A home theater is a wonderful thing. A big, bright HDTV screen, five or more channels of clean, clear dynamic surround sound and remote control to drive it all. Completing the package, ideally, all the wires are hidden within the walls. This is what people want, but few have the product knowledge or carpentry skills to get the job done right. Enter the custom installers to bring it all together.

Many custom installers and A/V dealers do fabulous work. However, you should not forget it is a business and in the “free market” the goal is always to maximize profits.

Unfortunately, the best interest of the consumer may conflict with the dealer’s business goals. A number of companies simply want to get consumers to pay the most money possible for the job and get out as quickly as possible maximizing profits.

To learn the tricks of the trade we interviewed Bruce Clark, president of Long Island based Audio Breakthroughs. They’ve been in business for over thirty five years and have installed thousands of home theaters. Occasionally Clark receives calls from other company’s dissatisfied customers requesting fixes for a botched installation.

Here are a number of “tricks” he’s seen used in these bad jobs, so you know what to look out for.

In-Ceiling Speakers in Lieu of Enclosure Type

The most important speakers in any home theater are the front speakers (left, right and center). These produce the vast majority of the sound plus all the dialog. Rear speakers are generally only used for occasional sound effects.  While placing speakers in the ceiling is fine for background music, you want the dialog to be clear and seem to be emanating from the display. Ceiling mounting moves the sound  above the screen, creating a disconnect by making the actor’s voice appear to come from above rather than from the screen. So why do custom installers recommend ceiling speakers?  Clark explains that in-wall and in-ceiling speakers have the highest gross profit margins, ranging from 60% to 90%. In other words, if the pair of speakers costs you $500, that could be $450 in gross profit for the installer. The in-wall speaker manufacturers have very controlled sales distribution; it is highly unlikely to find the product at a good discount on-line.

Clark added, their use of in-wall or in ceiling speakers in a home theater is done only as a last resort to satisfy customer’s demands.

Enclosed speakers have better dynamics and a much more even frequency response. This is because  the drivers and enclosure are tuned as a complete system.

Component Video Cables Instead of HDMI

Component video cables are analog connections using three RCA-type cables. They have red blue and green ends. This system was adopted for home use with the introduction of DVD players back in 1997. Analog component cables over long runs can lose high frequency information, seen as fine picture detail. Long component cables always produce an image, but it can be soft.  HDMI is digital and therefore maintains all fine picture detail (our  test of 50 foot cables).

But, HDMI doesn’t always work, at least not as easily as analog component. HDMI cables require dealer know-how to assure at the needed length works properly with a given system. To save  effort, many custom installers still use the obsolete component video connection. Some incorporate it as a back-up with an HDMI cable (in the very unlikely case of cable failure), however many simply run component video solo. How can the customer know the picture lacks fine detail when they have no point of comparison? They can’t.  Ignorance is indeed bliss. Clark says his installers always uses HDMI as the connection, as it provides the best image quality and transfers the best audio codecs along with it.

Flat Panel Mounting

There are two types of flat panels, LCD (includes LED LCD) and plasma. The former needs to be at or near eye level for optimum image quality. This is due to LCD’s limited vertical dispersion (with many models). If eye level isn’t possible, they’ll need to be tilted down towards the viewer Plasmas have excellent vertical and horizontal dispersion and as such can be mounted flat on the wall without any significant losses in picture quality. Clark explains that ultra-thin TVs look best when paired with wall mounts designed for thin panels. Pivoting mounts make the panel stick much further out from the wall, and are unnecessary for many installations.

To the dealer this means inventorying many different model brackets to provide the ideal mount for a given job. Clark states many installers use fat, pivoting mounts in a one-size-fits-all strategy to save inventory costs. Most TV buyers don’t know what they need, let alone what’s available, so the custom dealers take advantage by selling what they want to sell rather than what best suits the customer’s needs.

Another reason installers use mounts that stick far out from the wall, the TV’s power cord plug. The plug end necessitates a space between the wall outlet and the mount. For this reason, Clark provides customers’ electricians with recessed outlets to install in place of the standard flush-mounted units.

Selling the Customer Back Cables

HDTV  components such as Blu-ray players often  come with  av cables. Rather than use them as needed and save the customer money, some dealers enhance income by selling the consumer back the same cable that was already in the box. Nothing beats a 100% profit.

Wires-One Sizes Fits All

Category 5 and Category 6 cables are used for Ethernet connections and other digital signals. Clark notes his crews fix bad installations where Cat 5 was used for nearly everything, including speaker wire. Like component video, using any wire with an analog audio signal will produce sound, but the single, thin twisted pairs in Cat 5 and Cat 6 cables do a terrible job of preserving analog audio fidelity.

Clark says his crews use at least a 14-gauge speaker wire for all their installations.

Home Automation

Touch screen home automation systems, such as what Crestron offers, can make controlling a home theater a breeze. These sophisticated systems require specific programming, which often costs thousands of dollars on top of the cost of the automation hardware itself. What consumers aren’t aware is the “source code” for the program is unique for their system. To replace a component in the future (a new Blu-ray player, say), the program needs to be modified to accommodate the new equipment. The question is, where’s the source code for the system? If the consumer doesn’t have the code, they are at the mercy of the installation company, and they can charge whatever they want to upgrade your system. Worse, what if the company goes out of business? Then the consumer has to pay another programmer to program the entire system from scratch (incurring yet another multi-thousand dollar bill)

If the consumer has the source code, any Crestron programmer will be able to make the changes and the programming charges will be limited to the one component. Make certain you get a copy of the source code program from the installer. A number of dealers refuse to provide it and these firms should be avoided. It’s a smart idea to get this written into the contract. Here is a link from an excellent article by CE Pro that expands on this issue.


Get The Model Numbers

When you get a system price from a custom installer it should include an itemized product list with  all make/model numbers. A number of dealers don’t provide this information. For example, Sonance (a speaker manufacturer) sells over 180 models that range from $200 per pair to $3000 per pair retail.  Dealers may state they don’t list specifics product numbers because models tend to change. Be aware, without  model numbers you won’t know what you purchasing and may not get what you thought.


Too summarize, a home theater proposal from a reputable company should include all product model numbers, HDMI connections from all high definition sources, proper gauge copper speaker wire for speaker connection, shielded audio cable (where required), enclosure type speakers for the best front and center sound quality and a provision for all source codes for any home automation remote controls systems that require written programs.



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