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Coming to a home near you
By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 2, 1999
The lights automatically dim, the movie flashes on the big screen and the sound blasts from all sides.
Or maybe you have to turn out the lights yourself, the screen is the same TV you have had for years but the sound shakes the house.
Home, sweet home theater. It can be, experts say, anything people want it to be. It can be adding speakers to a TV and VCR in the family room, or it can be a swank media room. Costs can range from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands to create what the home theater industry calls "the experience."
"You can indeed have a very fine home theater system that can give you an experience at a certain price level," said Jay Miller, president of Acoustic Innovations in Boca Raton. "Or you can go up (in price) and have a mind-boggling, jaw-dropping experience."
Affordability, of course, is in the eyes and wallets of the consumer. But it is one of the themes the home theater industry is trying to promote as it tries to grow beyond its current $10.6-billion a year in sales by appealing to people who are spending more time at home.
The basics of a home system include a television, a stereo VCR, a Dolby digital receiver/amplifier and a six-speaker surround-sound system. The costs can start mounting as soon as one begins to choose the equipment to use, as well as such amenities as special lighting and plush theater seating.
"Home theater is defined by you," Lutron Electronics spokesman Joe Renner said. "A TV, VCR and a (light) dimmer, that's a place for you to escape."
At the high end is the Ultimate Home Theater Experience (http://www.ultimatehometheater.com), a new exhibit at Epcot's Innoventions Plaza in Orlando. It showcases the best the industry has to offer, with three well-known designers -- Miller, Theo Kalomirakis and Russ Herschelmann -- combining efforts with a consortium of companies supplying equipment.
There is digital video on big, flat screen panels, with one area set up as a living room, another as a 15-seat theater with plush chairs, elaborate lighting and sound from all directions. It may be a prototype, but the equipment is available commercially.
The exhibit's lead sponsor is not an electronics company pushing digital TV or stereo sound. It is a lighting company, Lutron Electronics Co. Inc. (http://www.lutron.com). Lighting, experts say, is one of the key elements for a home theater to create the right atmosphere.
The price tag for the ultimate experience setup at Epcot? That hasn't been added up yet but it easily would be in five figures.
That is the opposite end of the spectrum from out-of-the-box systems that include speakers and a Dolby digital receiver. Kenwood offers such a system for about $700.
Promising "a good value for the dollar," Kenwood national marketing manager Jim Arvantis said, "If you give somebody a crummy experience, they're not coming back."
While the industry touts affordability, it clearly aims at an upscale market. For example, it conducted a national survey on the public's home theater preferences, from choice of movies (action/adventure was No. 1) to what night people preferred to watch movies (Saturday was tops). Who was surveyed? More than 250 homeowners earning $50,000 or more.
The industry also is pushing ease of use, though that doesn't necessarily mean a typical do-it-yourselfer should try to install an elaborate home theater. In fact, the electronicsmakers sometimes define easy as meaning a typical consumer can figure out how to control all the gadgets in a system once it is up and running.
"You can have the right gear," said Herschelmann, president of R. Herschelmann Designs of St. Helena, Calif. "But if you don't set it up properly, it can be an underwhelming experience."
The experts' recommendation: Hire an expert from the beginning, one who is a member of a group such as the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (http://www.cedia.org). They say it will save time and possibly money by avoiding incorrect equipment purchases.
And they suggest people considering home theaters do research on the Web to start out.
While most home theaters are going into new homes that can be designed to be acoustically correct, existing homes with odd-shaped family rooms, family rooms that share space with a kitchen, and rooms that have a lot of glass or other design quirks can be a challenge.
For Bill Herschman of Tampa, the issue was the tile on the floor of his family room and its effect on the acoustics. He wanted better sound and a bigger picture than he was getting from his 27-inch stereo TV. So he bought a 36-inch TV and a digital video disk player and hired Audio Video Odyssey of Palm Harbor to design and install the system, which includes speakers on his lanai for music.
It is not a job he would have tackled himself.
"I watched those guys installing that and I said you have to be kidding me," said Herschman, a senior account executive for an office furniture company. "In a million years I couldn't have done that. Two-million years."
Now, "the sound is just amazing," said Herschman, who sometimes had trouble hearing his old 27-inch TV. "It makes a world of difference. I hear things better. I wanted a new toy, yes, and I wanted to be able to hear better."
Jon and Candace Blaha, owners of Audio Video Odyssey, design and install systems for new homes, builders' models and existing homes. They say consumers have a lot of decisions to make before they get started.
How do you watch TV? Sitting? Reclining? It makes a difference for positioning the speakers and TV. How big is the room? If it is an out-of-the-box system, Blaha says, people need to make sure the speakers are the same acoustically.
And the design and installation need to be a joint decision for couples. It may be a toy for the guy, but it also could affect the aesthetics of the room if, for example, speakers are hung from the ceiling.
Eighty percent of the Blahas' work is in new homes, some of it media rooms that can cost $10,000 to $40,000 or more. In their showroom, the Blahas have a Sony 53-inch rear screen projector TV, a DVD player and a speaker system. The equipment alone costs $6,500, without special cabinetry that adds $3,500.
"They want it to be exciting," Jon Blaha said of his customers. "They want it to be an experience, not just a place to watch movies. And that costs money."
It can go beyond movies, too. Some customers include networking for their computers. One has a port so he can use his computer on his big-screen TV, and some want game ports for their children to play video games on the system.
When Ken Mattson was preparing to move from Chicago to Tampa, he wanted the wiring for surround sound done before he and his family moved in to the house they were building. He wanted sound available in rooms throughout the house and outside for when they entertained.
He had a 37-inch TV and bought a stereo VCR. Mattson, who works at home, says he probably invested $4,000 to $5,000 in the system. And he loves it.
"It's much more like being in a theater," he said. "I think you get a lot more out of the movie . . . It makes you feel like you're sitting in there."
It has even enhanced his enjoyment of TV shows, such as ER.
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