Custom Installation: An Option Worth Considering

Somewhere in the dim past I wrote a blog on whether or not you might want to work with a custom installer in designing and building setting up your home theater or media room. In a random search through my computer files (as messy as any physical file system on the planet!) on a different subject I came across it again. It appears to have been written for one of the newsletter in the now defunct Stereophile Guide to Home Theater/Ultimate AV. In the hope that it might be as pertinent now as it was then (given a significant update), here it is again.

Make a List and Check it Twice
If you feel the need for a custom installer, start with yourself. Make a list of everything that you want, and everything you can think of that might impact the design and cost of the project. Take your time, since once the process begins, you don’t want expensive do-overs (though I guarantee there’ll be changes along the way).

Dedicated Theater vs. Media Room
Do you have in mind a theater-like environment with multiple rows of seats on two or more levels, facing a big screen? This is the sort of installation you see featured most often in magazines, and it largely restricts the room to one purpose: electronic entertainment. It’s also the most expensive sort of installation—fancy décor and furniture can escalate the budget quickly. Just to give one example, you can pay under $1,000 each for comfortable recliners at your local furniture store, or over $5,000 each (or more) for the recliners with premium leather upholstery—the type we see every year at CEDIA EXPO. (Sidebar: Home Theater seating may be decorative, but never buy it primarily on looks. Sit in it first—you’ll be using in it for stretches of at least at least 2-3 hours at a clip.)

Perhaps your preference is for a more informal, media-room environment? This sort of setting lends itself to other purposes, like reading a book, entertaining friends with something other than a movie, just listening to music, working on other hobbies, or the ever-popular vegging-out on the sofa.

Is the room you plan to convert to a home theater an existing space or an addition? You'll get the best results if you coordinate with the installer before you do anything to that current room or finalize your building plans for a new one. General contractors usually haven't a clue as to what constitutes a good space for audio and video. A general contractor's idea of sound isolation is likely to be insulation in the walls—a largely ineffective solution, particularly with 110dB bass peaks. Like most people (including the folks at the DIY and HGTV cable networks), contractors often confuse sound damping inside a room with sound isolation between rooms. They are entirely different issues.

AV Capabilities
You also need to consider the capabilities you want in the system. Will it be a multi-room installation (with distributed audio and video), the best home theater/media room you can afford, restricted to a single room, or both? There are installers adept at either type (more so now than when I first wrote this piece, as multi-room-capable gear has proliferated), but you shouldn't automatically assume this to be true. Do you want the ability to easily access any Blu-ray or CD in your collection from the comfort of your easy chair? The options to do this today, with both music and AV servers, are many. But bring money to the party.

Do you insist that all the gear be hidden, or do you want to show it off? The latter has performance implications; for example, free-standing speakers nearly always perform better than similarly-priced in- or on-wall models (though some speaker makers, particularly those whose bottom line is dominated by the latter, might well disagree).

How Big a Screen?
Do you want fancy powered drapes and a screen that can be masked for different aspect ratios? And how big a screen do you want? A very big screen—larger than, say, 96-inches wide (110 inches diagonally—brings with it significant price and performance considerations. If your buddy Fred has a 12-foot-wide screen and yours is 8 feet wide, there's a very good chance that the pure quality of your picture will be better, given projectors with comparable performance. The size of your screen also will affect your seating arrangements.

Projection vs. Flat Panel TV
Much of the above assumes an installation with a separate projector and screen. But with today’s flat panel displays, available in large sizes at relatively affordable prices, there are other options. An installation with a one or more flat screen sets may be more practical in a media room than in a dedicated home theater space, but you won’t get the same cinematic experience.

My main caution about a flat panel is this: don’t put it over the fireplace! Decorators love this almost as much as they love removing the TV from the room completely. But unless you want a sore neck from looking up at the TV, and can live without a center speaker, it’s a bad idea. (Sidebar: Normally, the heat from a functioning fireplace will not be a concern. With an typically open fire pit, most of the heat goes up the flue—open fireplaces are not great for heating a room! But if your fireplace has a glass screen, which is more efficient, the heat passes through the glass and enters the room. Heat rises, so as it enters the room it goes up, right in front of the TV! I have no data to show this to be a significant concern, but it’s something to think about.)

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of things you must consider; the point is that no installer can give you a good price estimate unless he or she knows what you want. You can be sure that any installer will suggest options you may not even be aware of, but just as in buying a car loaded with extras, consider such recommendations carefully before leaping—particularly if your budget is limited.

Find a Pro and Mapping Out a Plan
In the end, it does come down to the size of your wallet or the approving gaze of your bank's loan officer. But don't be afraid to check out a custom installer even if you have a modest budget. They can often provide valuable services short of a complete install: hanging screens and projectors, calibrating video displays, routing wires through walls for surround speakers, arranging to upgrade your electrical service and adding new circuits, installing motorized drapes, and analyzing your proposed space, possibly recommending acoustical treatment for audio or how you can black-out the room for the best video performance. A general contractor can perform many of these services, but typically won't know a thing about what might provide the best audio and video performance.

There are several types of tradesmen in the custom-installation field. Installers often do their own design work, but for an elaborate setup they might contract with outside designers who specialize in audio/video rooms. These designers work with you to draw up detailed plans, then hand the project over to the installer. They may also monitor the installer, architect, builder, and anyone else involved in the project to insure that their plans are being followed properly. But with an outside designer and installer, costs can easily go through the roof.

Some custom installers will have a physical storefront where they also sell AV products to walk-in customers. They will understandably encourage the use of the products they sell in their installations. But some installers are exclusively devoted to custom work; that is, they may have an office and possibly (though not always) demo rooms, but they only deal with customers contemplating a professional custom installation. They may or may not have ongoing relationships with specific manufacturers. You should keep this in mind if you plan to use existing equipment for some or all of the system. Reputable installers will accommodate you on this, though don't be surprised if they point out that one or more of your beloved components may not be the best choice for the new setup.

To find an installer in your area, a good place to start is CEDIA (the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association), an organization that numbers many, if not most, custom installers among its members. Visit the "Find a CEDIA Pro Near You" page at for a list of qualified installers in your area. You should also seek out local recommendations and referrals. As in any field some practitioners are better than others. But with CEDIA as a source, and some local legwork on your part, you'll be off to a good start.

The Contract
Even before you sign that all-important contract, take care to define, in writing, the relationship between yourself, the home theater installer, and others who may be involved in the project. You should always have a direct line of communication to the installer. I've spoken to installers who've lived through the nightmare of dealing only with the interior decorator, with no access to the owners. Similar problems could arise with the architect or the contractor doing the construction work. Lack of communication is a recipe for disaster, particularly if you are truly interested in the audio and video quality of the installation. All parties must be able to talk to each other, and should meet together early and often to be sure that everyone understands the plans and any changes that may have been made to them.

Many inexperienced buyers assume that if the project costs an arm and a leg it will inevitably sound and look fabulous in the end. Sadly, that doesn't always happen. Sadder yet, many of these customers, whose only prior home theater experience may have been with a 32-inch TV and a 1989 stereo system, are often thrilled with the finished project simply because the picture is big and the sound is loud. What they don't realize is that they may not be getting their money's worth. The irony is that the more you know about good audio and video, the more likely it is that you'll find a good installer, keep things on track, and end up with a system that's a true joy. Since you are reading this, and (we hope) you're a regular visitor to and a reader of the print Sound & Vision, you’re very likely to fall in this category. That's a good start.