Is Automation the New "Audiophile"?

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Is Automation the New


Home-automation-tablet-thumb.jpgMy family and I just moved into a new house after two years in exile in both an apartment and a condo while construction was underway. While the new house isn't completely done at this point, the inside is getting pretty dialed in, and that includes a lot of home automation, networking, and programming--along with a new kitchen, updated bathrooms, and new hardwood floors. While the home still has the bones of a "mid-century" design, it's fully updated to modern standards.

When my trusty installer, Simply Home Entertainment, first designed my system, what was most notable was that the basic system configuration had changed for the first time since maybe my first AV system when I was 14. Historically, I had source components, electronics (preamp/amps or receiver), speakers, and a monitor all joined together in a single location. In some cases, I added one extra zone of audio, which any $500 AV receiver could do 20 years ago. Sure, the complexity and sophistication of the equipment grew over time--from a 1990 Rotel 855 CD player with an Audio Alchemy DDE-1 DAC into an NAD receiver powering Celestion speakers to many a pair of Wilsons, Revels, and Paradigms, with electronics from the likes of Krell, Mark Levinson, Meridian, Classe, Pass Labs, Audio Research, and others. But the basic setup remained the same.

Now, things are different. My new system's configuration is a whole new ball of wax. While I still use audiophile-grade electronics from Classe, cables from Transparent, main speakers from Focal, and subwoofers from SVS, all of my sources go into a 4K switcher from Crestron, which is located in a "mechanical room" where all of the gear in the house is hosted, with both front and rear access as well as cooling. That means two DirecTV DVRs (his and hers), an Autonomic Mirage music server, a Kalidescape movie server, a Roku box, an Apple TV, and an Oppo BDP-103. Then the signal goes via either CAT-7 or fiber optic to each and every location in the house. For multi-room audio, I am using Crestron's "SWAMP" receiver, for lack of a better term. It's a device much like the 4K switcher, which can assign sources on the fly to whichever zone you want, when you want it. Rooms are controlled by Crestron MLX-3 handheld remotes for channel surfing and basic control of the overall AV. "House iPads" are installed for full control of all of the shades, HVAC, lighting scenes, and most importantly whole-home music.

What I am finding when I talk to my audiophile and AV enthusiasts friends is that, while they love high-performance audio and are thrilled about the potential of UHD content on the video side, they care just as much about getting the slick control that today's control systems offer at more and more affordable prices. Adrienne Maxwell is testing and using many of today's coolest affordable do-it-yourself HVAC and lighting controls. Dennis Burger is rocking a full Control4 system and got so into the topic that he has become an installer for the product. Dr. Ken Taraszka, upon returning from working overseas for a year or so, is looking at installing a full Control4 system in his new townhome. If you look at our collective demographic, you see we are all Generation Xers with a long history of purchasing and enjoying top-level AV gear. Now we want our AV gear to work for us first, and thankfully that's becoming more and more attainable.

I ran an informal test on the value of a modest home automation system when I sold my last home, and it didn't have much of an upward effect on price at the time. Today might be different if you have a home that can jump through hoops right from your iPad, tablet, phone, or programmed remote. There is no denying the drama of shades lowering, lights dimming, and music/movies spooling up instantly through an automated system. What's even more compelling is that you actually can save money and spend less time and energy trying to keep your home at the right temperature and beyond.

In the early days of home automation, the cost of doing such a project for even a modest home was through the roof. Programming was complicated. Touchscreen remotes were costly, clunky, and lousy for channel surfing. Today, even higher-end home automation companies like Crestron offer a lower-end, more user-friendly system like the Pyng platform. Control4 is by no means cheap, but it's less money than a full Crestron system. Lutron lighting-control options are available at places as mainstream as Home Depot. HVAC control systems from the likes of Nest make for a slick DIY project and cost less than $300 total. Wireless front-door video cameras are also affordable and have an impressive "wow factor." And that's only a start to the more attainable options open to AV enthusiasts.

The idea that you have to give up audiophile performance to have home automation isn't reality. You can have both. What has changed in many ways are the demands of consumers. Everyone still wants the great audio and video quality, but we want more. Wives especially want the simple form and function--the comfort and the cost savings that automation can offer. The good news is that it's all getting more and more within reach for non-one-percenters, and that has the potential to unlock a whole new category of customers. That's a very good thing.

Additional Resources
There Is No AV Without IT Today at HomeTheaterReview.com
Why AV Enthusiasts Should Be Made at Fireplaces at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Check out our Remotes & System Control category page for reviews of the latest home automation products


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