Like many home theater and audio enthusiasts, I have spent countless hours wondering how I would organize a home if I could start from scratch. How would I lay out the sound system? What kind of multi-room audio would I install? What kind of lighting and shades should I install for easy control?
I got that chance to do just that with our new home – an apartment that my wife and I renovated from the ground up. I’ve alluded to this project during several reviews here at RHT – but in this article, I’m going to walk through the conceptualization of the layout, the construction process, some key decisions, and compromises, what equipment we chose, and what the final system ended up looking like.
The apartment my wife and I purchased was what they call in New York City a “bring your contractor” apartment. As you can see from the feature image in this article, and the slideshow below, we were looking for something that would require a full renovation – and this apartment definitely brought the goods. The bones were solid, but everything else in the apartment would need to go.
We’d be redoing everything: walls, electrical, you name it – our flexibility was limited only by building engineering, NYC rules, and few practical constraints. This meant for a long project, but afforded us an opportunity to spec the apartment – from wiring of speakers and internet, to selection of appropriate lighting control – from the ground up.
The Final Plan
Amparo Vollert, from Penchano & Vollert Architecture, was the architect for the project. With Amparo, we conceptualized a space built around an open floor floorplan that better used the square feet available. While audio and video performance was a priority in the design – we didn’t let this dominate what we thought was the best use of the space.
Our final floor plan included a full reconfiguration of the main space, with a large, multi-use room that included the primary video system. A large storage closet would serve as the brain center for the entire apartment, with ample space to accommodate a rack and all equipment. In the main living room system, we’d wire for a large flat panel and a 5.2.4 Atmos sound system. We opted against including a projector & screen in this system. Though I love the cinematic effect only front projection can provide, we lacked a practical solution for screen mounting and had limited distance from position of the couch to the wall. In this room, unfortunately, a projector just didn’t make sense.
Amparo cleverly maintained ceiling height in the living room by extending structural beams downward to accommodate new LED lighting. This also provided the perfect spot for 4 Dolby Atmos height speakers. We opted to make the cabinetry in the office area large enough to accommodate both the rear right speaker, as well as one of my SVS SB-4000 subwoofers.
A smaller system in the master bedroom would be based around a flat panel and soundbar.
Making the Dream a Reality – Wiring, Equipment Selection & Installation
In order for us to fully realize the plan as we had conceptualized it, I needed to call in experts. While I’d done wiring myself in both of my previous homes – a project on this scale was beyond my capabilities. I needed someone to help get everything where it needed to be on a tight timeline so that the rest of the project wasn’t affected. We, therefore, turned to the talented team from Value Electronics in Scarsdale, NY. Rob Zohn is well known in the A/V community for running the HDTV Shootout every year. Rob also has a top-notch and deeply experienced installation team who would step in to handle all aspects of making the plans on paper come to life.
Wiring was first. On paper Rob and I spec’d out exactly what needed to be run where, which in addition to speaker, subwoofer & HDMI cables for the audio/video, also included Ethernet cable around the entire apartment – even if we didn’t need it for system now. You only get one shot when the walls are open to effectively get cabling to where you want it – and Rob encouraged me to go beyond what I thought I needed to be ready for any future situations. In addition, he also made sure our electrician installed deep wall boxes, to accommodate smart switches for whole-home lighting should we end up making that choice.
After demolition and framing were completed, Rob’s team spent two days executing on our wiring plan – some of which included channeling through walls.
Install Points: 1. Surround Left speaker run, 2. Subwoofer 1 RCA run, 3. Front L speaker run, 4. Center speaker wire run, TV mount, cat6, coax, fiber HDMI cable 5. Front R speaker run, 6. Subwoofer 2 – RCA run, Surround Right speaker run, 7. Cat6 for desk area, 8. Atmos speakers x 4 speaker run, 9. Equipment closet, 10. Bedroom flat panel: Mount, ethernet, cat6, coax, 11. (and 12): Cat6 and coax
We tried to maintain as much flexibility as possible with the wiring plan – often including double and triple runs of things like Ethernet, to accommodate changing standards in the future. For the main HDMI run, we ran a Fibbr HDMI cable – which I’ve already reviewed on the site.
Though we were a long way from living in the apartment, AV work at this point was largely complete. Rob explained that the next phase of work needed to happen after the general contractors were essentially complete, and the apartment was completely clean of debris. The technicians encased all of the cabling in a large plastic bag, protected from the rest of construction, and said goodbye until we were ready for equipment installation.
I worked closely with Rob to figure out what parts of my current system could be moved and what we’d need to source new.
The living room 5.2.4 audio system would be almost entirely handled by existing equipment which included KEF Reference 1 and 2C, 2x SVS SB-4000 subwoofers and an Anthem MRX-1120 receiver. We also leveraged other components like power management and cabling from my prior system. Beyond that we’d be starting from scratch. We’d need to determine everything – from networking infrastructure, to whole-home control.
There were six essential areas we needed to tackle: 1) Home control 2) Network 3) Video 4) Networked Audio 5) Connected Home 6) Miscellaneous gear
- We started with whole-home control – and for this Rob introduced me to the team from Universal Remote Control (URC). Rob is a URC dealer and was excited to have me take a look at their new Total Control 2.0 system. The URC team visited the apartment and talked with me about what my eventual goals would be. URC recommended a system based around an MRX-15 controller and TDC-7100 interface. We’ll be doing a full review of the Total Control system in the future.
- For everything in the apartment to function properly we needed a robust network to handle not only access to our Verizon Fios fiber connection, but also allow the various components within the apartment to talk to one another reliably. At the encouragement of the team at URC and Rob, we spec’d a Luxul network with an EPIC-4 ABR4500 router and at least one XAP1510 wireless access point (the number would eventually depend on how well covered the apartment was – an unknown until we were done with construction). In order to streamline the installation, the network switch would need to be PoE compatible to support the XAP1510. Here we used an Araknis Networks 210 Series Websmart Gigabit Switch.
- Next step was video. As discussed above, the nature of the living room meant that front projection wasn’t feasible. Given that, and with a desire to maintain as cinematic experience as much as possible, I knew I wanted to go with as big of a display as the room would reasonably support. Rob, knowing my entry to this entire hobby was video, encouraged me to eschew larger LCD offerings, and instead go with a 77” C-Series OLED – prices of which had become much more approachable. Robert selected a 77” LG C-Series OLED. In the bedroom, we chose a Sony X900-series LCD TV. We also specified a 4K Apple TV to handle streaming. While I have been a long fan of Roku – given we wanted to have a state of the art system, I wanted to have a unit capable of streaming Dolby Vision – meaning the Apple was the only choice. For UHD discs, Robert selected the Panasonic UB9000 4K Blu-ray player. This is Panasonic’s flagship player. Along with many audiophile nods (rigid construction, high-end DACs, XLR outputs), it contains Panasonic’s proprietary HDR optimizer tone-mapping capabilities – which has worked really well in our hands in the past. Since Oppo left the game, this has been a go-to player for many folks.
- For networked audio I opted to anchor the system using NAD’s Bluesound infrastructure. I had a few key requirements for networked audio that lead me to Bluesound. Firstly, I knew that in the master bedroom, we’d be using just a soundbar for all audio – TV and music included. We would be relying on the TV’s built-in apps to stream content, so an eARC HDMI input was a necessity. I also needed this to be powered vs passive. A remotely placeable subwoofer with an “under furniture” compatible footprint would be a plus. AirPlay2 was a must for ease of use and I wanted Bluetooth to be a standard feature in all components. Beyond the soundbar and sub, I needed the ecosystem to offer speakers of varying sizes so that a speaker could be added easily to both a kid’s room and kitchen (ideally with both a black and white color option). Lastly, I wanted support for high-resolution audio. Bluesound Gen 2 checked everyone one of these boxes. Please see my review at RHT for thoughts around this system.
- We opted to start early based on Amazon Echo. As an avid Wirecutter reader, I know that Amazon Echo has the widest and best support for connected home pieces. In addition – I find the diversity in types of interfaces better than those offered by Google or Apple – neither of which at the time had a small, “bedside clock” like interface as the now-discontinued Echo Dot.
- On the lighting side, Rob pointed me straight towards Lutron – which was doing connected lighting before that term really meant anything. Lutron, Rob said, has remained at the forefront in terms of innovation and reliability. We spoke with Rob’s representatives at Lutron and determined for my apartment, RadioRa2 Select would be the most appropriate and cost-effective approach. All of our dimmers were spec’d to be LED compatible. In addition, we also specified solar shades throughout the apartment – these would help with privacy and temperature control. For blackout curtains in the bedrooms, we opted to use Hunter Douglas as they had a wider array of fabric options than Lutron. Both the Lutron and Hunter Douglas window treatments would need to be battery powered. Though we did start from scratch from an electrical standpoint, the complexity of other electrical needs around the house, meant that this wiring in the windows was deprioritized.
- Other parts of the system included mounts for both the 77” LG C-Series OLED and 50” Sony 900-Series LCD in the master bedroom. Both mounts were from Sanus. In the living room, we went as low profile as possible while in the bedroom we wanted the ability to rotate the TV out to make viewing from bed easier – so we specified a Sanus VLF628, with an extendable arm.
Because every inch matters in New York – we elected to rack mount the equipment in a SnapAV Strong 27U rack. I added a WattBox WB600 rack-mountable power conditioner to handle power for components located higher up in the rack.
As discussed above we specified the beams to accommodate our Atmos ceiling speakers – so we needed to select speakers that would fit within those measurements. KEF has a broad range of architectural speakers and the beam extension was able to accommodate Ci130QR ceiling speakers
In Part 2, we’ll get to see the finished product, talk about how all the equipment came together, and how the programming with URC helped to tie the apartment together.
I have been writing on audio-video topics for more than 10 years. Before joining Reference Home Theater, I was a writer at Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, where in addition to working on several features with Chris, I also reviewed a broad range of components, from amplifiers to speakers.
I represent the east coast office of Reference Home Theater, residing with my family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.