It's easy to see how aesthetic considerations might get lost in the shuffle when you're planning a home automation project. First you have to figure out which capabilities and technologies fit your budget. Is whole-house music in the cards? What about lighting and energy management? Then, once you've mapped out a plan with your installer, it's time to consider aesthetics - how the technology will be integrated into your home.
"Aesthetics is a high priority," says Todd Sandler, president of Naturally Wired, a custom installation firm specializing in audio/video entertainment that has been operating in Overland Park, Kansas for nearly 20 years. "I am very forthright. I tell clients that, for me, aesthetics takes priority over sound quality when it comes to whole-house audio and remind them that they have to look at and live with the system every day."
Installing speakers that mount flush in walls and ceilings is a great example of an aesthetically neutral approach to distributed audio. In-wall speakers are inconspicuous as opposed to freestanding speakers that sit out in the open.
"An on-wall or floor-standing speaker will certainly sound better than its in-wall counterpart for comparable money," Sandler explains. Even so, most of his clients are still willing to sacrifice sound quality to keep technology stealthy and stay within their budget.
On the other hand, Naturally Wired is fully capable of delivering "stealth" performance that's on par with that of freestanding speakers - as long as the homeowner is willing to pay extra for high-end in-wall speakers from companies with expertise in translating traditional speaker designs into high-performance in-wall/on-wall configurations.
Gear that Disappears
Aesthetic considerations go beyond speakers to include concealed AV equipment and control systems that are either invisible or blend into the decor.
"We typically try to locate audio/video gear in a freestanding rack in the basement to keep everything out of sight," Sandler says, noting that the popularity of streaming and remote access is doing away with the need for equipment to be readily accessible. "Even clients who still play discs on occasion are willing to walk down to the basement and drop a disc into the player," he adds. "Aesthetics almost always wins out over convenience."
Concealing gear in a cabinet is another popular option. "Many homes in our area have hearth rooms with a dry bar on the opposite side of the room from the TV," Sandler says. "Instead of having gear sitting next to the TV, we put the cable box and Blu-ray player or Apple TV in the dry bar area where it's accessible but hidden in a cabinet."
In the age of smartphone as uber-controller, we assume app-based control is the way to go when it comes to home automation. But Sandler sees it as a choice between cost and convenience. "It typically costs less, and you don't have a dedicated device on the wall," he explains. "But you have to balance that with convenience. People find in practical, everyday use that using a smartphone for control is less convenient than they thought."
He offers a few examples. If the phone rings while you're using the app, it gets pushed into the background making it a hassle to turn down the volume or hit the mute button. And what happens when grandma and grandpa come over to watch the kids? Unless they have the app on their phones, they have no way of controlling the system.
Then there's battery life. "How often do you come home from work with a dead phone?" Sandler asks. "Now the phone you use to control things is plugged in." Not exactly convenient.
"There are many aspects of control that people don't give a whole lot of thought until it's too late," Sandler says, which is why he always recommends a hybrid setup where smartphone control is supplemented with décor-friendly in-wall touch panels.
"If I had my druthers, you'd have a touch screen for every zone, but I realize that's not always practical, so I'll recommend having at least one in-wall controller on each floor. If the client still needs to scale it back, we look for a spot that is centrally located and convenient for everyone in the house - like the kitchen or hearth room."
To learn more about home automation options, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.