With the Touch of a Button
Cincy, September 2008
magine crawling into bed and, remembering you left lights on downstairs, turning them all off with a remote. Imagine being away from home but still opening your garage door for a delivery via the Internet. Imagine lounging in your living room before work, checking traffic conditions on all the Artimis cameras in the city on your TV. Imagine ignoring a phone call while your favorite show is on because the caller ID that popped up on your TV screen identified it as from a telemarketer.

Northern Kentucky residents Steve and Judy Ireland, owners of Florence-based Steve’s Heating and Cooling, don’t have to imagine these scenarios. Once satisfied with plans for his new home, Steve Ireland visited Entertainment Solutions in Crestview Hills and discovered what he really wanted: whole-house automation, one of the hottest trends in home entertainment.

Now, music that seems to rise from the landscaping greets guests as they walk up to the Irelands’ front door. If the guests are uninvited, the Irelands can simply check the image on their security camera from any TV in their home. Stepping inside, visitors hear music throughout the house — the Irelands can choose to play the same songs throughout or different music in different rooms. Speakers, flush with the walls and ceilings and usually painted the same color, go unnoticed. Lights can be dimmed or programmed for movie watching or, say, a party.

A digital program called Control4 integrates and controls all the Irelands’ audio and visual equipment, lighting, ceiling fans and even the garage door. The couple has a Control4 wireless touchpad in their office, as well as remote controls in every room. An on-screen TV menu allows the Irelands to access TV shows, the internet, anything on their hard drives — including their digital pictures — and all the movies and music they own.

And the Irelands have plenty of TVs to choose from: eight throughout the house, to be exact. “I wanted state-of-the-art; the best picture you can get,” says Steve Ireland. All of the couple’s TVs are plasma, except for the one in the cabana, which is LCD because of glare issues.

The most impressive TV in the house is a 120-inch Stewart Filmscreen StarGlas screen with a Runco rear projector, located in the Irelands’ finished basement. Two rows of black, reclining leather seats provide the Irelands with a movie-theater-like viewing experience.

According to Neal Hendy of Cincinnati-based Neal’s Design-Remodel, formal theater rooms are becoming less common, while outdoor living spaces featuring weatherproof speakers, flat-panel TVs, a fireplace or fire pit, seating and a cooking area are still popular. Some outdoor TVs can operate in temperatures ranging from –10 to 120 degrees, says Mike Gutbier, CEO of Amelia-based Sound Advice. Two years ago, Neal’s designed and built one outdoor living space. This year, they’ve already completed four.

Hendy says 40 to 50 percent of the 100 projects Neal’s Design-Remodel does each year involves some type of media, often seamlessly incorporated into a room that serves another function.

The Irelands also have TVs in their great room (60 inches, hanging above the fireplace), bathroom (20 inches, great for bath-time entertainment), bedroom, and even their laundry room (flush with the wall and framed in white wood).

Considering all of the Irelands’ equipment, one would expect to see wires spilling this way and that, but there aren’t any. All the wiring equipment is housed in a large box-like structure on wheels — called a rack — in a storage room on the lower level. They’re all the perfect length, color-coded, snapped into place, orderly and neat. “Our pastor took one look at that and said, ‘Are you sure we’re not in Washington?’” Judy Ireland says, laughing.

A whole-house automation system similar to the one the Irelands have, including installation and equipment, can run anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. It took two installers six weeks to complete the project, says Jeff Terzo of Entertainment Solutions.

Of course, not everyone can afford whole-house automation, which is the most cost-efficient while a house is being built. Mathieu Billarant, president of Entertainment Solutions, says most of his business comes from “family room solutions,” which cost an average of $10,000 to $20,000.

Billarant says families are choosing popular products like Blu-ray players, which play high-definition DVDs, Universal Remote Controls and, of course, flat-panel TVs. Prices on flat-panel TVs have come down 20 to 25 percent in the last five years, Billarant says. “For $1,000, you can buy a 50-inch flat-panel.”

Billarant says another popular product is Sonos, which enables users to listen to digital music wirelessly throughout their home. With a subscription to a music provider such as Pandora, Rhapsody or Sirius Satellite Radio, users can listen to millions of songs from any speaker in or immediately outside their home. “Sonos is the coolest tool around,” says Billarant, who uses it in his rental home. “It’s easy to install. I use it a lot more than I thought I would.”

Another innovation in home entertainment is the D-BOX Integrated Motion System. This system creates real-life motion in your seat as you play a game or watch a movie — you feel bumps in the road, for example — synced to what’s happening on the screen. Cool, yes, but one chair will set you back about $10,000.

Billarant says customers often start out with the visual, forgetting the importance of audio. Speakers that come with TVs simply don’t compare to high-end surround sound. For hardcore music lovers, B&W speaker systems, which can run up to $60,000 or more, offer a music-listening experience unlike any other. And these speakers are front and center, not hidden behind a wall.

Regardless of budget, Billarant says many customers are coming to Entertainment Solutions worried about the digital TV transition effective February 17, 2009. Although they can purchase a converter box for as little as $20 (with a $40 government coupon), some are deciding to simply buy a new TV.