Finding the right electronics pro can actually be the toughest step in the process of purchasing and installing a home theater. After all, if you’re not versed in this stuff, how do you know what—or whom—to look for? And if you don’t hire the right company, that home theater system of your dreams could turn into a nightmare.
You want to establish a lasting relationship with a custom electronics company. Remember: You’ll need someone to service those complicated electronics when there are problems, and you may want an installer to come back for upgrades or to provide electronics in a new addition or a new home.
Here’s our step-by-step guide to making sure you hire someone who can help you produce your own great home theater story. Follow these guidelines, and the only tears you’ll ever shed in your home theater will be the ones you cry at the end of that romance someone insisted on watching.
Use Online Resources to Find a Professional
One of the best places to find a professional installation company is the through the “homeowners” section of the CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association) Web site. CEDIA is a group of 2,900 electronics dealers and manufacturers in the United States, Canada, Mexico and beyond. Be sure to contact at least two or three companies in your area.
Confirm Licensure and Certification
Make sure any custom electronics company you talk to is licensed in its state. Certification from an organization such as CEDIA is a big plus. And make sure the company has a facility of some sort. If it doesn’t have a showroom, it should at least have an office you can visit. Also get a list of references, and be sure to check them. The company should carry workmen’s compensation insurance for its employees and have at least $1 million in liability insurance.
Visit the Installers’ Facility
The offices of any custom electronics company should be neat and clean and look professional. Also, judge the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff. See if they are attentive to your needs as a consumer. If they talk too much about technology you don’t understand, ask them what it can do for you—or go elsewhere.
Take a tour of the facility, and make sure the salespeople know how to use the displays. More importantly, request to operate the equipment yourself. Judge whether it’s easy and comfortable to control the systems in these rooms. If you’re looking for a home control system and the company’s models aren’t automated, that either means the company doesn’t believe in automating them, or it can’t do it.
Also ask to see the equipment racks, in front and in back, and see if they are wired in an organized way. If the backs of the showroom racks are a mess, they will likely look worse in your home.
Take the time to tour the company’s production-management, prekitting (where equipment racks are built and tested before being installed), warehousing and other spaces to see if the employees operate in a clean and organized fashion.
Remember that the company representatives are auditioning for your business throughout the process. They should ask you about your needs and listen attentively. If they don’t, do not proceed.
Get a Demo with your Own DVDs and CDs
Many companies have showrooms with home theater setups so you can audition the systems. If there is no showroom, one of the staff members should take you to see a home the team has worked on. This is fine, as long as you can get a sense that the company has worked on the type of system that you are interested in.
For showroom auditions, many custom electronic experts recommend that you bring your own DVDs and CDs. View DVD chapters that have some shadows in them so you can judge the contrast in the TV or video display. Better displays will show more grades of black and gray, and these darker areas won’t appear featureless. Look for any dots that appear to crawl on the screen on dark areas or artifacts near the edges of the images, the edges of people’s faces and when characters move.
If you’re sampling HDTVs, don’t just settle for HDNet or Discovery HD Theater. Ask to see CNN or another analog channel as well.
For audio, select DVD movie scenes that have a range of sounds—not just loud crashes and bangs. The mark of a truly good home theater system is not its ability to play loud noises but its ability to reproduce quiet scenes well. That means hearing the right levels of crickets in the night, without any hums or hisses in the equipment. Even more important, it means clearly discerning soft dialogue without having to turn up the volume. Preselect scenes in which something is whispered or sounds are muffled on your existing home entertainment system. Then see if this new home theater can deliver the sounds clearly.
Don’t be afraid to ask to have some of your favorite music played as well, at a volume level that’s comfortable to you. Select music you are familiar with. Can you hear instrumentation or vocal inflections you’ve never heard before? Does music that gives you goose bumps at home do the same for you in the showroom? When it comes to music, realism is the key. The best systems will sound as if the music is being played right there in the room.
Long-term Relationships are Key
After assessing your home theater needs, each company will submit a proposal with estimated costs for the design, installation and purchasing of equipment. Don’t automatically go with the lowest estimate.
Consider warranties and service plans. You should have a one-year warranty for any work and equipment you have installed. And the company should be a certified dealer of any brand they purchase so that you’ll be covered by those warranties. Also, will the company be available if you have a problem with your system in the middle of the night or on a weekend?
Moreover, consider an overall assessment of your comfort level with a company. Did the company representative put you at ease? Did he or she explain things in terms you could understand? And most important, did they address your wants and needs? Don’t be afraid to go with your gut feeling. Decide which company you feel most comfortable working with, and you will likely forge a partnership that will provide you with quality home entertainment well into the future.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates