Adding Little Green Touches to Your Entertainment System

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SIM2’s Mico 50 projector uses eco-friendly LED light engine for its images

Energy efficiency and home theater may not mix well, but here are some steps you can take toward big-picture eco friendliness.


Nov. 02, 2010 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

We know what you’re thinking: “You’re an electronics magazine and you’re trying to preach green A/V? So, my room-thumping, eyeball-glazing home theater should be energy-efficient, too? No way.”

It may be too much to ask that your 1,000-watt sound system and $25,000 theater projector be energy-efficient. And we understand that you may not have solar panels powering everything in your house, like the Guiltless Green Home Theater developed by the Home Technology Specialists of America.

You shouldn’t have to dump some of your cherished audio and video gear simply because it lacks Energy Star certification. In fact, don’t trash anything when you’re ready to replace components. Look to recycle, instead. When it comes to home theater, little things help contribute to the much wider picture—that of our health and our planet. So let’s see where else you can contribute.

Televisions

It’s easy to think about green in terms of just power consumption, and that’s the information we’re generally fed about displays. David Berman, director of training at the Home Technology Specialists of America (HTSA), gives us more perspective. Aside from his involvement with HTSA’s Guiltless Green Home Theater, Berman has been on virtually every side of the consumer electronics industry—manufacturer, custom electronics installer, retailer, advocate—and he emphasizes that energy use is just one of three key green components. The first involves a product’s materials, including construction elements, chemicals and potential waste, plus the manufacturers’ eco efforts and how they do with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. Then Berman looks at power consumption. Last, he looks at sustainability and the infrastructure role within a home.

With that in mind, Berman jokes that some of our old CRT (cathode ray tube) sets could rival those that have emerged during the current focus on green. “We’re lighting up larger screen surfaces in a smaller design, and using a lot more electronics with printed circuit boards [that can contain hazardous substances and plastic casings]. In the old days, you had giant glass tubes and not much other electronics going on inside.”

Of course, most of us have replaced those TVs in our primary viewing rooms, so what now? If you’re shopping for TVs, look at LED-based LCD flat panels, whose light-emitting diodes produce the most efficient ratings among the Energy Star-qualified models and are more recyclable than gas-infused plasma sets or fluorescent-lit LCDs, says Berman.

Then again, you may never have to recycle the next TV you purchase. The expected lifespans of today’s models can be in the 50,000-hours range (and that’s to half-brightness), so it could stay in your home a long time. Speaking of which, more flat panels also feature web connectivity and video streaming functions from sites such as Netflix, potentially allowing you the very green step of eliminating one or two components from your entertainment center.

There are also steps you can take while watching TV. After it’s installed and powered on, head to the menu and start adjusting the settings—and this might be a bigger aid if you don’t have a new TV. “We did some research, and especially with older TVs—even a few years old—just calibration can save you up to 50 percent in energy,” says John Dahl, senior fellow and director, of education at THX.

Dahl notes that THX’s “Cinema Mode” included in many displays was derived from commercial cinema viewing quality and is best in darkened rooms. That mode and other tweaks involving reduced brightness and contrast may take some getting used to, especially compared with that wall of TVs you see at big-box stores, which crank up the brightness so sets look good under the bright conditions. Proper calibration will not only save on electricity, but result in greater detail and more accurate colors.

Projectors and Screens

Home theater projectors are getting into the LED game, too, which is good news if you can afford them. Companies such as SIM2, Runco, Digital Projection International and projectiondesign are offering “lampless” LED projectors in their high-performance product lines. (If you’re not familiar with these companies, think five-figures.)

Like television counterparts, there are a few big benefits to an LED-based projector: the LED light engine is less toxic than lamps used in LCD and DLP projectors, you don’t have to worry about discarding and replacing the bulb every 2,000 or so hours, and you’ll probably own a projector with a 50,000-hour lifespan longer than you own your home theater.

If you can’t spring for an LED projector, there are steps you can take with many traditional high-def models. First, research the lamp ingredients if possible, and try to find companies that cut down on brominated flame retardants (BFRs), polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs) and other harmful substances. Second, look for projectors with “ecomode” or “energy saving” modes that decrease the brightness output, thereby extending the lamp life—a 2,500-lumens projector lamp will run 1,500 or 2,000 lumens in ecomode, for example, and improve lamp lifespan from 2,000 to 3,000 estimated hours.

The catch? You’ll need to ensure darker conditions to maintain an uncompromised image from the dimmer mode. “If you’re not willing to invest in controlled room lighting, you’re spending more to drive the output of the projector to overcome ambient light,” says Berman. “So you’re better off spending on motorized shades and dimmable lighting with a decent TV.”

The screen you mate to your projector can be environmentally friendly, too. Manufacturers such as Da-Lite, Draper and Stewart Filmscreen have earned Greenguard certification on some screens whose materials meet indoor air quality standards and emit low amounts of potentially hazardous chemicals that can lead to health risks, especially in children.

Audio Components

If you’re a tried-and-true audiophile, chances are you have big tower speakers, possibly monoblock amplifiers driving each, a fancy preamplifier-processor, thickly sheathed speaker wire and electronics interconnects, and additional components such as a digital-to-analog converter, turntable, SACD player and more. So going “green” can raise some issues. No worries, though. If you can’t part with the special two-channel gear, you can focus your eco efforts on multichannel home theater.

Berman admits there’s a perceived quality compromise if you’re reducing your footprint from amplifier-preamp “separates” to a single A/V receiver running your system, but that’s becoming less of an issue. Today’s receivers can do surround sound and two-channel quite well—and without doubling as a space heater for your room. “There’s still no substitute for tubes and lots of power, but at some point you have to make a choice,” he says. “Digital is so good, and it’s so close, so opt for an A/V receiver where you have good current handling and overall sonics housed in a single component. The chemical and materials to construct the device are reduced—and it uses less power.”

The market is still dominated by traditional Class A or A/B amplification, but more efficient Class D digital or “switching” amps are gaining strides. Rotel and Pioneer Elite, to name two, have released beefy AVRs with Class D amplification. There’s still room for improvement—Pioneer Elite’s flagship receivers are the only Class D variety to earn THX certification, says Dahl. At least one company, Sunfire, has worked to make its Class A/B amp more palatable. Its TGR-401 receiver’s whopping 200 watts per channel are tempered with a patented “tracking downconverter” power supply that Sunfire says dynamically adjusts depending on the incoming audio signal, so the unit runs cooler and more efficient.

Also, THX will have a hand in some improvement in this area, too. You may cringe at lowering the volume on your receiver because of the potential loss of surround effects and bass frequencies, but THX Loudness Plus technology (and Dolby Volume and Audyssey EQ technologies, in a different manner) keeps the effects and bass louder relative to the rest of the audio signal. “From an energy standpoint, it’s not going to save a significant amount, but it will save some,” Dahl says. “The sound is still balanced, but you’ve turned the front speakers down, which is where all the energy’s usually going.” THX is also working on amplification that will “take the best of the old analog world and achieve digital types of efficiency” and slimmer form factor, according to senior VP Laurie Fincham. 

Loudspeakers

You’ll have to be content with winning small green battles. Using five or seven (or more) loudspeakers and a subwoofer or two to achieve surround sound isn’t exactly reducing your footprint. But if the surround effects aren’t as important to you, try a single-cabinet soundbar—one speaker to deliver front left/right/center signals, where most of a soundtrack is located, and some are packaged with wirelessly connected subwoofers.

Look for products with wood-grain cabinets, and stay away from plastics and composite materials, says Berman, unless the manufacturers have used 100 percent recycled materials. Staying away from plastics and composites can be difficult, especially if you’re seeking more aesthetically pleasing in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, but Berman cites Triad Speakers for its use of wood with some of its architectural offerings.

Internally the options aren’t much better, and sophisticated crossover technology typically adds eco-unfriendly circuitry to the mix. Some driver materials are better on the biodegradable scale, like paper, minerals and silk, notes Berman, but speakers using titanium, beryllium and other unfriendly elements can be tough to avoid. As for subwoofers: like receivers, you can find powered products that contain Class D amplification.

Power, Furnishings and Accessories

Adding power conditioners to your system can be beneficial in a couple of ways. Conditioners will ensure that your gear receives clean and consistent power, which helps optimize theater performance. Products with individually or IP-controllable outlets also have the ability to cut power to particular devices to curb wasteful vampire power, or the wattage that continues to flow in standby mode. Just be careful what gets fully turned off—DVRs usually stay on because they continue to record at night, for instance, and some products such as AVRs and TVs may lose memory settings if powered off for a long time, notes Dahl.

For theater seating and acoustical treatment, investigate the materials and shipping process. Companies such as Kinetics Noise Control, for example, say they use more natural materials and have rid products of harmful chemicals to create friendlier acoustical panels. You can find theater seating manufacturers that use chemical- and acrylic-free leather and the like. Seats and cabinets can also be good spots to pick up recycled goods or support shops with locally constructed products that save on global shipping emissions.

Don’t forget about the power of your PC or media server, either. More savvy theater owners are streaming all of their media from computers or storage devices, and Berman notes that the future is all networked entertainment, and potentially greener infrastructure (starting with some efficient PCs already out). So rip that big CD collection, properly dispose of all those plastic jewel cases, and know you’ve done something for the environment as well as for your entertainment convenience. 



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