The following article originally appeared in Wide Screen Review (WSR) magazine and is being republished courtesy of the author, Terry Paullin.
A couple weeks ago I got an E-mail from a regular WSR reader, Shawn, wanting to ask me a "quick question" ... It seems Shawn and his wife are building a new home down South, and were looking for a home theatre tip or two. His "quick" question really distilled down to three, which I will paraphrase here.
1. How do I find an installer to do my project?
2. Should they be a Cedia member?
3. What kind of questions should I ask?
Shawn's questions are so fundamental and ever present to those readers who are at the tipping point, having heard, seen and read enough to make the investment in Home Theatre, that I decided to expand the answers to this month's column. While addressing Shawn's issues, I am really speaking to ALL of you out there who have not yet made the jump. The first thing that came to mind was, believe it or not, I had never really thought that hard about the specific responses to those specific Qs.
By the time I get my clients, they've usually answered those Qs. Now I have, and I offer the following as objectively as I can. Having installed somewhere around 1,000 home theatres in the last 22 years, I have some pretty firm convictions about what recipes yield success and which paths go...ah, elsewhere.
Let me start with taking Qs #1 and #2 together, because they really get you to where you should start, profiling the right guy to do the job. As with some, (O.K. most) of my columns, this is bound to piss somebody off. But equally consistent with previous columns, I have never shied away from the truth.
I'll start by being clear that Cedia (Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association) has been great for our industry and the clients we serve. They offer classes at a variety of venues that raise everyone's game who attend. Indeed, I teach two classes that offer some "Cedia credits". Is an accredited Cedia shop a reasonable place to start? .... absolutely. Does it mean you can skip the interview, references checks and contract reviews? .... absolutely not.
Here's the thing.
Just as you could unknowingly pick a lawyer who barely passed the BAR out of the phonebook or worse, draw a surgeon who graduated in the bottom decile of his/her class for your upcoming transplant, signing up with the first outfit you talk to that displays the red "CEDIA" logo is no guarantee of A/V bliss at project's end.
Here's the problem. Most Cedia shops have roughly the same business model. They have to, in order to survive. If you look hard at the scope of the services they are likely to provide, they do telephone systems, alarm systems, central vacuum systems, intercom systems, lighting control systems, computer networking, commercial A/V and, oh-by-the-way, home theatre. You've undoubtedly heard the term, "Jack of all trades, master of none". That's preciously my Cedia caveat. If you are looking for a truly good air conditioner and would like the choice to be backed with solid information about what you should be considering, you go to an air conditioning specialist, not to Sears. I'm at one of several large wholesalers nearly every day, and I constantly run into guys (with very successful businesses) who are far more interested in price margins and how a flat panel looks when it is turned "off" than any real performance metric when a new product hits the price sheet. Most have barely heard of calibration (audio OR video), let alone offer it to their clients who truly care about quality and performance. To be fair, the larger "houses" may have someone on staff who HAS been trained and specializes in those disciplines that will determine the ultimate quality of your Home Theatre experience. HT has been steadily growing in popularity, a trend that has not been lost on most Cedia shops and if for no other reason than a defensive move, many have acquired enough knowledge to at least be able to "talk the talk" with prospective clients. Now it's your task to be sure they and also "walk the talk" ... ... ... which gets us to the remaining question, "What questions should I ask?"
A truly awesome Home Theatre experience comes from a combination of roughly equal parts Audio and Video design. Those disciplines have some similarities, but from a "science" perspective, they are two different worlds. You need someone well versed in both to get the most bang for your installation dollar, or, more importantly, to have any hope of Movie nirvana. So a good opening question might be, "Have you been certified in Imaging Science (by ISF or THX). If they say "Imaging what?, thank them for their time and move on. The follow-up question is "What training have you had regarding small room acoustics?". "I have been to Level One and Level Two HAA (Home Acoustic Alliance) classes" is the best answer. "I own a sound-level meter", ... not so much. Even apart from depth of training issues, there is really no substitute for experience. You are not likely to find someone who has done a thousand systems or even several hundred, but "dozens" would be a good start and names and phone numbers a must. Don't confuse # of systems done by a company with # of systems done by the guy who is going to do YOURS! Turnover is a problem with the lesser shops and it's continuity of knowledge you are looking for. Be sure to read their contracts, and don't pay for labor until everything works and you are happy with system operation.
Even though you may not understand everything you're hearing, have the prospective installer talk to you about the reasons for his particular A/V equipment recommendations, about his calibration process (both audio and video), and about the test equipment he uses. Talk to him about your intended use of the system and try to ascertain if he's listening. My experience is that most people can see through thinly disguised "knowledge" and conversely sense when someone knows what they are talking about without the need for 3-decimal precision.
Shawn, and others doing new construction for their Home Theatre have another whole set of questions to ask regarding room design, but don't short-change any of the previous interrogatories ... they truly will make all the difference between a mediocre movie night and one to remember ... and eager to repeat!
Where to find Superman? Well, you could start with the "Cedia List", but I recommend calling a local wholesaler like AVAD (22 locations in the U.S.) or someone similar who sees lots of Custom Installers. Ask them for names of known companies who SPECIALIZE in Home Theatre. They may or may not be Cedia members. Then, roll up your sleeves and do your homework.
"I'll take Imaging Science, Alex, for $25,000"
Posted by Terry Paullin, May 5, 2011 7:41 AM
About Terry PaullinAfter 25+ years as a Silicon Valley Executive, most recently as President and C.O.O. of Crosscheck, Mr. Paullin decided to follow his passion to the emerging Home Theatre industry. In 1994 he formed Front Row Cinema to design, build and calibrate Home Theaters for private residences. Nearly 600 theaters later, he remains engaged in the Industry in the following ways.
Builds dedicated (single purpose) Home Theaters and "Theatre Environments" (rooms used for other purposes as well).
Teaches Imaging Science and other courses for the Imaging Science Foundation. Mr. Paullin has taught CEDIA accredited classes to the installation community at both AVAD and ADI.
Consults to Industry on the topic of Imaging Science (Pioneer, Optima, In-Focus and several others under non-disclosure). Mr. Paullin has served on the Board of two companies and the Advisory committee of two others.
Has written articles/product reviews for major industry publications, including Widescreen Review, The Perfect Vision, The Ultimate Guide to A/V, WIRED magazine and CEPro and has maintained a monthly column (One Installer's Opinion) in Widescreen Review for the past eight years.
Mr. Paullin has a B.S.E.E. degree from Long Beach State University and performs ISF monitor calibrations for private individuals.
Mr. Paullin also maintains 3 theaters in his home for testing, comparison, performance verification, and reference viewing.