The Custom Installer: How to Install an IR Repeater

The simplest things in life often yield the most pleasure. A cold beer after a hard day working in the yard. A parking space with time left on the meter. A funny fortune cookie at the end of a Chinese dinner.

Things aren't much different in the world of custom installation. Time and again, we'll finish installing a home theater, take the clients through a wall-rattling demo of their new system, and the thing that impresses them the most is that they can use the remote control with the cabinet doors closed. A total of $10,000 to $15,000 worth of electronics, hours of planning and labor, and it's the $200 infrared (IR) repeater kit that steals the show.

An IR repeater system isn't difficult to install. The pieces are available from several manufacturers, including Niles, Sonance, SpeakerCraft, and Xantech, and can be purchased either as a kit or a la carte. A kit is made up of a target - a.k.a. sensor or receiver - for picking up the signals from your remote, an emitter for relaying the signals to a component, a connection hub, and a power supply.

Targets come in many flavors, including flush-mount, in-wall, ceiling-mount, tabletop, and miniature surface-mount designs. The largest ones are about the size of a deck of cards. Before selecting a target, consider how you're likely to position it. (Most are placed near the TV.) Things like fluorescent lights, plasma TVs, and sunlight can interfere with reception, but some models are designed to reject that kind of interference. Check the packaging to see if the model you're considering has this feature.

Every target has a cable attached that you run to the hub. If the cable is long enough to reach your gear, setup is just a matter of plug and play. But if your TV is some distance from the rest of your system, or if you want to put a target in a remote location like a bedroom, Category-5 cable makes an excellent 'patch' cord.

Most target cables connect to the hub via either bare wire ends or an .125-inch miniplug. While the miniplug is the easiest and most foolproof way to go, bare wire isn't that much more difficult to hook up. You'll need to connect at least three wires: ground, 12-volt DC, and signal. (Some systems add a status wire.)

Once you've hooked up and positioned the target, move on to the emitter, which is about the size of the nail on your pinky finger and adheres to the component you want to control with an adhesivebacked strip. Place the emitter directly on top of the component's IR sensor so it can send signals directly to the sensor. (You can place a variation of the emitter called a 'flasher' directly across from the sensor, possibly on the back of a cabinet door.)

Finding the sensor window on a component can be tricky. If it isn't labeled (usually on the tinted plastic or glass over the front-panel readout), see if its location is indicated in the owner's manual. If you come up empty there, shine a flashlight through the front-panel readout and look on either side for something like an LED. Chances are, that's the sensor. If that fails, there's always trial and error. if the repeater isn't working, you're in the wrong spot.

Single emitters control one piece of gear while dual-head emitters (as shown) control two pieces. High-output flashers, known as blasters, emit such a powerful burst of infrared that a single one can control several components.

Plug the emitter's minijack into any of the inputs on the hub labeled emitter or flasher. Hubs usually support up to four single or dual-headed emitters, but they can be expanded for larger systems. Next, connect the power supply to the hub, plug it in, and you're done!

Close your cabinet doors, take a deep breath, point your remote at the target, and hit a command. If everything's properly connected, the target will blink, and the component will respond just as if you'd pointed the remote directly at it. And when your friends come over, tell them you installed it yourself, with a little help from a friend.

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