The price of high-performance audio and video products has taken a dive in the past 10 years. In the early days of flat panels, a 60-inch plasma HDTV might have cost you $15,000 to $20,000, but you can buy a 60-inch LED/LCD TV for well below $1,000 today. Audiophile-grade floorstanding speakers made by respected brands now sell for $1,500 to $3,500 per pair, when you used to have to spend $5,000 to $10,000 (or more) to get a really great sound. While the prices have fallen, in many ways the system complexity has risen. Yes, HDMI works better today than it did in its early years, but today's convergent products are often more computer than AV component. That means they are complex and often hard to program, which makes it difficult to integrate them reliably into a real-world system.
This is where the audio/video industry could learn a lesson from Billy D. Williams and Colt 45 malt liquor. Unlike many AV products, Colt 45 is famous because "it works every time." If I were the CEO of a media server company or trying to sell AV systems, I would steal that line. What customer doesn't want something that works every time? Can you say that your AV system works every time? I can't, and I've got a fancy control system. The problem is that my top-of-the-line Panasonic ZT plasma doesn't have an RS-232 connection or IP control, so my (or any) control system can't effectively turn the sucker on and off. This is a $1 part, and it was left off a top-level product for what reason? Is it somehow unlikely that customers would want to use a universal remote control or automation system? C'mon.
One company that has really figured it out is DirecTV. The company has so many subscribers at this point that servicing them is an ever-present challenge. DirecTV does two things that are pretty smart. First, it sells/rents only a few devices. Second, some of the more complex components like the Genie whole-home DVR come with a reset button right on the front of the unit. This reset button solves the vast majority of consumer problems with the unit and keeps the computer-like component from needing lots of timely and costly support and/or service.
Our industry has shifted away from professionally installed systems, thanks to the rise of retailers like Best Buy, Costco, Target, Walmart, and Amazon. It's more and more tempting to try to slap together a nifty AV system without considering the installation safeguards that the rig really needs. Heat is a killer of AV gear, and today's components often run really warm. It's essential to spread out components that cause heat and/or deal with disbursement of heat with tools as simple as a basic fan. Cool gear breaks less, thus it's in your best interest to look for clever solutions to keep your system cool.
Clutter can also be an issue if you are working toward the Colt 45 "it works every time" standard. One really neat solution is a Versa box from Snap AV, which is like a medicine cabinet placed behind your flat HDTV. You can have your electrician install it for you, along with a flat-mounted "clock outlet." This cabinet allows you to neatly stash your small devices--be it an Apple TV, a DirecTV client, or a Roku player--to be hidden away in between the stud bay. Mate this with a low-profile wall-mount, and your TV can really hang flat against the wall but still swing off to the side when/if you ever need access to your smaller components. You also don't have to have a ton of HDMI cables hanging down from your TV, which reduces the chance of a loose connection. All of this can be installed for a few hundred dollars.
System control is changing and likely for the better when it comes to the Colt 45 standard. More and more companies are making apps that nicely control AV components. There are companies like iRemocon that offer a useful interface for your Apple or Android device to control elements of your AV system for less than $100 in hardware. Harmony remotes generally get high grades from us, not just for value but for overall control of systems. Close-ended control systems like Crestron are still the best, though. Crestron remotes are top of the line, and the hardware tends to work all of the time--but they need professional programming, and that can be costly. For most people, especially the younger generation, using apps and small appliances (think: remote switches, Nest HVAC, etc.) to automate your life will become the norm; it's just key that these devices and apps work flawlessly, which is not cheap to develop by any means.
One word of warning for those going down the road of apps versus the more closed-ended control system: beware of updates. App updates are usually a good thing, but OS updates can throw your apps into a fit. Before making that upgrade notice go away on the iPad that you use for system control, be sure to check your control apps for compatibility. Do not assume they will work on day one--these companies would need one hell of a development budget to keep up with Apple. Sometimes, it takes weeks if not months for your apps to catch up with your OS. You need to learn to err on the side of caution when performing system updates, or you can quickly lose your Colt 45 buzz when your system stops working.
There is no reason to live with a system that fails to work every time, especially if AV manufacturers work to give us better and better control options. It takes more than just IP control capability to make a system really sing. Consider hiring a professional installer to help you with your design and integration. If not, at least research the different DIY control options and basic installation tricks to keep your equipment running at its best.
What tricks are you using to keep your system running reliably? What control system do you use? Comment below.