Going Inside the HomeTheaterReview.com Reference System

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Going Inside the HomeTheaterReview.com Reference System


One of the cool things about running a specialty audio/video publication is the fact that it affords me the chance to build one hell of a cool AV system every few years. In 2012, I bought a house not too far from the beach where David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson used to prance on Baywatch. It's a 1950s post-and-beam style home, which is now "a thing"; but, back in the day, it was really just a relatively cheap way to throw a house up in a booming, post-war economy. Recently, I had my residential photographer, Simon Berlyn, over to shoot some photos of the house, and I wanted to share them with you, along with the new direction that I took with my AV system. Hopefully, the system will provide some inspiration for your current or future AV system.

Before I tackled the AV system, I first needed to expand the footprint of the house to a relatively modest 2,500 square feet. We gutted the two-car garage by opening up walls, removing the garage door, and making the garage into an indoor/outdoor living space that's more like a living room--complete with an outdoor heater, LED lighting, whole-house music, and 4K video. One issue with post-and-beam houses is that, in their original condition, they rarely have any insulation, and that was certainly the case with my 1957 specimen. We fixed that, along with replacing all of the internal and external windows with double-paned, gas-filled windows, which really helps keep the house temperate all year long.

Another problem with my post-and-beam house was that the flooring was poorly installed and squeaky because the old nails had gotten loose. Before I called SVS and Focal for subs and speakers, we used over 20,000 gun-fired "screw-nails" (for lack of a better term) that reattached the floors with enthusiasm. Then we epoxied a layer of three-quarter-inch MDF plywood to the flooring structure and installed wide-plank oak floors that our designer said was the trendy style from Milan this season. Whatever! All I cared about was that I was ready to rock.

We cracked open nearly every wall in the house and wired for everything, which isn't as expensive as you might think. The spools of very high-grade speaker wire were somewhat pricey because of the high copper content, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that running fiber-optic cable from the main equipment room to every room in the house with an HDTV wasn't that much money. If I remember correctly, it might have cost about $1,000 in cable and was part of the labor cost of running control cables for 19 shades, over 20 in-wall keypads, 10 pairs of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, and more. Our electrician ran power to every HDTV location, be it in the floor or a "clock outlet" in the wall so that the TV could be flush-mounted.

One pet peeve of mine is when people stick a kickass flat-panel TV above a fireplace. In some cases, it's unavoidable, as it was in my office. However, it limits the size of the TV and forces you to place it higher on the wall than you might want. In the main living room, where our best AV equipment was going, I paid the contractor to remove the wood-burning fireplace and replace it with insulated drywall and a new (patched, really) exterior. This was a controversial call, in that our two fireplaces are wood-burning fireplaces that some people love. For me, I never regretted removing it, as it doesn't help bass performance and didn't allow for the massive 85-inch TV I wanted to put there. Whoever said that size doesn't matter has never sold TVs for a living.

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A Consolidated Whole-home AV System
Every AV system that I've ever owned, from the time I was 14 years old, was basically designed the same way--meaning that it was designed around a TV and a receiver or separates being fed any number of sources, with the signal going out to anything ranging from 2.1 to 7.1 speakers. In rare cases I had a second zone of audio, but that's about as complex as I ever got.

In this house, with the help of Tim Duffy from Simply Home Entertainment, we designed a true smart home, starting with a consolidated "mechanical room." All of the sources, switches, networking, amplification, and power control went neatly into two custom-designed Middle Atlantic racks. Power-over-Ethernet was a positive improvement, as I could plug in all components to the back of the rack easily with no cable clutter. Two huge UPS power supplies were installed at the bottom of the rack to keep the system going without AC power for a good 20 minutes or so.

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Video was distributed via Crestron's DM system. This is a very cool way to send video around your house; however, it's not for the faint of heart, in that an 8x8 Crestron switcher goes for about $25,000. While my switcher doesn't pass HDR (newer ones do), it sends 4K and 1080p video flawlessly to every location in the house. For distributed audio, Crestron's SWAMP amp is an eight-zone music distribution system that can easily be expanded, which is what I did for my outdoor system (more on that in a bit).

I can't say that I am 100 percent disc-less at this point, but I really only use silver discs for loading into my Kaleidescape movie server or playing UHD Blu-ray through my Oppo UDP-203. Whole-home audio is sourced mainly by an Autonomic Mirage media streamer, which packs about every streaming radio or audio source you can think of. This unit comes in a two- and five-zone configuration; I used the two-zone unit, and we opted not to configure many of the streaming sources to keep things simple. I went with TIDAL, Pandora, and Sirius, as well as an FM-tuning option that I never use. Really, I use Pandora more than most music sources. Many readers have suggested that I try Spotify, but I'm cheap and lazy and don't really want to pay to add the programming to my Crestron remotes at this point. Other sources include a Roku Ultra, Apple TV 4K, his and hers DirecTV 4K DVRs, and the aforementioned Oppo UDP-203 and 56TB Kaleidescape server.

Networking
Networking was something that, regrettably, I had never really done correctly in the past. I used pretty crappy consumer-grade products like the ones found at Best Buy instead of enterprise-class products, and it's only now that I can see just how much of a difference good networking gear makes. Yes, there is a step up in cost; but, when you take the time to run good cabling and put good Wi-Fi access points throughout your home, you'll see a huge improvement.

We get excellent Internet service here from Spectrum (formerly Time Warner), measuring over 300 Mbps through the provided modem. When the final system was installed, I was pulling down 375 Mbps. Nice. Look for brands like Ruckus, Pakedge, and Cisco if you are looking to upgrade your home networking. Also, the fewer weak links in your network, the better. We asked Spectrum to re-run our feed from the street, which they were kind enough to do. We redid all of the cabling inside the house, including running fiber optic pretty much everywhere--even underground out to the pool cabana. All were worthy upgrades.

Lights and Shades
Lights and shades are a necessary part of any home; and, in a smart home, you can really get tricky. I went with Crestron for both lighting and shade control, as well as the shades themselves. While you can get decorator-crazy with shade colors, I kept things simple and modern, using white shades in many areas. In the bedrooms, we opted for blackout shades, with the master bedroom rocking both sheer and blackout shades. You need to run simple control wires to the shades and the keypads, which isn't too difficult if the walls are already open. It can get pretty messy if you do have to open up the walls, but I would embrace the old drywall saw before ever living without this kind of shade and lighting control again.

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The lighting control system is its own in-wall box, not too different than a fuse box. Lights are batched by zones. In my case I was forced by the City of Los Angeles to use LED lights, and I was not happy with the results. Traditional MR-16 bulbs use more power but dim much better and have many more options in terms of light disbursement. The color fidelity of LEDs has improved a lot over the past few years; they once were very "cold" or blue looking, but that's not really a problem now. The problem that I had with my lights was dimming them to very low levels. MR-16s work better in this respect, but the power savings and 30-year bulb life of LEDs are certainly upsides.

Back to the shades for a second: in a perfect world, I would have been able to install my roll-down shades in the ceiling, but I live far from a perfect world. We ultimately hired a carpenter to make simple soffits and painted them white to match the walls, and the shades now disappear into the décor. Overall, the cost of the shades, controls, soffits, and installation was more than that of traditional window covers, but not by a huge margin--perhaps 25 percent more. Maybe less. But what you can't do with traditional shades is program the lights and shades to react a specific way at a specific time of the day, every day. You can't set set daytime, evening, and nighttime lighting schemes that automatically dial in your house to not just look better but to be safer (you can even program in a random option for your lights and shades in the event that someone is casing your house).

You also can enjoy a little energy savings by programming certain window shades to lower at certain times to cut down on heat buildup. You also can program the HVAC control, which wasn't terribly expensive and further improved the home's comfort and energy costs. Many smart HVAC solutions are available at the consumer level that work great.

System Control
With an entire system dialed into nearly every room of a house, one of the hardest tricks is controlling it all. We used all kinds of tools for smart home control in this project, ranging from Apple iPads running the Crestron App to hard-button remotes like my beloved Crestron MLX-3 to in-wall keypads to smoke signals. OK, maybe not smoke signals.

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Crestron makes excellent purpose-built touchscreen remotes, but they are very expensive. I ultimately learned how to get an iPad to do nothing but the Crestron App. Note: the Crestron App is about $100 through the App Store and will not dial in an entire Crestron system wirelessly like some think. It's an interface for your programmer to give you access to everything that you need. Crestron wrongfully gets dinged in the reviews of the app because people don't understand what it really does and how it works. You need all of the Crestron "brains," switches, and whatnot to actually automate a project.

With that said, I must renew my long-standing point about the need for excellence in system programming. Any hack installer can screw up a home automation system; I have seen train-wreck installations of Control4, Savant, and especially Crestron. It's not the ingredients ... it's the chef. So please, take my advice and do your due diligence when hiring an installer, as the success of your system is at stake. Sometimes the more experienced, higher-priced installer will refuse to come out and clean up someone else's home automation mess because it's a high-responsibility, low-profit deal for them. It's way better to hire the right firm to get it right the first time.

I opted to use hard-button remotes like the Crestron MLX-3 throughout the house because, as cool and powerful as an iPad or touchscreen can be in a smart home, they suck for surfing TV channels. The Crestron MLX-3 has an LED screen at the top, many hard buttons below that, and a scroll button on the right side that your programmer can make do all sorts of tricks (Control4 has a similar option, the SR-260, which our own Dennis Burger loves). With mine, we can scroll through inputs and then press to select. It's pretty slick.

The last control piece in our system is the keypads. Installed into the wall, keypads can be physically configured in a number of ways. You can program all sorts of clicks, double clicks, and click-and-holds to accomplish all sorts of feats. Back to the golden rule of home automation, though: just because you can doesn't mean you should, so I chose to keep it simple. Usually your dealer will install blank buttons/keys or stick on temporary labels to start, giving you time to play with your system and make sure it does exactly what you want it to do. Many programming changes can be made remotely, and there will likely be changes, as there's just no way to get it 100 percent perfect the first time. When you feel like things are dialed in exactly the way you want, your installer will archive the keys for all of your keypads, and Crestron will etch the requested names onto the permanent buttons. This way, anyone can walk into a room and know which button lets them raise/lower shades, dim the lights, and so on. It's very simple, very intuitive, and very cool.

Speakers of All Kinds
I still use audiophile speakers in my main system. Custom installers want to hide everything, but I like the sculpted nature of a beautifully designed speaker, even if I'm just listening to the nightly news on it. Today's best speakers come in designer colors and have the fit and finish that you'd expect from an Aston Martin.

Currently in my main system are a pair of Focal Sopra No2 floorstanding speakers in white, with a matching Focal Sopra Center speaker. The only stand that Focal currently makes is really intended for the Sopra No1 bookshelf speaker, and the Sopra Center would sit too high in it as it is, blocking my 85-inch Samsung 4K LED TV that's flush on the wall. My design firm was able to alter the stand in a way to make it the perfect height for my room, and the results are excellent.

I matched the Focal speakers with an SVS SB13 subwoofer, which absolutely rocks. I had provisions for a second sub, but in reality there just wasn't enough room for a second rumbler--and I don't really "need" it, either. I can't believe I just said that. Shame on me.

I put in-ceiling speakers all over the house. Most were from Sonance: the company's top eight-inch round offering. Knowing what I know now, I would have used more of the new Sonance IS4 invisible speakers in my installation. If you aren't hip to this new custom installation concept, invisible speakers are in-ceiling (or in-wall) speakers that hide behind a drywall skim coat, wallpaper, fabric, and/or other thin surfaces. You can't see them, but you sure can hear them. The look is fantastic, and I'll go out on a limb to say that they have the ultimate WAF (wife acceptance factor). Best of all, they perform much better than expected. They also have extensive protection circuits for when you are out and your teenagers try throwing a house party playing EDM at 110 dB; the speakers will shut down LONG before they break down. Still, when I did my review of the Sonance invisible speakers, I cranked some AC-DC quite loudly, and they held up. Currently, I'm rocking out to a totally cool Brazilian jazz channel from Pandora at very reasonable levels in my dining room, and these impossible-to-see speakers are a pleasure to hear. Soon I plan to install a pair of Nakymatone's invisible speakers in my kitchen, which will allow me a chance to get a little more high end in the category. I look forward to a good A/B test, as they will be right beside my Sonance speakers in the dining room.

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As much as I love my Focal Sopra speakers, I think my favorite speaker system is my pool system. Using very reasonably priced round, outdoor speakers from Snap AV's Episode brand and two 12-inch mushroom-looking buried subwoofers, we were able to create an outdoor system that has discrete power via a digital Sonance amp and is fed digitally from the Crestron SWAMP amp. Not only do the speakers sound great, but they are configurable so that they play at just the right level and sonically "blend" into the environment. When you turn up the volume, the sound scales up correctly, versus just playing loudly and blaring by the pool as if you were at the Sunday morning rehab party at The Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. We've got less questionable people, fewer tattoos, and much better audio here at our pool.

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No Dedicated Screening Room?
In my last house, we built a dedicated, light-controlled theater room with a projector booth (of sorts), cushy stadium seating, and a fan-cooled rack. It rocked in there, thanks to Classé/Meridian electronics and top-of-the-line Revel/Wilson/Paradigm speakers. The problem was that, even in the Entertainment Capital of the World, when we went to sell the house, people didn't want to pay for square footage at West Los Angeles prices that was dedicated to a screening room. Perhaps in a larger home (say, 5,000 square feet or higher--which is one hell of an expensive house in these here parts) a screening room and/or a wine cellar would be more relevant.

The theater that we did in this house--with the Focal speakers, SVS subwoofers, and Classé electronics--works wonderfully. Using a blackout shade to block the big glass window, you can make the room dark enough to enjoy a more immersive movie experience, and I'm still able to enjoy Atmos and DTS:X sound, despite the physical challenges of the post-and-beam living space.

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I'm not sure if I would do another dedicated screening room in another house. I think the house itself would determine that decision. Kids love a dedicated room, as I learned with a fellow dad at my kid's school. He had Simply Home Entertainment do up a theater room in his new house a few miles away; and, despite the small size of the room, it rocks with a 4K Sony projector that's been professionally calibrated and behind-the-screen Tannoy speakers that also pump out the dBs for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks.

In the end, it's a great blessing to have been able to own so many of the best products in the world of audio, video, and home automation. As AV progress marches on, prices get lower and lower for the coolest products and concepts out there. They are designed to make your life more enjoyable; and, take it from me, they do. Hire your team carefully and spend responsibly (I am a bad example of that, admittedly), but most importantly have a blast building your AV system into whatever configuration you can dream up. Hopefully, by sharing what I did in my home, I've given you some inspiration.

Lastly, a very special thanks to everyone who helped make my system possible, including but not limited to: Simply Home Entertainment, AVICAL (David Abrams video calibration), Sonance, Classé, SVS, Focal, Snap AV, Transparent, Kaleidescape, Simon Berlin Photography, and so many more.

Additional Resources
The 22 Immutable Laws of New-School Audio/Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
How Much Do Aesthetics Matter When Buying AV Equipment at HomeTheaterReview.com.
What Is the Magic Price Point for Top-Performing AV Components at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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