In a retro mood

Home automation-entertainment technologies are not just available to those building new homes retrofitting your existing home is a viable solution
view of this living room featuring 50 inch ceiling, interior design, living room, room, gray, black
view of this living room featuring 50 inch plasma screen, brown leather furniture, gas fireplace

There is a common misconception that older homes are incapable of carrying the latest in home automation or entertainment systems. While it is easier to install these systems at the build stage, with a little enlightened planning your 1930s bungalow will see you comfortably past 2030.

In this instalment we ask our experts just what is possible when it comes to retrofitting new technologies into existing properties.

How easy is it to carry out a retrofit?

Peter Stewart, creative director of Max Home, says nothing is impossible, there are just differing degrees of difficulty.

"Ease of retrofitting is dependent upon the construction make-up of the property. The ease of access to ceiling, wall and under-floor cavities can make a significant difference to the straightforwardness of the retrofit. Everything is possible, it just requires more time."

An opinion echoed by Automation Associates' CEDIA certified systems designer Asad Hussain.

"Performing a retrofit can be easy or difficult because it all depends on the structure of the house and the area of the house in which the work is being carried out. Anything is possible while doing retrofits, but be warned, holes will be need to be cut in order for cables to be run to the appropriate area."

Says Stewart: "That's where proper budgetary planning is important, as many retrofits will require a small addition to the budget to cover patching of walls and ceilings and repainting. I believe it is important to select the equipment for the budget, but one must allow for cables and installation, which can make up 10-20% of the final cost."

What is the most important consideration in retrofitting a home cinema?

"There are many issues to consider. Budget obviously; however, equipment selection is crucial. There are scores of home cinemas that are botched because the supplier has selected inappropriate equipment, or perhaps didn't have access to the right gear," says Stewart.

A view of the main home theatre system architecture, house, interior design, kitchen, real estate, room, table, gray
A view of the main home theatre system witch includes a 42-inch plasma television and a marantz SR5500 processor, DVD player and in-wall speakers. The Kitchens's back-lit glass splahback can be lit in different hues to change the room's ambience

"Of equal consideration, is the fact that the acoustic performance of a room can be changed significantly by speaker positioning. For me the greatest contributor to achieving a system that delivers is getting the sound right. The emotive experience is going to be enhanced through good sound speakers followed by amplification. Screen size and seating distance, seating comfort, ambient light issues, room temperature, and external noise intrusions are also important considerations."

Does this mean that bigger is better after all? How important is room size when determining which AV equipment to use?

"The room size is a key factor in determining what type of AV equipment to use," says Hussain. "A lot of thought needs to be given to the size and acoustic qualities of the room before a system can be designed for the client."

"The best home cinemas will always rely on planning, both in terms of the room layout and the equipment required. While the room need not be solely dedicated to a home cinema a degree of commitment is necessary. Options ranging from an LCD or plasma screen with surround sound system, to a high-quality projector, full-size screen and high performance audio system create a true cinema effect."

For Stewart, the answer again comes down to the nothing is impossible' ethos.

"In a retrofit situation you work with the room you are given and tailor a solution to suit. For example, large speakers in a small room will produce unwanted reflections from surfaces such as the ceiling. Determine all the variables that will go into the room including size and the type of AV equipment used will fall into place."

Much has been made of late about advances in wireless technologies no more unsightly wires running to your surround sound speakers. With that in mind, should consumers consider RF technology over hard wired?

"No, at least not when looking at home theatre applications. Higher-end equipment manufacturers are not offering RF solutions yet. Most RF offerings have been cheaper gimmicky products that don't make it into any serious theatres and won't for a while," says Stewart.

Hussain agrees: "It is true to say the market for wireless technology has become more apparent. However, even with only a few of these applications operating at any given time, they will all compete for signal transmission. High-end cables that are protected by double shielding maintain full signal strength while eliminating signal interference from outside sources, whereas something like wireless headphones can be a problem as they will pick up interference from other transmissions."

Other than componentry what are the essential items for a retrofitted home cinema, especially if it is a multi-functional space?

view of the home theatre area with subwoofers, ceiling, interior design, living room, property, real estate, black
view of the home theatre area with subwoofers, and wall mounted speakers surrounding the screen

"Style and design are essential considerations to ensure a room is not a monstrosity when the system is not in use. Screen size relative to the viewing position, and the ability to control light also need to be well thought out. And of course there's the all-important access-to-the-fridge configuration," says Stewart.

Hussain says: "If the space is going to be used as a multi-purpose room then we will advise the client accordingly, depending on the type of system they want and if they prefer a certain look. Ideally we tend to retrofit a motorised screen into the ceiling so it is recessed when not in use, or a plasma or LCD mounted above the fireplace that looks like a painting on the wall when not in use."

So, all those niggly considerations that are standing between you and a brighter technological future have been taken into account. Now the most pressing issue. What are the budget considerations when retrofitting?

"This is a key question, and one that is especially relevant in a market where you can spend any amount you want," says Hussain. "Where home theatre equipment is concerned you can place an emphasis on anything from speakers to displays, to jumping into new high-definition formats.

"It is difficult, yet important to put your money in the right places to optimise your home theatre experience and get the most for your money. You earned it, so don't mismanage it and lose out on getting the best system possible. Most importantly, talk to the experts they will be able to define a recommended system pricing based on user preference and various budget considerations."

Stewart, too, recommends that you should seek out the best advice available.

"Where money is concerned, no fixed rules apply. I would suggest those who favour music over movies should spend more on speakers and audio equipment. Bear in mind that cables can make a significant difference, so keep 10% of your budget for purchasing quality cables. Pay for advice on acoustics. Pay for advice on speaker positioning. Audition and purchase a whole system from an experienced supplier."

With the push to future proof our homes reaching fever-pitch proportions, and given the rate at which technology is progressing, can a multi-room system, for use at a later date, be installed at the same time as the home theatre retrofit?

"Absolutely. We would advise that the wiring for this be done at the same time as the home theatre wiring so that provision has been made for the future multi-room audio system," says Hussain.

Nov 23, 2007
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