We’ve all stopped in the local big-box retailer and stared at the wall of flat-panel TVs. Maybe the last time you came home from there, you were determined to start a home theater project. Why stop at home theater, though? Why not look for other ways to enhance your lifestyle? Major electronics retailers are great starting points, but if it’s an entire home control system you crave, you should look elsewhere.
The Shopping Center
As we said, chances are your big-screen dreams began at a big-box store, so let’s start there. When it comes to TVs, the retailers can display a wide range of technologies and sizes right in front of you. Some stores even carve out separate rooms to mimic a living room setup. Go to these stores armed with questions, and see how the salespeople respond. How’s their knowledge of high definition? How about LCD vs. plasma? Are they straightforward about how comprehensive the installation will be? Do they gloss over the importance of audio and cabling in a system?
Don’t hesitate to eavesdrop on a conversation or two. For some of the sales staff, working in a major retail environment is an after-school job. For others, it’s the first step to a career in the custom electronics industry, and they take pride in educating themselves about the products they are trying to sell. You might want to avoid these stores on jam-packed Sundays, though.
The Specialty Retailer
Though a big-box store may be huge, its range of electronics solutions is limited. For example, home audio is a dwindling entity on retail shelves, and the words “home automation” are not ready to be stocked and packaged. Enter the specialty audio/video retailer. This is where your world of fully connected electronics systems will expand.
Specialty stores are trending toward showrooms that aim to recreate your living spaces. You might find stores in which a salesman will take you on a room-to-room tour that starts with a living room, goes to the kitchen, on to a bedroom, to a bar area, and ends with a bang—the dedicated home theater. On each stop, you will be introduced to solutions that you may not have known were possible. Expect to discover: multiroom audio and video (don’t forget to bring your iPod), customized A/V furniture like TV lifts, lighting and shade control, and whole-home automation for other aspects, such as climate and security.
In these stores, brand recognition becomes less familiar as they step up to higher-performance manufacturers of televisions, projectors and screens, loudspeakers and audio components, and specialized home control companies. You may have seen a large plasma and home-theater-in-a-box at the shopping mall, but in a specialty retailer, you’ll likely experience home theater on a whole new scale. Here you should also receive greater care and attention from the sales staff.
The Professional Installer
You might not know where your local professional electronics systems installer, or integrator, is. Chances are the firm isn’t prominently displayed in the Yellow Pages. Though more installers are making their way online, many still rely on word of mouth to procure clients. Many also partner with local homebuilders to gain new business.
These are generally certified professionals who have extensive education in electronics systems, cover a breadth of whole-house solutions, can tackle highly specialized projects, and know how to roll out the red carpet for their customers. Professional installers spend time interviewing you to ensure every desire is considered, and they often enlist teams of technical experts to program a sophisticated system.
While you might go to a pro to design your dream home theater, there’s a strong possibility you will be tying it into an entire home system, such as connecting your PC’s digital media files and incorporating sleek touchpanels to command everything at the press of a button.
Installation firms may or may not have fancy showrooms, but they will surely demonstrate everything that will be going into your home. A showroom might include several levels of home theater, from low to eye-popping price ranges, as well as electronically outfitted rooms to mimic your own.
There’s also a very good chance you will be taken to actual homes for real-world demonstrations. Installers frequently showcase past projects with the homeowners’ permission, and many install theaters, lighting control, listening rooms and automation in their own homes.
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.