How to Plan a Custom Audio Installation
We've recently started doing a lot more custom stereo installations - for home and for restaurants and retail. Consulting on this type of project has a few extra dimensions compared to setting up a traditional stereo system. Usually there are additional requirements of discreet aesthetics, multi-room control, integration with older equipment and specific uses such as outdoor, theater, or even nautical use! The type of environment can dramatically affect what kind of system you should go for, as well as present unique sound challenges. We present this guide to cover some of the frequently asked questions and pitfalls people experience.
1. PLAN BEFORE YOU BUILD/RENOVATE
As with any project the key to making something hassle free and successful is attention during the planning phase. For example, many people make the mistake of waiting far too long into their renovation project before considering the entertainment system. It's exponentially more difficult to run wires inside walls, or properly place a set of in-wall speakers after the drywall is up or the room is laid out. As with a traditional stand alone stereo, where you put the speakers in a room is of paramount importance for how good they sound. If you're spending a lot of money, it makes sense to maximize your investment. Other common mistakes are buying the equipment before you know the dimensions or layout of the space. Often times what you bought is not applicable or optimized for where it will be installed. It's best to think about these things in a comprehensive manner before you start anything.
2. DETERMINE YOUR NEEDS
Which rooms are most important to have sound in? Is it one room or two? In those rooms, which living area is most important to focus on? Will you be having loud parties, or dancing, or just background music. Do you also want to integrate your video or computer music into this system? All of these questions will be very important in guiding you to the right solution.
Let's look at a common request for sound in one room:
You want sound in your dining room and kitchen area mainly for listening to the radio in the mornings and entertaining over dinner. You might have a loud party once per month. Which solution is best?
The first consideration as with all stereos should be the speakers. How many do you need for the space, and what quality and volume capacity. Matching the speaker to the room is always the biggest variable in the performance of a stereo.
Do you want in-wall or on-wall speakers? There are advantages to each. In-wall speakers are discreet and can blend into your environment easily, however they cost about double an equivalent sounding on-wall speaker and if you want really good sound they can never compare. In-wall speakers live in an uncontrollable environment-- the wall. In most cases the wall becomes part of the sound which is rarely a good thing. In contrast, a box speaker is carefully designed to sound as good as it can regardless of position. On-wall speakers can also be easily angled to provide sound in a certain direction and in all cases they play louder and run less risk of blowing up-- especially handy if you have teenagers in the house!
If you wish to hide the speaker wires in the wall, it is obviously best to do this while the wall is open during initial construction. Then it is easy for your electrician or audio installer to run wires from the point where the amplifier is to each speaker. If the wall is existing, it can become quite expensive to hire an electrician to fish the wires, think $75/hour and up and significant time. A quick trick if you have a basement is to run the wires down through the floor and then up again through the wall wherever the speakers are. It's the horizontal runs that kill you in labour time.
If you don't mind running the wires along the baseboard or other wall joint, then there are a variety of paintable speaker wires that can be stapled easily to drywall. We recently found a custom grey wire which closely matched the walls at a restaurant we set up. Not having to run wires in the wall or paint after probably saved them $5000. Creative solutions like this can really make a difference in labour or avoided mistakes.
If you can't run wires, there are now some acceptable wireless speaker options, although they are not the panacea of flexibility that many people expect. The best simple solution thus far is the Philips AirPlay speakers ($229 & $399) which use Apple's standard AirPlay wireless protocol. This allows you to stream from iTunes directly to the Philips speaker and control everything via your iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, or computer. If you don't mind limiting your music source to iTunes, this can give you nearly all that you're looking for, including internet radio. It's affordable and Apple is the only company that has really made wireless music usable by the average person. For condos with concrete walls and not a lot of space, one or two of these little Philips can be an affordable and elegant solution.
There are other wireless solutions that offer more functionality such as Logitech Squeezebox or Sonus, but they cost more and are far more prone to hiccups and computer networking problems. Worth a look if you're computer inclined, but prepare for regular updates long after the original install.
We do not believe in any of the high end audio streaming systems currently available. They don't sound better than a well selected DAC with AirPort Express, they have horribly designed interfaces and are proprietary. At 10 or 50 times the cost, they are not good value compared to an AirPlay based system and as history has shown, closed systems do not generally stand the test of time.
One of the common questions about wireless is "how do I get my old tuner or CD player to communicate with the new wireless system?" The short answer is that AirPlay, Squeezebox, Sonos or high-end streamers won't accommodate old-style stuff. It's a computer world when it comes to wireless.
To accommodate an old-style source, a hybrid wireless/wired option can combine the best of both worlds. For example, if you were to wire speakers to a central amplifier, you could add an Apple Airport Express to the amplifier which would receive your music from iTunes. You can also plug in your CD player or turntable to the amplifier and then access all your sources through a central location, at least for one room. Some amplifiers provide outputs for 2 sets of speakers so with creative wiring you could use that amplifier for two rooms of audio.
Finally, if wiring and wireless don't work for reasons of cost or function, you can always use a traditional stereo setup in a freestanding or shelf location in each room. We can advise on creative positioning to maximize aesthetic harmony. We suggested to one customer to house speakers in an existing kitchen cabinet by replacing the glass front with transparent white cloth. This saved a lot of money on wiring and in-wall speakers and it sounded much better.
3. MULTI-ROOM OPTIONS
Many companies try to sell a whole-house system for music with touch pads and extensive wiring to a central automated console. The idea seems appealing. However, the reality is that the musical requirements and expectations of a variety of users are usually very different. One size usually doesn't fit all.
We have already seen the way which rooms can dramatically affect the solution you might choose. Expecting a whole-house audio system to magically anticipate and overcome all these disparate physical and practical requirements is nearly impossible. We have seen time and time again where people have bought expensive systems only to realize that they never work how they expect, the sound is terrible because it is not installed with the idea of it sounding good, and when something goes wrong you are often tied to the provider's exclusive service contract which can become extremely expensive over time. Try reprogramming a distributed audio component from another manufacture who stopped making it 5 years ago. It's a nightmare.
As mentioned before, consider an Apple AirPlay based system. Simply buy an Airport Express or AppleTV for any room you want sound in, then tailor the amp, speaker and wiring options for that specific room. One iPod or other iDevice can control the whole system and you can easily play different music in each room or sync up all the rooms for a party.
Since we are firmly sound-first here, we highly advocate this route because the cost to functionality is so high. For $99 per room you can have wireless music that works. Compared to a typical $10,000 investment for in-wall wiring-- likely with substandard in-wall speakers-- that leaves a ton of money left over for finding the best audio quality for your budget. The best part is that this system is modular so if one day there's a better wireless streaming receiver on the market you don't have to throw out your stereo, you just replace the receiving boxes. Audio system lifespans tend to be a lot longer than any computer device. It's more affordable to keep the two separate and modular.
We are just starting to get to the point where reliable wireless video is possible, but video uses exponentially more data and there are more variables in storing and transmission than for audio. For aforementioned reasons, we highly recommend the $119 Apple TV. Simply, it's the only solution that works for the level of proficiency most people have with networking and computers. There are some good hacks coming out that enable amazing functionality for those who are a little more savvy. Again, the cost is so low and function so high that we don't think this can be overlooked.
5. WHO TO INSTALL?
When it comes to custom installations, the degree of difficulty is a magnitude higher than the average electrical or construction job because there's the tricky business of good sound and then a further layer regarding ease-of-use. Would you trust your carpenter or networking guy to advise on your music or even less likely, what sounds good? They usually have far different priorities.
We think it is of paramount importance to hire someone who works to understand you and your lifestyle. Music is such a personal thing that it takes a lot of experience and adaptability to really hone in on what a customer might want. The professional you choose is the person who brings it all together to make your life easier and more enjoyable. Custom installs are one of the most difficult projects you can attempt because they bring together so many different requirements. Choose someone you can relate to and trust so that your house is filled with the best music.