Is Everybody Happy?

Photos by Tony Cordoza

I consider myself very fortunate to have a wife who indulges my obsessions. There's the time last summer when she sat in a rental car on a sweltering beach in Baja while I surfed for more than an hour. And she once shivered through the final encore of one of Neil Young's annual Bridge Show benefit concerts at an outdoor amphitheater near San Francisco when we'd both under-dressed for the chilly fall evening.

But her tolerance began to reach its limits when my home theater interests started to intrude on the décor of our modest home. "Why do we now need five speakers and a subwoofer?" she asked before ultimately acquiescing. But when I tried to convince her that a large widescreen TV would look fabulous in our small living room, she finally drew the line. Not only was she adamant about what size TV she would allow in her living room, but she also stipulated that the new set would have to be out of sight when not in use.

Venus and Mars

Does integrating home theater electronics into a household always have to result in a "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" tug of war? An informal survey conducted among friends, business associates, and industry colleagues indicated that this is how it goes more often than not.

For example, I talked to Megan Bisset, an account executive for a newspaper in Clearwater, Florida, because I knew her husband, Skeff, is a home theater fanatic. "He and I have this discussion almost weekly," she sighed. "We've got this huge 55-inch TV that takes up half of our living room. And with all the surround sound stuff, unless you can hide the wires while the house is being built, you have to run them everywhere, and it looks tacky. I'm like a lot of women. The cords drive me crazy. If you peek behind our TV, it looks like tri-colored pasta.

When wedded to a subwoofer, a stand-mounted speaker like the B & W DM-602 S2 provides full-range sound without being as imposing as a floor-standing tower speaker.
"Skeff's line to me is that he gets only one room in the house," Bisset said, "and that's his home theater room. Problem is, it's also our living room. My sister's the same way. Her husband bought surround speakers and attached them to the rear wall while she was out one day. They're black, and the wall is white. The first thing she said when she walked in was, 'Why did you get them in black?' He said it was because they match his other equipment. She was really upset when she found out he could've gotten them in white." Bruce Garipay, president of Automated Homes, a custom design and installation firm in Phoenix, Arizona, told me: "Guys are definitely more interested in big sound, a bigger picture. They read the magazines and know all the buzz words, whereas our female clients are more interested in how the system is going to look."

But Chris Kangis, a system designer for Electronic Interiors in Hopedale, Massachusetts, had a different opinion. "Women are certainly more concerned about aesthetics than guys are," Kangis said, "but men just have a different view about what looks good. I find women don't love technology, but they do love the things technology can provide. Guys get into the whole process, whereas women really don't care so much about that if they get the results they want."

A Female Perspective

Commenting from the opposite side of the gender gap, Leslie Young, vice president of the New York interior-design firm Cliff Young, Ltd., acknowledged that, "Guys are generally the ones who buy home theater equipment and read about it." But Young, who works with the New York-area audio/ video retailer Harvey Electronics to create custom residential and commercial systems, said, "Women tend to steer away from home theater because they don't want a monster rear-projection TV against a white wall with a stack of equipment sitting next to it. But if they understand that it can be incorporated into their homes so they can have the benefit and the enjoyment of high-tech equipment, it's not an issue."

Regardless of gender, it can be hard to get the best performance from home theater gear without having your living space look like an electronics lab. Most people can't afford to have their systems custom installed, and few are fortunate enough to have a dedicated media room. But it is possible to strike a balance between your home-entertainment desires and your significant other's home-décor preferences, even on a modest budget.

Not only is home theater equipment getting smaller and thinner, but more products are available that blend into a room. And a lot of home theater gear is now being designed with an eye toward integration, so that if the components do call attention to themselves, it's because they're stylish, not hopelessly out of place. So before heading to divorce court because you insist on free-standing speakers while your significant other will allow only the bookshelf variety, read on to learn how you can incorporate up-to-date electronic entertainment while maintaining the elegance and design of your home.

The Big Picture

Perhaps the most significant aesthetic decision when you're designing a home theater system is how to place a big screen for optimal viewing while keeping it from dominating the room's décor. Direct-view cathode-ray-tube (CRT) sets are the most affordable and are relatively compact. Available in sizes up to 40 inches (diagonal) with a standard-format (4:3) aspect ratio screen and 38

Real-wood cabinets like this media credenza from Green Design provides plenty of storage space for electronics gear and the finish and construction of the furniture.
inches with a widescreen (16:9) aspect ratio, the largest CRT models can be as much as 26 inches deep. Rear-projection TVs (RPTVs) step up the integration challenge - and the cost - because most are floor-standing models, and even the "tabletop" versions can be more than 25 inches deep.

The best way to work large direct-view and rear-projection TVs into a room is to place them in some sort of prefabricated or custom wall unit. Leslie Young suggests using a staggered design to help bulky sets blend more easily into an existing room. "What we often do," she said, "is build an asymmetrical unit where the deepest part of the cabinet surrounds the TV. Then we recess the surrounding cabinets so the TV doesn't look as overwhelming. We set everything else back so that when you walk into the room this huge wall unit doesn't bombard you. It gives you a very customized look." Rita Guest, director of design for the Carson Guest firm in Atlanta, uses a wood "faceplate" as part of the wall unit to conceal the TV cabinet. "After the TV's installed," she explained, "we have a cabinetmaker build a frame for it. It's removable, but it looks like part of the cabinet. The only thing that's visible is the screen."

Plasma and LCD monitors are ultra slim - but come at a fat price. Plasma monitors start at around $6,000 for a 42-incher and go up as high as $29,000 for a 60-inch model. But they're the best way to go if you want a large picture in a small space. "More and more people are going with plasma displays simply because they're roughly only 4 inches deep no matter what screen size you choose," noted Andy Willcox, managing director of Pro Line Integrated Systems in Highland Park, Illinois. "That allows you the flexibility to completely hide the other A/V equipment and hang a screen on the wall or hide it in a cabinet." Another low-profile option is a front projector with a retractable screen.

While high-end projectors run into the mid-five-figures, you can buy an LCD projector for as little as $2,000. But you'll also have to buy a screen, which will run from $500 to $5,000 depending on the size, quality, and type. Also, front-projection systems, particularly CRT projectors, should be installed and adjusted by trained professionals, and they're best suited for dark or dimly lit rooms. Consequently, a front-projection system, although less intrusive, probably isn't the best solution for the average do-it-yourselfer.

Sneaker Speakers

For years, all you needed for an adequate home-entertainment system was a pair of speakers for both music and movies. But nowadays it takes at least five speakers and a subwoofer. Fortunately, like most everything else electronic in the last decade or so, speakers have gotten significantly smaller. And they come in such a variety of styles, sizes, shapes, and finishes that you won't have to compromise on sound quality - and your mate won't have to sacrifice the look of the room.

If you don't want the speakers to command attention, slim, wall-hanging models are designed to blend into an interior. For an even more stealthy approach, it's hard to beat in-wall speakers. Of course, you'll have to cut into your walls to mount them and run wires to them - a dicey proposition unless you're the type who knows the clerks down at Home Depot on a first-name basis. And it's hard to predict how in-walls will sound once they're installed. The size of the enclosure is one of the most crucial factors in any speaker's performance and the designers can't know for certain what size cavity an in-wall speaker will be placed in. Though there are models available that isolate the back wave of the speaker, and some high-end in-walls come with the woofer installed in a separate enclosure, you can usually expect some performance tradeoffs.

The deep-bass impact that a subwoofer brings to movie watching is a key element of the home theater experience. But figuring out where to place a sub so it will both sound good and be unobtrusive has always been a problem. Because they require one or more fairly large drivers to move lots of air, subwoofers aren't easy to hide. And since nearly every home theater sub has its own amplifier built in (and therefore requires power), you have to have an electrical outlet near where you place one if you want to avoid stringing an extension cord halfway around the room. Subs produce more bass when placed in corners, so most people attempt to tuck them behind pieces of furniture. Speaker manufacturers have responded to all these issues by offering subwoofers with smaller footprints.

Custom installers have their own tricks for hiding subwoofers. "There are a number of good in-wall subwoofers we use," said Chris Kangis. "Also, we often build a false wall in the front of the room, which allows us to hide all of the front speakers as well as the sub. It also affords us some leeway in placement."

Bruce Garipay recommended that homeowners think about hiding subwoofers when they're remodeling or adding space: "If someone is building a bar in a media room, we'll build the subwoofer into the bottom of the bar and cover it with grille cloth." A similar approach can be used with custom-built furniture, he said.

Stuff It

After video monitors and speakers, perhaps the biggest obstacle to integrating A/V equipment into your home is figuring out where to store all those black boxes of electronics. The most obvious route is to purchase prefab furniture.

Above, the author's children, Phineas (left) and Olivia, pose in front of his custom-built entertainment center.
Companies like Bell'O, Lovan, Salamander Designs, Boltz, Soricé, and Billy Bags Designs make storage units for components and recordings in a wide variety of configurations and finishes, or you can shop local furniture stores.

Another option that can be surprisingly affordable is to have a local furniture maker custom build a piece for you. That way it will exactly fit your needs and specifications. A few years ago, after my wife decided my old Ikea A/V rack had to go, we searched local furniture stores for an entertainment center that fit the décor she planned and met my hardware and software needs. After looking at dozens of pieces in almost as many stores, we contacted a local cabinetmaker who'd built a beautiful and functional armoire for my wife's home office about a year earlier. I gave him my requirements - among other things, a hinged panel in the back and storage space for over 1,000 CDs. My wife gave him hers - pocket doors to hide the TV when not in use, for example. After paying $2,200, we had a custom entertainment center a few weeks later that pleased us both. Ambitious do-it-yourselfers can install a "media closet" to store all of their gear out of the way except source components and speakers. You don't need ready access to things like receivers, amps, preamps, and signal processors, especially if they're controlled remotely. You can buy accessory infrared eyes for some components to operate them even when they're out of sight.

A few caveats about closet installations: Make sure the air in the closet can circulate. The amplifiers in receivers can run awfully hot, so be certain that the heat won't build up. For the same reason, don't stack the components directly on top of each other - make sure that each has its own shelf. And you should either use a rack with sliding shelves or an entire unit you can roll out of the closet for service - or else mount an access door in the closet wall behind your rack. There are few setup situations more nightmarish than trying to change conections on the back of a component while you're wedged into a small space.

As for DVD and CD storage, the installers I spoke with usually have it built into the custom cabinetry they're installing. But Kangis mentioned that such concerns could someday be a thing of the past. "More and more, we're going to server-based systems," he said. "There's a plethora of digital audio servers on the market today, stuff from $500 or $1,000 to load your music into. Now all of a sudden, your CDs and DVDs don't need a place to reside other than a storage box." (For more about audio servers, see "May We Serve You?" in the May issue.)

Wire Service

The golden age of wireless has yet to dawn in the world of electronic home entertainment. Until it does, we're faced with figuring out how to tie all of the various components in a home theater system together without having our living rooms look like the snake house at the local zoo. Routing wires between components contained in one area is no big deal, but connecting gear that's spread around the room can be a major headache. And every home theater devotee has to deal with the hassle of running speaker wire to surrounds without creating an eyesore or a tripping hazard. DIYers will brave crawl spaces to run wires underneath a ground floor or snake them through a wall or attic. Professional installers, of course, have their own methods of hiding unsightly wires. "Generally, we'll pull off baseboards, route wire behind them, and put them back on again," Andy Willcox revealed. "It's a little more labor intensive, but it's a great way to do it. In some cases, we'll run the wire through a groove we've routered into sheet rock, which we then tape up and patch." (For more, see "Going Retro," December 2001.)

Happy Together

In the future, technologies like flat video screens, wireless data transmission, and network servers might be commonplace in the average home. But until then, gear-loving home theater enthusiasts and décor-minded homemakers will have to find a middle ground in the living rooms and family rooms across the country. A little forethought and some careful shopping, though, can bring harmony to you and your honey's home-entertainment experience. Now, if you could only learn not to burn the microwave popcorn . . .