The Custom Installer: We've Got Answers

For the past 8 years, I've been installing home-entertainment systems at Custom Theater and Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, and for the past 5 years, I've been writing about custom installation for Sound & Vision. During that time I've fielded thousands of questions on just about every aspect of installation, and there are a handful that come up over and over again. So here are my answers to every installer's Top 5.

1 Can't I just go wireless? For computer networking, yes, although using wires is faster, more secure, and more reliable. For audio distribution, the answer is maybe, although most wireless systems still require cables from the client unit to the speakers. For video distribution, there aren't any wireless options - yet. In general, wired systems are more dependable, cheaper, and more flexible.

2 Do I really need all that wiring? Yes. The systems in your house use many types of wiring to distribute signals. Cable and satellite TV signals and room-to-room video distribution are sent over coaxial cabling. Phone and Ethernet signals use Cat-5. Audio is routed to speakers using speaker cable and sent between components using analog and digital interconnects. Video is transferred via HDMI and DVI cables and analog cables.

3 There's nothing coming out of my surround speakers. What's wrong? Probably nothing. Truth is, about 80% of the material on a movie soundtrack comes out of your center speaker. Because they're usually reserved for ambient effects like rain, crowd noise, and jet flyovers, the surrounds kick in only about 5% to 10% of the time. To make sure your surrounds are working, press your receiver's "test tone" button. If you hear the tone come out of the surrounds as it cycles through your speakers, you've probably got everything hooked up correctly.

4 How much cabinet space will I need for my system? That depends on how much gear you have. A basic home theater system usually has at least three components: a digital surround receiver, a DVD player, and a high-def cable- or satellite-TV receiver. Most systems include other gear, like a CD player, a VCR, or a game console, and a multiroom audio system will have a lot more gear. Nearly all components are roughly 17 inches wide, so plan to have a cabinet with at least 20 inches of inside width for some "hand room." The more depth, the better (especially for wire management), but allow at least 22 inches. Figure an average 9 inches of height for each component, which should leave enough room for shelves and for heat dissipation.

5 Can I control my system with the cabinet doors closed? Absolutely! You'll find relatively simple do-it-yourself infrared repeater systems selling for less than $250. Check out products from companies like Niles and SpeakerCraft.

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