without any loss. At CES, several companies - including Panasonic, LG, Westinghouse Digital,

Belkin, and Sony - proved they can do just that. And if these systems could perform in a harsh environment like the Las Vegas Convention Center, with thousands of cellphone and other signals whizzing through the ether, you have to think that a typical home would be a cakewalk.

On the audio side, wireless came from an unlikely source - actually, two sources, since audiophile standard-bearers Thiel and B&W both displayed systems. (For more on their wireless rigs, see my report in the April issue's "CES in Perspective," also available on our Web site.)

Now, you might be thinking, "John, as a custom installer, you make your living pulling wires. So wouldn't you - and really all installers - be against wireless?"

Good point. Wiring is a large part of the custom-installation business, but only because just about every piece of equipment needs wires. Pulling wires is very time-consuming and labor-intensive work, however. And frankly, it just doesn't generate the income dollars that actually installing the system does.

Also, wiring can limit the number of jobs an installer can do because sometimes it's just not possible or cost-effective to put a multiroom system in an existing home. Wireless will open up opportunities not just for do-it-yourselfers but for custom installers, too.

Furthermore, the host of other things that professional installers do - like mounting flat-panel TVs, cutting in speakers, programming remote controls, and integrating automation systems - will always keep us in demand. So I'm certainly not worried about wireless applications causing installers to run to the unemployment line.

Regular readers of this column might be snickering over the fact that just last month I heaped praises on the virtues of Cat-5 wiring. Well, I'm nothing if not willing to change and adapt as this industry demands it. But I do stand by everything I wrote in that column. On the other hand, wireless is coming, and it will be the future of audio/video distribution - a fact that should excite us all. But for the present and for the immediate future, wired systems offer the most reliable solutions at all budget levels, so let's not abandon pulling wires just yet.

John Sciacca is lead designer at Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, SC. You can e-mail him at soundandvision@hfmus.com

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