Shopping for Sight and Sound

The Denon AVR-X2100w

The Denon AVR-X2100w

The reaches a point in anyone’s renovation process where the thorny issue of AV equipment comes up. What home theatre, amplifiers, speakers, TV etc. should one be buying?

Let me say at the outset that I have not yet spent any money on this stuff – so this counts as a preliminary look at the options. I will follow this up at some point with a rundown of what I ended up buying and installing, to see if it all worked out ok.

So let’s start with the philosophical question: why do you need these things?

If you are a highly evolved being who gets their R&R time from reading books, playing chess and debating Kierkegaard with friends, then a TV means nothing to you. Buy yourself a vinyl record player, pour yourself a drink and move on.

For the rest of us, we’re going to spend at least some of our time watching series, movies and sport (not me in the last instance because I’d rather have root canal. But we know this).

There are many different possible setups as there are homes and families. A lot depends on how many rooms you want a TV in, whether you want audio playing throughout the house, what you video and audio sources are and so forth. That said, it comes down to the following general considerations:

  • Sources: what is the provenance of your audio and video signal? The common options are radio, DSTV, Internet, CD player, DVD player, gaming console, mobile device and computer server. Depending on how many of these you want to support you will need a different sort of setup.
  • Distribution: where do you want all this stuff to appear? Is it mainly in one room or throughout the house? And most importantly: do you want a TV in multiple rooms, or just sound?
  • Quality: in particular, audio quality. Are you after the kind of sound system that shakes you to your very soul? Or will merely fantastic be good enough?

I am going to run through my planned setup and talk about how I’ve approached each of these areas.

Sources

I have exactly no interest in broadcast signals, radio, TV or otherwise. I don’t have DSTV and I don’t ever want it. So for me this confines my sources to networked – LAN or Internet, with the exception of a future gaming console like Playstation 4.

From a video point of view, I have an Apple TV and I also have a server with cached videos which I stream to the Apple TV using Air Video from my iPhone or iPad. So I don’t have the hassle of a DSTV installation and I’m not concerned about Bluray or CD players (that said, the PS4 can play both if the need arises).

So, with that in mind, the first big piece of equipment required is an AV Receiver. While true audiophiles (see Quality) may want to supplement this with a dedicated amplifier, and pre-amplifier, for most of us a good AV receiver is enough to push out solid sound.

Your sources plug into your AV Receiver. Decent AV receivers have inputs for many devices, audio and video, and act as a kind of aggregator, translating all those sources into signals ready to be distributed.

Choosing an AV receiver – like all things home theatrish, is a complicated business. There are models from a couple of thousand rand up to tens of thousands of rand – and more. Typical features that come with bigger price tags is sound quality or power, the number of zones sound can be fed to in the house, wifi connectivity and the number of inputs and outputs supported.

The models I have perused include the Denon AVR-X1100 and X2100, the Integra 30.6 and the Yamaha RX-V677. If those sound like lawnmowers then you understand some of the challenges. Differences between units come in strings of letters and numbers like THX and HDMI 2.0 and 4K.

You pretty much need to shop by price and brand reputation. From what I’ve seen you should expect to spend around R8 – R15k on a decent AV receiver.

That’s the home theatre bit.

If you have audio on a mobile device, or a library somewhere, and you want it to play in different parts of your house, you are going to need some kind of multi-zone amplifier. This leads us squarely to the topic of distribution.

Distribution

Right – so let’s say you’ve got your radio, Apple TV, Playstation, DSTV and whatever else plugged into your AV Receiver. Now what?

The most obvious two immediate places you need to send the audio and video from the amp to are in your home theatre room: to the TV or projector and a set of speakers.

The choice between a projector or TV comes down to price, and configuration. TV’s these days are cheap – even at large sizes. They also have very sharp, bright images with excellent contrast. The drawback is that they dominate the room.

You can get a TV lift which can hide the TV inside a cabinet and have it rise into view when you want it. And you can also get various other cabinets and systems for disappearing the TV for non-watching times.

For our room, however, there really isn’t a convenient place to put a large TV set. So we investigated getting a home data projector with a motorised screen. This is discreet and leaves the lounge able to be a lounge without becoming a permanent TV room.

Projectors demand a trade-off between brightness and contrast. For home viewing you’ll want something that does high resolution (1080p or better) with good contrast. That means less brightness, which means it’ll only really be ideal to watch once the room is dark.

A projector is also considerably more expensive than a TV – and the bulbs blow from time to time (after 4000 hours or so).

Still, if you want something that allows your room to be fully dual-purpose, this is a good option. Plus it’s like going to the movies in your own house which is pretty cool.

So much for video distribution. What about audio?

In your home theatre itself you’ll want a 5.1 surround speaker system, at least. All the AV receivers mentioned above support at least that. That’s two front, two rear, a center speaker and a sub-woofer. You can get additional speakers on bigger systems if you want even more sounds separated out of the audio field.

There are good 5.1 speaker sets out there for under 10k, but you probably want to spend closer to 15 for something that packs a punch. If you can afford it, 20 opens the door to really exceptional speakers.

Two options recommended to me here are the Monitor Audio MASS and the Jamo S626HCS5 or 345HCS. But there are many others.

For the rest of the house you now have a big choice to make. There are two philosophies these days in audio distribution: the old method, which is to cable speakers from a central amplifier to each point in the house they’re wanted; or to use a wifi-based system where each speaker in each room connects via a network to one another.

For the cabled option you need a multi-zone amplifier such as one of the Russsound systems.

There are pros and cons to both – but to be honest these days it makes no sense to me to not take advantage of a wifi system. We have looked at both Sonos and the Denon Heos options.

So, how do these work?

In effect you put a unit that is both speaker and amplifier in each room you want audio. Both Sonos and Denon offer different sizes. These connect to your home network and allow audio to be streamed from any tablet or phone to one or more rooms. You can stream different songs to different rooms, and the apps have streaming services like Spotify built into them. The devices also support Airplay – and Sonos even have a dedicated device that will connect any amp into the network.

The huge benefit is that no speaker cabling is needed and the system is extendable by just buying another speaker unit.

For us, this is the perfect way to go. We will also connect the AV receiver via the Sonos connect to the environment so that we basically have one audio system throughout.

Quality

Audio, in particular, is something that people can get pretty tense about in terms of quality. True audiophiles want clarity and definition that demands amplifiers in the tens to hundreds of thousands of rand. The same is true of all the other components in the system – speakers, projector, TV, you name it.

Most of the video and audio I consume streams from the Internet. Whilst the quality is good, it is not uncompressed, zero defect stuff. To me, spending that kind of money on reproducing the exact sounds of sitting in a concert in Carnegie Hall just isn’t justifiable.

There is no exact right amount of money to spend on a home system. How many rooms are you covering? How big an image do you need? How many sources are you integrating and outputting? Do you have kids who want to watch TV in their own rooms – that requires some rethinking of the above setup.

Realistically, there is no setup worth having that includes both a home theatre and a 4-5 multi-room audio setup that will cost less than around R30,000. And that’s cutting a lot of corners.

We live in a media saturated world – and we fortunately have access to fantastic audio and video entertainment, as well as games. To me a house should allow you to enjoy that.

Needless to say, a solid internet connection is required to enjoy most of this properly. How apt that fibre to the home is rolling out in my suburb just in time.

Steel Yourself

Right, so the great building project has moved decisively into the next phase. That phase is defined by the erection of large steel structures which represent the major aesthetic addition to the house. And also by the first two major snags – one the fault of some previous swimming pool builder and one the fault of our architect.

So, this is what the structure now looks like:

IMG_3957

Some pretty impressive steel work going on there. However two problems are visible in this picture to the observant eye.

1. The pool, it turns out, was skew. It’s always been skew. Or the house is skew. Or something is skew. But upon erection of a wall next to the pool this became obvious. The brickwork you see in the pool is the rather costly undertaking of changing the orientation ever so slightly. I am now convinced the “changes” to the pool are costing more than an entirely new pool.

2. The steel beams are too high! Turns out the 3D drawings were just “artist impressions” and the fine steel work is, in reality, large thick steel beams. That’s ok – but someone’s measurements were off and they are now towering over the house instead of sitting nicely under the eaves the way they were supposed to.

The design, if one refers back to the 3D renderings, had these two “glass boxes” pushing out from the front of the current dining room/new library, and in front of the kitchen. This was to create the effect of having added a modern section onto an existing house. With the steel as it stands here, we actually have a steel structure towering over the front of the house and obscuring the entire existing structure (well in front of the kitchen anyway).

So…

To make a long story short, the architect did some fancy footwork and has redesigned the house “on the fly” as it were. His enthusiasm, after some initial wariness on our part, worked. And we are now officially excited about our redesign.

new house plan

You will notice – if you’re still with me – that the roof facade now includes a stepped level with a skylight. This roof will also, I’m told, extend forward and over the pool.

So – challenge faced. I should also add that our architect has offered to cover any additional costs incurred by doing this – which is pretty excellent of him, and once again makes me feel good about who we are working with on this project.

A Building Update, and Five Insights

Well, this photo says just about all of it:

38richmond_jan2015

What you will see poking it from behind the rubble is our first new wall, rising from the earth like a volcanic mountain range. So that’s encouraging. The rest looks pretty apocalyptic, I’ll grant you. But it’s coming along.

I thought I’d share five insights about building that I have now learned. These will not be the first five insights I learn and I suspect they may become increasingly hysterical as time goes by – but here they are anyway:

1. It is possible to budget fairly accurately

The common wisdom about building is that the budget will be missed by anywhere between 50% and 100%. So when you are approaching a building project you are warned to expect calamity.

So far – and granted I’m not all the way through yet – I think it is possible to create a fairly accurate cost. You will never, ever be able to account for everything (I just spent R3000 taking out a tree, for example) but you can commit your contractors to a fixed cost and provided your architect has done a good job of specifying everything it’s actually not impossible to come in close to your estimates.

Having said all of that, I advise spending time with someone who has recently renovated and going through their finished cost tracking sheet so you can remember all the things that are sometimes forgotten.

2. Glass is f*$%ing expensive

Our design has a lot of glass in it. These days you are forced to come up with energy efficient glass designs given that we no longer have a functional electricity provider. And it costs serious, serious cash. A full third of our cost estimate is the glass doors and windows.

These days a lot of home design has a lot of glass – and no wonder given that it’s awesome to have a lot of light and view of garden from your home. But if you want to do a renovation inexpensively you need to use glass sparingly.

3. Simple

A very clear design trend – it’s everywhere – is minimalism. This is good news from a building complexity point of view, but it’s surprisingly hard to accomplish, particularly in SA. Why? Because a lot of the stuff out there – from tiles to window frames to furniture – bucks this trend. There is so much frilly, elaborate crap available and very little stylish, simple stuff. And – ironically – the simplest, cleanest stuff costs the most.

I think creating something singular and simple is a wonderful challenge and a beautiful aesthetic. But be prepared to fight the fussiness of what’s on the shelf.

4. Live at Home

This is controversial, but I’d advise living on the property you’re building if you possibly can. The number of small tweaks and insights we keep having just by seeing what’s going on is immense. And being available to the crew on a daily basis to field questions and provide guidance is invaluable.

It is not fun. Our architect has told us to move out a dozen times. But we have structured the building program in such a way that we can live here while its going on, and it feels like a smart move.

5. Browse

To create something wonderful you need to fill your head with wonderful things. You are not an interior designer (unless you are). And you are not an architect (unless, again, you are). So you know nothing about what makes a beautiful space or structure. Unless you have a gift for it – which probably comes from having immersed yourself in design for years – you’re going to have to study up, and fast.

I will post a list of resources at some stage that we have used but needless to say the three obvious ones are:

– Websites – like houzz.com and similar. There is endless inspiration, albeit frequently not that well organised or searchable.

– Books – go and spend hours in Exclusive Books or at bookstores like Warm & Glad and just look at things. There are also countless magazines to browse although I’d advise against spending too much time with international publications featuring beautiful products that you cannot buy here

– Shops – where the reality sinks in. Get out to wherever your furniture and fittings mecca is in your city and just start seeing what is available. Kramerville and Fourways in Joburg are musts, but there will also be a lot of small places all over with useful things to see.

Bathrooms, kitchens, tiles, fabric, furniture, flooring – the choices you will be called upon to make will be countless. It’s easier, eventually, when you have a mental catalogue.

Construction begins (after a long silence)

Well. It’s been a good long while since I updated this blog. Some of that can be attributed to the long wait for Heritage and Council to pass our plans. Some of it is due to overseas travel and other delays. But we have also spent a good deal of time getting our heads around this project, and, of course, getting the quote. More on that in a later post.

For now I am happy/terrified to report the construction phase has begun. And, like all good things that go up, the first step is to break shit down.

This project can more or less be broken into three parts:

1. The reconstruction of the old “cottage” space into a new master bedroom with a new storey and viewing deck

2. Modifications to the main house – primarily to open it up and join it to the new master bedroom above – currently these are entirely separate structures

3. Changes to the garden and outdoor area – primarily to open up the space which is quite oddly designed at the moment so that the garden and home feel like two different spaces

Because we plan to live on the property throughout (yes, I realise this is insane) we have decided to do the project in phases beginning with the cottage to master bedroom evolution. This will mean, in theory, that we can move into that space while the modifications to the house are being done.

The builder estimates this is an 8 month project. Yeah right, I hear you say. Add two and double it. Well, optimism is a rare thing and so I plan to cling to it as long as I can. Two days in and I have nothing to report in this regard.

This is where the cottage began this week:

cottage before

And this is what it currently looks like:

cottage after

(Cool, right?)

Demolition is a fast acting agent. Needless to say (why do people say that if it truly is needless?) it’s going to be quite some time before I can post a picture of the new structure. “Builder’s holidays” (different enough from everyone else’s holidays so as to have their own name) are in full swing and so getting materials isn’t likely. The builder himself – who seems great by the way – is keen to work through but I suspect this has more to do with wanting the income than enthusiasm for the project or a protestant work ethic.

So – next step is to check whether the foundations of this structure can support a double-storey. For this a mysterious character called the “engineer” (think: Prometheus) will turn up at some stage to make an inspection. Based on that…well, we shall see.

It’s an exciting prospect to see a physical space you know so well transforming into something entirely new. It’s less exciting to watch your funds slowly leak out of the bottom of your bank account. I believe this is the see-saw I’m going to have to get used to being on in the next year of my life.

Imagining in 3D

Not everyone planning a renovation can afford to have an architect to do the heavy lifting for you. But if you decide to spend the money you get the enjoy the magic of seeing your new house rendered out into some pretty lifelike.

from garage_real2 15 junefrom garage_render 15 june

There are some ambitious ideas here: creating much more flow between the house and the garden; putting in a natural filtration pool; and putting in large, glass sliding doors and windows across most of the front of the house.

 

 

garden toward pool real 1 15 junegarden toward pool render 1 15 june

The idea is to then turn what is currently a cottage/gym into the master bedroom, with a new storey and viewing deck (Craighall Park actually has some lovely views if you can find the height and position). So here we will put in a wide set of steps and again create a glazed room that enjoys the views onto the garden (which isn’t visible here but which is lovely with established trees).

So the pondering now begins. Oh, and the quoting – which no doubt is going to curtail much of this 3D revelry.

Wine Cellars

One the craziest thoughts we’re having in this renovation is putting in a wine cellar. We both love wine and so this makes some sense although the costs and usefulness are still to be determined.

In terms of Wine Cellars I’d say you have three basic options:

1. Dedicated room at house-level

There are many examples of this kind of wine cellar. Below is a typical example of a special room converted or constructed as a wine cellar. You’d see this kind of thing in many restaurants.

room_wine cellar

Often (as here) these are glass-walled rooms with shelves, a bit like a walk-in closet (in fact our current walk-in closet has been earmarked for a possible conversion).

The thing about wine cellars is that they have to be carefully temperature controlled. If you can find a naturally cool place that’s great. Otherwise you need a special cooling system which doesn’t come cheap.

2. Underground Wine Cellars (Classic)

Of course the term “cellar” puts one in mind of something you have to descend into the earth to find. With stone walls and maybe a few spiders. The nicest of these options you could actually eat in – I’ve eaten in a few before. Here is a particularly amazing example of one of these:

underground_wine cellar

This is not a particularly practical option as an add-on to a house I wouldn’t think so I’m imagining this is a wine cellar for a different building project. One on a wine estate maybe.

3. Underground Wine Cellar (Modern)

Some very innovative wine cellars are now available that can be installed into a giant hole anywhere in the house. Bizarrely enough the local supplier of these is in my very road and so they are certainly the first place we will be visiting to find out more.

underground_wine cellar modern

What is really smart about this is that it can be retro-fitted and takes a small amount of space. It’s pre-fabricated so once you have right size hole you can plop it in and off you go.

The local supplier is Urban Cellars.

 

As with everything on this project we are merely in the discovery phase but the idea of wine cellar, which started as a silly fantasy, is at least sounding somewhat possible now.

Check out the rest of our idea board on Pinterest.