It has been about a year since I packed up and moved out of my house at the top of a West Los Angeles canyon. Dating back to my bachelor's pad above the old Spago restaurant in the West Hollywood Hills, I have always been very blessed to be able to own a lot of great audio and video products: speakers from companies like Wilson, Revel, Focal, and B&W; electronics from Meridian, Krell, Classé, Audio Research, and Mark Levinson; Transparent cables; Crestron control systems; and more. The gear performed well in acoustically treated, light-controlled rooms and provided more than a decade of enjoyment with both movies and music.
Today, things are different. I purchased a home that I am completely renovating, thus my family has been living in apartments and condos until the work is done. The living quarters are much smaller, and access to no-holds-barred AV installations are not only off-limits, but they make no sense because I don't own the space. I've been forced to find new ways to make my somewhat emasculated AV setup seem bigger and perform better in a smaller place, and I've learned some cool tricks that might help you in your system.
Deal With Acoustics First and Affordably
I know of many pairs of $300 to $500 bookshelf speakers that are very good performers; but, if you want to take the system to the next level of performance, you need to treat your room a little bit. I don't mean RPG treatments that make your living room look like a Capitol Records recording studio. I am talking about putting a shaggy rug (I like the stuff at Room & Board on the ground where an imaging-killing coffee table would have gone. Use thick drapes from Bed Bath & Beyond on simple, stock curtain rods to tame first-order reflections off the side walls. Look to someone like GIK Acoustics for some mild-colored and not-too-obtrusive treatments to stick on the ceiling above your speakers, just a few feet in front. If you can afford any bass traps that can be stashed beside a sofa or in a corner, you are only helping your cause. Spending $500 to $1,000 in acoustic treatments, be they DIY or professional products, can make your speakers or soundbar perform much better.
Hardwire First, Like a Pro
Assuming you are using a flat-panel TV, make sure that you hire an electrician to install a recessed "clock outlet" in the wall so that your thin HDTV can sit flush against the wall - the way that it's supposed to look. Look into Snap AV's VersaBox, which allows you to stash all sorts of little goodies between the studs behind your HDTV. This under-$100 part is so trick and is one of the coolest things that I saw at CEDIA last year. You can stick your Roku, AppleTV, DirecTV Mini Genie, or Dish Joey in the studs behind the wall while safely and neatly mounting your TV in front of them.
Run all of your cables in the wall to where they need to go. If you need to cut some holes in the old drywall, do it...even if you are a renter. It's both unsightly and unsafe to have your cables dangling around your gear. Toddlers, animals, or inebriated guests could create a disaster that is easily avoidable. Be sure to save the chunks of drywall for the painter, as they will want to use them to quickly patch your mess by sanding and painting. With the help of an electrician, cable guy, and painter, your system will look like it was professionally installed for about $400 to $500 total. Look to Yelp.com or AngiesList.com if you need help finding a good but affordable company, as their review systems make it pretty easy to see who gets the most love from customers. Through Yelp, I found an electrician who rocked my job for about $300 for two rooms.
Click on over to Page 2 for video, wireless, and lighting tips . . .
Pop for Professional Video Calibration
You've read this one here before, and I will say it again: Video calibration is worth its weight in gold. I don't mean what you can do with test patterns on a DVD or Blu-ray. I mean hiring an expert to come out with the measuring tools and software needed to get even a Costco-bought TV as close as possible to ISF and SMPTE standards. It's a $350 to $500 investment that can make your TV last longer and look better. Dave Abrams from AVICAL rocked my Panasonic ZT and ST plasmas for me, and now they look killer with all types of content.
The chances that you don't have wireless Internet in your house are slim, but when was the last time you updated your hardware? I just popped for a new Apple Airport Extreme and Airport Express repeaters, which really helped the performance of my Internet at home. This type of upgrade is a $200 to $300 way to get better, more reliable Internet that can make your Netflix look better, your Roku stream better, and more. If you are not an Apple user, fret not: Amazon and Best Buy have all sorts of state-of-the-art hardware that can improve the quality of your wireless Internet setup. Don't forget to password-protect your connection, or people will steal your bandwidth or worse...much worse.
Another tip is to call your Internet provider and tell them you've been unhappy with your service (run a speed test using www.SpeedTest.net so you have your Ping numbers, as well as your upload and download speeds in Mbps). You might find that they will upgrade you for little to no money. Faster Internet is simply a wonderful luxury, be it for streaming great shows like Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards or just reading HomeTheaterReview.com.
Lastly, to extend high-quality audio beyond your main room, check out the growing number of wireless speaker systems on the market - from Aperion Audio's Allaire ARIS ($297) to Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin ($599) to MartinLogan's new Crescendo ($899). These tabletop wireless systems can put great-sounding music in every room of your house with little to no work.
Never Skip Lighting Control, Even If You're on a Tight Budget
When I first moved into my current condo, I replaced all of the traditional light bulbs with matching bulbs to keep the color temperature even throughout the space. This cost me $170 and really improved the look of the rooms, as some of the original bulbs glowed hotter than others. The next problem that I dealt with was the total lack of lighting control. My first instinct was to hire an electrician to start replacing in-ceiling lighting fixtures and switches with Lutron parts; but once again, I don't own the place, so I got creative instead.
Welcome to the world of IKEA, where I was able to get two pretty snappy Aläng floor lamps for about $50 a pop, including the lampshade. I wasn't done, as these IKEA lights come with fluorescent bulbs that can't easily be dimmed but can easily be replaced, which I did for a good $3 total. The next step was to go to the hardware store and pick up some super-cool dimmers for $19.99. Just plug them into the wall outlet and plug the lamps into them, leapfrog-style. The dimmers have a cable that ends in a slider. I wire-tied the cables to my end tables and secured the sliders with some museum putty (you could use Velcro if you like). For $100 total, I solved the light-dimming issue in my main theater. Music sounds better with the lights set nicely, and video looks much better without the lights going full blast.
There is no reason why, on a small budget and in a smaller space, you have to settle for anything less than big results. Do you have some good, low-cost tips to share from your AV install? If so, please share below in the Comments section.