Years ago, I wrote a story for AudiophileReview.com about taking my buddy to Rocky Mountain Audio Fest at the end of a golf trip to play yet another of Golf Magazine's Top 100 courses in the United States. Matt has surged ahead of me in the golfing endeavor thanks to his aggressive travel schedule, and he's currently in the low-80s (score and number of courses played) and I am at 71 of the top 100 with 19 of the top 20 under my belt (I don't want to talk about my scores right now).
After we played this fantastic Tom Doak-designed course called Ballyneal in the middle-of-nowhere Sand Hills region of eastern Colorado, a good three hours driving very fast from Denver, we headed back to fly home to Southern California, but also stopped off for a quick visit to visit the audiophile-only RMAF show. As an audiophile newcomer, Matt was blown away by the sound of the gear on display. He is the person that most AV retailers should dream walks through their front door--a Gen-Xer with the means to buy the good stuff if he wanted and a taste for high performance and luxurious technology. What I found interesting was his follow comment in the car back to D.I.A., which was about the way the gear was installed. He said, "I know a lot of people who could afford this expensive gear, but I don't know one of them that has a home that could accommodate such a messy installation."
While certain considerations need to be made because RMAF is a show run by hobbyists and historically in a run-down Marriott with lots of wear between the early 1980s and now, Matt has a point. In the hotel room and ballroom displays, cables were strewn everywhere, looking worse than the after-effects of the most out-of-control Mötley Crüe recording session (at least the cable part). Amps were parked on the floor, often stacked and packed between the speakers. Lighting design of any meaningful kind was nowhere be found--even a simple dimmer for a temporary IKEA light.
Extra speakers lined the walls (not for use with any object-based surround setups, since those were nowhere to be found at RMAF). Video displays? You're kidding, right? Those things are practically Kryptonite at an audiophile show, despite the fact that people who can actually afford such awesome gear also might want to watch a movie, TV, or Netflix/Amazon in their $100,000-plus systems. The audiophile show system design is just hopefully out of touch with the way consumers with the money to buy them (not used on Audiogon.com) would actually want to use said system. Matt was just being polite with his pretty poignant comment.
Here is the very good news. No matter your budget, there is no reason in 2019 that you need to have a messy, poorly constructed AV or audiophile system. Allow me to make my case:
- Today's modern AV system thankfully doesn't require as much gear as it did in years ago. I recently won the argument with my mom over getting rid of the three (yes, three) DVD players and the legacy VCR in her equipment rack. We sent off the handful of archival VHS tapes to Legacy Box to have them digitized so she can actually watch them on her iPad as well as easily share them via email, a technology that she's finally starting to master.
The replacement of a five-inch thick, 42-inch 720p Vizio TV from the long-long-ago has allowed us to remove an Apple TV and a Roku (despite my love for Roku), opening up even more space in her equipment rack. If I, someday, replace her Adcom FM Tuner, Adcom stereo preamp, and Anthem 5-channel amp (only using two channels of said amp) with a modest Denon or Marantz slim line receiver, we'd still have her non-ESL MartinLogans singing and her system would take up half the space, but I need to win what battles I can when I can.
For the rest of us, streamlining our systems doesn't need to be such a terrifying change. I recently ditched Apple TV and an Oppo player to make more room in my new Middle Atlantic rack and to have a simpler system.
- The idea of rigid audiophile cables that a) wont flex easily and b) stand out in a room is outdated by 2019 standards. Good cables like the Wireworld ones that I use in my mom's system are even more flexible today than in the past. Interconnects don't have to be uber-expensive to be able to be wire-tied to a rack and neatly organized. The same goes for HDMI cables.
For enthusiasts who change out and move in and out a lot of gear as part of the hobby, Velcro cable organizers are a super-affordable upgrade that will neaten your rack. Power cables can be replaced on many components not to improve on a "more flowery bloom to the midrange" (as that is total bullshit) but to reduce clutter and neaten your equipment rack. Excellent quality AV-grade power cabling of various lengths is a go-to item in the arsenal of any top custom installer and an easy trick for DYI AV enthusiasts to steal. Radio Shack, Amazon, Monoprice, or any number of sources can help you replace your power cable to help reduce clutter.
Depending on your skill level, running your well-shielded speaker cables through your walls and/or floors so that they just appear out of nowhere with a nice, neatly installed box with a protective and perhaps decorative plate is a really pro move that will improve wife acceptance factor in ways that can't be measured. Most good audiophile cable companies now offer installation-grade wire that meets every level of audiophile scrutiny but removes the annoying clutter.
- In my new object-based surround theater, currently being installed as I type (photos and updates pending), I will ultimately ditch the center speaker and instead use "phantom mode" on my AV preamp so that we only see two really gorgeous looking speakers on the floor, which is a lot more presentable than the whole bulky L-C-R look.
Heresy, you say? The truth is, most audiophiles couldn't care less about a center speaker--a lesson that I've learned on Audiogon.com over and over after investing in audiophile-grade center speakers. Aesthetically, the benefit of ditching the center speaker is undeniable, and today's AV receivers and AV preamps do such a good job making a center sound in phantom mode that it's a totally viable choice.
Another slick option that could help you dump your center speaker comes from Sony if you buy their top-of-the-line Master Series UHD TVs. They're designed such that you can use the TV panel (not the crappy internal speakers) as a legitimate center speaker, and believe it or not, it doesn't suck. The Sony Master Series OLED TVs are about as good as you could ever hope for and demand to be paired with an excellent, well-installed audiophile or home theater installation. The concept of dumping the center speaker is yet another way to get rid of clutter, making your room look more designer-tastic without hiring an interior designer.
- Today's surround sound systems require so many speakers that it is crazy. 16 or even 32 channels aren't unheard of in today's biggest home cinemas. For most home theater enthusiasts who want a taste of the best of today's surround sound, you will need rear speakers, side speakers (perhaps two pairs of them), height speakers, and perhaps more. Wiring and hanging small but traditional-form-factor speakers is not just ugly, it is often impossible. In-wall and/or in-ceiling speakers are a better option, but of course require creating some mess.
Since making a mess is an everyday part of my life here in my new house, I went one step farther in my theater by using a somewhat new category of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers knows as invisibles. Simply put, these speakers use a different kind of transducer that allows for you (really your drywall guy) to cover them with a material that is most likely drywall "skim coat" (like drywall mud) but it could also could be fabric, wallpaper, or even thin wood. I know what you are thinking, because I thought it before I installed my first pair of invisible speakers at my last house, but these speakers do not suck. I had one pair of Sonance IS4 invisibles in my last house and I absolutely loved them. Loved, I say. Knowing what I know now, I am using them all over my house, including for height, side, and surround speakers thanks to Stealth Audio. I have my beloved Nakymatone Echt high-end invisibles going in my living room, dining room, kitchen, master bedroom, and office.
Here's one more trick that I am doing this time out: I'm using Gray Sound in-ceiling subwoofers in many of those applications. These subs can be cut into your ceiling, highly braced, and ported in a way that they look like a lighting fixture. How cool is that? There are other in-wall and in-ceiling sub options, but this one is so elegant that I can get roughly 20 Hz to 20 kHz performance in my distributed audio system in many key vignettes around my new house without having to see any speakers at all. Too many audiophile systems are shy in the bass department and sacrifice looks for edgy-performance. Now you can have it all without seeing it at all.
- One of the best articles that our Senior Editor, Dennis Burger, ever wrote for HomeTheaterReview.com illustrates how for just under $1,000 you can automate a one-room system with Control4. $1,000 isn't a crazy amount of money to get your system fully dialed in. This includes a bad-ass remote, video control, some lighting control (more on that in a second), gear control, and professional programming. Hand your wife an iPad or a killer Control4 remote (better for channel surfing, I think) and tell her all of the other remotes are in the drawer in the garage, and she's going to flip. When she sees just how easy your system is to work, she's going to flip all over again. And this system can be expanded to more levels of sophistication all over your house when you've got the interest and the money to do it. But for $1,000, more traditional audiophiles and more home theater enthusiasts should be jumping on board, even if it's just for one room.
- Lighting is a topic that is rarely discussed in the audiophile world, but can make a big, big difference for both audiophile and home theater applications. You can now buy lighting systems that give you advanced control over the color spectrum of your lights in sophisticated ways, based on weather, time of day, your current mood, or any number of other factors. I almost went with such a system from Ketra, which is now owned by Lutron, but at about $1,000 per light, that option was a little rich for my blood. Instead, I opted for cans from a company called Alta, which run a much more reasonable $52 apiece. I will control them with a Lutron RadioRA 2 system connected to my pending Crestron automation system, including Crestron keypads all over the place.
But even that option is likely too expensive for most installations. One again, though, there is good news. There are products like Lutron Caseta lights and switches that can be had at the likes of Home Depot, Lowe's, and Amazon.com for very little money. They are plug-and-play with the aforementioned Control4 system. They also give you the sort of smart-home functionality that a lot of expensive lighting systems don't, like quick and easy (and user programmable) geofencing, lights-on alerts, and more. A DIY project or a very simple project for your local electrician can make your home theater or audiophile room look and perform so much better. Even a few simple lighting scenes can make a gigantic difference in the way you watch and listen to your media. Don't think that lighting control is for rich guys only. It isn't.
- Another category that has seen big improvements and a move more to the mainstream is window shades. I have used Lutron and Crestron in the past and they are excellent products. In my new house, I am using a new brand called Power Shades. They make pretty much bespoke shades in nearly every color, texture, and with serious black out options. Some of mine will be hardwired and a few others will be more traditionally (remote) controlled and powered with batteries to save in install and drywall repair costs. The cost of even the high-end of this category has gotten much better, but there are even more reasonable window treatment options. IKEA has some cool manual ones for the DIY folks that are pretty damn nice. Home Depot has automated battery shades that are available in about a week (that is fast) that look pretty nice too and are not expensive at all.
I could go on and on but hopefully there are some inspirational tips here for you to run with to make your system look better, perform better, and perhaps better appeal to your family members who might not be as into the technology as we all are. Feel free to use the comments section below to share your ideas for creating a neater, tidier, and more user-friendly home entertainment space. We love to hear from you.
• AV Bliss Is About More Than Merely Audio and Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• One Thing We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Cord-Cutting at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Getting Started With Basic Home Automation: Control4 Edition at HomeTheaterReview.com.