Frank's Pad - Part 2
The attic access was at the back of the house… of course. We're "professionals" so we used a ladder that was too short. This was OK, though 'cause we put it on top of a table so it would reach. No, I'm not kidding. Don't try this at home... or if you do, don't blame any mishaps on us - we told you not to.
It was hot in the attic, but we had two things going for us: 1) Frank had some light up there thanks to his electrician, and 2) it was summer here in Florida. Wait, that second one didn't help us at all. Here in Central Florida, "hot" is a relative term. This time of year it's comfortably hellish. By the end of Sumer there will be fire and brimstone and we'd risk spontaneous combustion.
We made our way to the back of the attic where the room was. Frank came with, largely because he's not a girly man and doesn't mind a little dirt… or emphysema for that matter (wear masks if you go into an attic with Fiberglas insulation). We located the AC vent and quickly tracked down the header which was right where we expected. A couple holes later (we used a 1/2-inch spade wood bit) we were into the wall.
We brought the Impact Acoustics CL2-rated 12/2 speaker cable with us (not really, we forgot, but it makes for a good story) - and decided to run the first pair (the fronts) by using electrical tape to tie both wires to my drill bit extender. It's about 18-inches long and heavy enough that it will drop all the way down the wall. Frank went down below and we lowered it down the wall cavity. It came out perfectly.
There's a Hole in the Ceiling, Dear Liza
After the (first of many) attic adventures we needed a breather. And a shower. It was time for some sweet tea… and then back to work. The best way to put holes in your ceiling exactly where you want them is to drill, straight up, from below. We marked our positions and did just that. We then inserted single wires from our short romex stash to mark our positions in the attic (see our Primer for more on this).
Back up in the attic, we located the two front speaker holes and proceeded to push the cables through, having pre-cut them to approximate length so we didn't need to drag a whole spool all the way across the attic. Everything ran smoothly now. We ran the second pair (also pre-cut) down the wall for the surrounds.
Back down below Frank decided to do the last two and I protested by sitting on one of his comfy chairs and saying "OK" while pretending to focus on something important. I could hear him crawl across the attic towards the surrounds. Not because of his movements on the rafters above, but because he was coughing up his lunch from one end of the room to the other. I feared my friend might be dying and I'd have to climb up into the attic and pull his lifeless body back down… or seal it up there. Nah, his wife would probably notice him missing and see the cables poking out.
Frank is Alive
He made it out and the coughing finally stopped. It turned out he inhaled something that didn't agree with his lungs. Perhaps fiberglass doesn't dissolve once it hits moisture - weird, since it looks so much like cotton candy. I wonder why they don't use that stuff in ceilings instead.
We now had four holes in the ceiling with four cables poking out. I also made a few last minute tweaks to where the cables came out of the wall so I could properly fit the low voltage electrical box in and attach the Decora-style connectors and plate. It has a very nice finished look. Frank wanted to purchase the home theater-in-a-box system right away - as soon as I told him which unit to buy. He was wisely on a budget so I packed up my things and headed back home to do a little research before returning the next day to tweak the final system.
I Guess My Work Here is Done?
I pulled into Frank's house and walked into the living room. He'd already installed the Sony HTiB system I recommended. While I'm not a Sony fanatic, this system was both easily accessible from the local big box store and it had HDMI switching and component video inputs. It just seemed like a really good value, especially since the room was small and didn't require lots of power. All four speakers were mounted and the center channel was placed directly underneath his LCD television. Now THAT'S what I'm talking about - enthusiasm. We might just make an Audioholic out of Frank yet. I ran the setup and tweaked the system, instantly reminded of how bad Sony's menus are and how they were made by people with no sense of either the English language or best practices of system calibration. After much weeping and gnashing of teeth I was able, through the use of the manual, to discover the means of setting levels, speaker size and changing the orientation of the speakers to be recognized as ceiling-mounted. I've literally calibrated dozens of systems - having to use the user manual to figure out how to set levels and get a test tone means that your device is most certainly NOT user friendly. Sony makes nice TVs but in my opinion their entry level receivers leave much to be desired.
We pointed the surround speakers together rather than towards the middle of the room to create a more diffuse surround soundfield.
You can barely see the hole where the speaker wire emerges from the ceiling. Much less intrusive than a fully exposed speaker binding post wall plate.
Video was a bit messed up due to a bad HDMI cable or connection - we never did figure out exactly which it was. Thanks, HDMI. Wiggling the connection caused the HDMI video to drop out. That's about as much fun as using a screwdriver as a toothpick. I replaced the cable and rustled up another optical cable to ensure everything had surround sound (the HTiB didn't support HDMI audio and thus lacked any ability to handle high definition audio). This wasn't terribly important for now since we were using a regular DVD player (also Sony). The good thing is that the system uses standard speakers and a receiver, so upgrading is possible one component at a time.
We popped in some DVDs and cranked up the system. I pulled out Gladiator because, well, it's a great way to impress people with a new home theater. The opening scene of the Roman army's attack is impressive and it has lots of information in the surrounds, which I tweaked up in level just a tiny bit (know your audience). I next tried some multi-channel music with a DTS CD. It sounded OK, but not all that great (not surprising given the constraints of the system, so I wasn't complaining too much). I quickly realized that the "subwoofer" left much to be desired, mostly because it was too small and underpowered for the room (who am I kidding - for any room). The room itself was also not sealed off from the rest of the house, having two French doors which opened to a formal living area. All we could really do was move some of the "dead spots" around so that they didn't land on our primary seating positions. We couldn't move too much, however, since the sub ultimately had to live in the front right corner. I moved the sub out a tad from right beside the equipment rack and the mode left the back of the room - which was a pleasant change. We ran with that and called it a day.
What Did I Learn?
Everyone I tell about this experience wants to know what I learned from it, whether I'll do it again and, most importantly, when can they have it done in their house. First off, I learned that everyone has a different idea of what surround sound is and how much money and equipment it will take to meet their needs. Secondly, each house has its own challenges and this was no exception. The key is to not rush into things. Be willing to sit down and go over your plan of attack. Think through each component, the layout of the room and any potential issues you may face in bringing surround sound into your home.
After installing multiple systems (include quite a few of my own) over the years, I think I'm equipped to handle just about any room and any condition. Block construction? Check. Wood frame? Check. Attic? Check. Crawlspace? Check. Hide wiring under crown molding? Bring it on. Installing surround sound in your home takes time, patience and some knowledge of what's doable and what's not. Being able to think on-the-fly and come up with workarounds is a must. Following through is imperative. In all cases, however, I've never met a room that couldn't be conquered and this experience bolstered that feeling and empowered me to be even more optimistic when talking to people about installing 5.1 in their homes.
I think you should have the same optimism and aggressiveness when deciding to do surround sound in your home. It CAN be done. Heck, it should be done. In the immortal words of one of the world's largest marketing companies: Just do it.
Hey, Frank, if I was you, I'd start asking Clint if he had some stuff laying around his place you could use. I bet he's got a closet full of gear that he's not using at the mo!
This was a great article. Likewise, it has always given me satisfaction to introduce friends to the wonderful world of home theater!
I am really looking forward to this series of articles!
Keep up the good work!