Like most home amenities, electronic systems can be as stripped down or beefed up as you want. As the owner of two adjoining brownstones in Dallas, TX, Tony Chiarello had the unique opportunity to explore both methods.
For the unit he planned to sell as a spec, Tony put in a basic music distribution system and prewired it for a simple control system. It sold before it was even finished. “We put in just enough technology to sell it quickly,” says Michael Dodson of Dallas-based electronics installation and design firm M Audio Video Design Group. That introduction to technology was also enough to spark Tony’s interest in equipping his own brownstone next door with some electronic goodies. Unlike the spec home, though, Tony’s place would get the works, including a high-end home management system, a powerful whole-house audio system, and more than a half dozen high-def flat-panel TVs.
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Style and Substance
Four floors is a lot of ground for one person to cover, so tops on Tony’s wish list was a system that would let him turn on and off groups of lights from any room on any level. “I didn’t want to be running up and down the stairs to turn off the lights before I left the house or went to bed,” he explains, “so having a simple way to control them made a lot of sense.” The solution came in the form of a LiteTouch architectural lighting control system. As part of the system, low-profile wall-mounted keypads were installed to give Tony on-the-go control of every light fixture, as well as a quick and easy way to jazz up the interior for special occasions. A party button, for example, arranges all the lights on the first level for an evening of entertaining. “It’s not like I throw parties every night, but having a setting like this certainly comes in handy when I have people over,” Tony enthuses. “It’s important to me that every part of the house is lit perfectly when friends visit.”
The stylish, unobtrusive keypads set the tone for the rest of the electronics integration project. “Tony really wanted clean lines,” Dodson recalls. “He didn’t mind how a flat-panel TV looked on the wall, but he didn’t want to see all sorts of components sitting in a cabinet next to it.” Consequently, nearly every bit of technology—except for the home’s nine flat-panel displays—was installed in a way that would let it go completely unnoticed. Satellite receivers, DVRs, a DVD player and other audio/video components were stowed in an equipment rack in a third-floor home theater, speakers and subwoofers were tucked into the ceiling, and touchpanels for accessing and controlling the audio/video gear were recessed into the walls. With no other place to put them, Dodson even stashed a few critical components in a specially designed equipment rack in the ceiling.
Although in most rooms it’s impossible see the equipment, Tony has tons of entertainment options at his fingertips. Each floor has its own wall-mounted AMX touchpanel for summoning music or video to the space, and nearly every area of the 6,500-square-foot home, including a rooftop patio, features a large flat-panel TV and at least a couple of built-in speakers. Twenty-four speakers occupy the first floor alone, precluding any possible audio dead spots. “When Tony turns on the music on the first floor, it sounds like you’re standing in a club,” says Dodson. However, the audio never overpowers. “With this many speakers, Tony can keep the volume at a lower level and still hear plenty of bass,” Dodson says.
The best part about the distributed audio and video system for Tony is how easy it is to use. From an AMX touchpanel (each floor has its own unit), Tony first touches an icon labeled with the name of the room he wants to relax in. After entering his room selection, a list of entertainment sources, like XM Radio and CD, appears. “He just picks one, and the chosen music or video plays over the appropriate speakers and TV,” says Dodson. “In just two steps, he’s got music or a movie where he wants it.”
When Tony and his guests aren’t hanging out on the well-appointed first level, they can usually be found in the home theater that occupies a large portion of the third floor. Here, the technology is much more obvious—and rightly so. A massive 120-inch, 2.35:1 CineWide video screen from Stewart Filmscreen has the size and shape to bring blockbuster images to life, and was recessed into the wall as a permanent fixture. Since the screen stands out in the open, why go to the trouble to hide the video projector, Tony figured. Instead, he had Dodson suspend the Runco unit from the ceiling near the back of the room, where two built-in racks of A/V equipment also reside.
Given Tony’s eclectic viewing style, Dodson couldn’t have done a better job at pairing up a screen and projector. “Tony’s the type of person who likes to watch just as much video with the lights on and the window shades open as he does with the room completely dark,” says Dodson. For this reason, the Runco DLP projector was a no-brainer for its ability to produce extremely bright, high-contrast pictures. The gray-toned surface of the Stewart FireHawk screen handles the high-lumen output of the projector beautifully. “The picture is smokin’ even when all the lights are on and the wooden plantation shutters are open,” says Dodson.
Adding to the impact is an automated masking system that alters the shape of the screen based on the format of the chosen video. When Tony selects a DVD movie set in a 16:9 format, for example, a sheath of black fabric rolls down each side of the 2.35:1 screen. The ability to hide unused portions of the display eliminates visual distractions for a more engaging viewing experience. Should a CinemaScope movie be cued from the AMX touchpanel, the masking fabric rolls back up into a slim housing near the ceiling to reveal the entire superwide screen.
As the screen alters its shape, the AMX system revs up the projector, an Anthem surround-sound receiver, and the chosen video source (a high-def DVD player, high-def satellite receiver or Xbox gaming console are available via a touch of the AMX panel). Audio is fed to seven James speakers and three James subwoofers to envelop the 17-by-30-foot space. The volume level adjusts automatically based on the source that’s selected, per settings programmed into the system by Dodson.
Unlike most of the movie theater gear, though, the speakers are indiscernible, having been placed behind the walls and in the ceiling as the room was being finished. For the front three speakers, Dodson designed the wall underneath the screen to angle up slightly, so that the speakers would fire up a bit. “This puts the prize sound through your head all the way back to the snack bar,” says Dodson. “Creating an even distribution of sound was the objective for this theater. We wanted the sound quality to be equal for every seat in the room.”
The rest of the brownstone gets its fair share of awesome entertainment, too. Content from a Marantz DVD player and three DirecTV satellite receivers, each with a built-in digital video recorder, can be routed to TVs throughout the house. There are 50-inch Philips plasmas in the living room and dining room; a 42-inch LG plasma in the master bedroom; 32-inch LG plasmas in three guest rooms, a sitting room and a rooftop patio; and a 32-inch Sharp LCD TV in the master bath. Video signals travel from various equipment locations to the TVs over a network of high-speed Category 5 cabling, a wiring infrastructure that Dodson says is more efficient and less expensive to install than conventional RGB cabling.
Tony can select and control the video sources from either an AMX touchpanel or a handheld AMX Mio remote. “While Tony’s getting dressed in the morning, he can grab either device to have the TV in the bedroom play a show he recorded the night before on the DVR, pause it, then continue watching the show on the plasma TV downstairs,” says Dodson. “No matter where Tony goes, the video can go with him.” That’s quite an accomplishment in a home that towers four stories tall. Add whole-house music, sophisticated lighting, a home theater and a robust home-management system, and it’s clear that Tony’s decision to go beyond the basics was a good one.