When we build our dream home every aspect of it has to reflect our wishes. Electronics included. We all have preferences about how we want our communication and entertainment delivered and displayed. These days changing technologies overtake us daily. It’s hard to know how to prepare for tomorrow’s electronics in a new house if today’s innovation might be obsolete before the paint on the trim dries.
The challenge for me in designing an electronic infrastructure is to make sure that it works not only today but into many tomorrows. Sometimes this means marrying old and new in imaginative ways.
Phyllis Hayes likes to have the TV on at home, but she doesn’t sit in one place to watch it. Always busy, she wants a system where she can move from one room to another without missing the program. To make sure she can always hear it, she wants in-ceiling speakers to carry the TV sound track. She wants to use her combo DVD/VHS unit to watch movies, a satellite to bring in regular TV, and the Internet to make the most of Smart TVs.
One small room is a dedicated home theatre and it’s the only one that has surround sound. The rest of spaces get stereo soundtrack from the Media Centre, to match the TV most of the time.
The interior of the house surrounds a large open space, two stories high, the Great Room. A mezzanine runs around two sides of it, opening to the upstairs rooms. Across the high central atrium a big high def smart TV is mounted over the fireplace, bordered by dark shelves on both sides. Under the mezzanine on one side, the Kitchen opens off this big space, with the pantry behind it. Behind the big fireplace across the way another fireplace with another big smart TV above it graces the Master Bedroom, cleverly hidden away with its closets and en suite yet immediately accessible to the Great Room. Tucked back in another corner is an office. Upstairs are the guest rooms, a sewing room, the dedicated home theatre. At the back of the house beside a deck that overlooks a vast field is the indoor pool with its hot tub. There is no basement and the in-floor heating under the stone tiles radiates through the big space.
So it’s a house where the sights and sounds of video are everywhere, most of the time running the same program in every room. A pair of empty nesters shares this house most of the time, though there is plenty of room for guests and family. The TV and audio setup doesn’t need to be a sophisticated solution to suit several family members, but it must have that capacity if things change in the future.
MIXING OLD WITH THE NEW
When we talk about smart TVs we’re looking at the future but when we talk about VCRs it’s in the past tense. But as I see every day, everyone hasn’t given up on videotapes. Many people these days have a foot in both camps and the system needs to accommodate the fading technologies along with the emerging ones. This house is an excellent example.
To send a high definition feed from satellite or cable to several rooms you have two choices. You can put a set top box receiver from your cable or satellite company in each room, and let them choose what they will watch, or you can have the company provide just one set top box, with one view to be shared by everyone. The problem with the second option is that the cabling to transmit high definition over long distances is expensive, whether you are talking about component cables, HDMI or Cat 5 with balens. The regular coax TV cable will carry high def signals but only in the compressed form yet to be decoded by the set top box.
You don’t have this problem with standard definition. The good old TV cable can be split and sent to every TV in the house. It can be plugged into the tuner that is built in to the TV or, if you want to send the same program from a central set top box you can use a modulator. If you split it so much it gets too weak, you amplify it.
Phyllis still likes standard definition TV, but doesn’t want to be left behind. So we have HDMI feeds, along with a network cable for the smart connection, from the two big TV’s to the adjacent Media Centre. The TV sound is augmented by speakers above the shelving, or sent to the ceiling speakers back in the kitchen and up on the mezzanine, where there are good sight lines to the big TV.
In the other rooms, the pantry, the sewing room, the pool, the outside deck, etc., the screens are smaller and, with other distractions, the TV is part of the space, not the centre of it. So standard definition is good enough, and we used the modulator built in to the VCR to send the same signal to every room.
TV SOUNDTRACKS FROM CEILING SPEAKERS
By feeding all audio and video sources through an AV receiver, we could send analog audio out from it to a multi-room audio system. We went with a system that uses in-wall keypad amplifiers fed by Cat 5, rather than amplifying all of the speakers at Media Centre. It allowed us to tuck the hub for the audio system in behind the other components. By positioning it within the media centre we have allowed for several sources to be fed through it in the future, chosen in individual zones at the keypad. But for now its main purpose is to augment the TV sound so that the sound matches the sight lines.
You can never have too much Cat 5 networking cable in a prewire. In addition to the data network itself, and the land line phones, which we prewired to every room, we used Cat 5 to feed the amplified audio keypads, and sent it to every TV location where it might be used in the future for a network connection, or for an IR repeater to be able to carry one remote from room to room and control what’s in the media centre. We roughed in a surveillance system for IP cameras that can be seen from a smart phone. Good old RG6 TV cable still has its uses too and every TV will benefit from it.
Because we prewired for many eventualities there are a lot of cables in the finished house that are not being used yet. But they need to be accessible, and clearly labelled. Our solution was to terminate them to a master patch panel behind the components in the Media Centre. The ports are numbered and a key to their connections is kept on file. This is a house that is ready for the digital future while still accommodating the analog past that has not been relegated to museums. It has a foot in both worlds.