The Importance of Setup (a Cautionary Tale)

I took a mini-vacation a few weeks ago to Venice, Florida. My Dad had rented a house for a month and, figuring I could use a few days off, I went to visit. Now first of all, I was the youngest person in the zipcode by half. I've never seen such a concentration of gray hairs.

While there, I was volunteered to do some pro bono work helping diagnose a home theater system that had never worked properly, despite "professional" installation.

What I discovered seriously pissed me off.

Let me give you the scene: in 2003 my Dad's friend built a house in a lovely planned community in Venice. This area is like a frat party for septuagenarians.  Seriously, these people will drink you under the table, then kick your ass at shuffleboard 6 o'clock the next morning. I hope that I'll be in that good shape when I'm their age, but I'm not in that good shape now.

Let's call my Dad's friend Richard because, well, that's his name. In the process of building the home, Richard hired an installer to wire every room with in-wall or in-ceiling speakers, with a volume control in each room. That part of the install was done well, and all the wires leading back to the central A/V receiver were even labeled.

However, the home theater system in the main room never worked right. In fact, it was so wrong the family never used it. They complained to the installer that they couldn't understand the dialog, and everything sounded muffled. The installer sent a guy to the house, who looked over the system for a few minutes and declared "That's just how it sounds." For an installer to be so dismissive about gear he recommended shows either incompetence or negligence. 

Hey, let's go with both. While the gear wasn't quite what I'd have recommended, it certainly seemed capable of decent sound. Listing to the system didn't prove this conclusively. A multi-zone Technics receiver powered JBL speakers, with a subwoofer running in series with the fronts. The sub was on a shelf in a partially-enclosed hutch (top left, in the picture above). As you'd imagine, there was a lot of bass. The dialog was muffled, and barely audible. There were no surrounds I could discern, despite being able to see the physical speakers.

What was the fix? Well, I turned the volume down on the subwoofer and reduced the crossover frequency to 80 Hz, down from its highest setting. I turned up the center channel and surround speakers. Using the Audio Tool app, I set the levels the best I could. From there I ear-balled-it using a Lord of the Rings DVD. All told, the setup took about 15 minutes. The system went from unlistenable to "not bad." Given the constraints of the gear (the receiver had minimal setup options), the room, and the speaker locations, I was quite pleased with the result.

Now this begs the question: Why didn't the installer do this? A better question, why did he set up the system exactly wrong. Seriously. Every setting that could be adjusted, was adjusted in exactly the wrong way. I left the system with the center and surrounds at +10, they were originally at -10. I left the sub at 80Hz and approximately "4" on the volume scale. It was originally at "Max" on both. Incompetence? Laziness? I don't know.

The moral of the story? There are several. If you're not satisfied with the work done, make a fuss. Far too often people who don't know, assume the professionals they've hired do know. Don't assume. Trust, but verify, as they say. Audio Tool (or any one of the free SPL meters available for iPhone and Android), makes checking levels simple. Setup discs such as Disney's World of Wonder are fantastic tools for verifying settings.

I'm sure there are plenty of decent, honest installers out there. Probably more good than bad these days, given the culling of the herd the economy's caused the past few years. Like any industry, though, there are good and bad. Richard's install took place years before I set foot in the house. I have no idea if the installer is still in business, as he didn't remember the company's name. Rest assured had he, I would have gone to their store and caused a scene (Dammit, I'm the Internet's Geoff Morrison!).