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June 2005
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
American Wired
Article By Ian White
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

  Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in.
 -- Michael Corleone

 

PhotoI know that it is going to come as a shock to many... well, perhaps not the three nice Italian men sitting on the stoop outside my window, and Mrs. Horowitz down at the bakery who makes my morning bagel and flirts just a little, but I have officially retired from reviewing.

I have given up the life of a spoiled, pampered, and decadent audio columnist and gone over to the other side. No... not a samurai with a horrible slice, but a full-time home theater and home automation consultant with a dedicated staff of three.

It was almost seven months ago, when I realized that after all of these years (I was twelve when I first took a Fisher receiver into the bathtub with me... Mrs. Horowitz refused on principle to get in) of audio reporting that I finally had an inkling. When I finally get a clue, I'll be in terrific shape. For years, I have been advising people on what I felt worked well with other components and almost all of the feedback had been positive. On the video side, I have always been very critical of how things look and had my fingers smashed on numerous occasions as friends and family attempted to stop me from adjusting the picture with their remotes.

Can't you see that the flesh tones are all wrong and that your DVD player failed the "pluge" test?

If my photographic skills are any indication, I missed my calling as the Grande executioner of the Bastille.

Setting up audio and video, however, is something that I do quite well...

 

One evening as I sat on the couch reading a copy of Boar Hunter magazine (with an old copy of Listener hidden inside it), the phone rang and I picked it up.

 

"Hi, I am trying to reach Mr. White."

"Depends on which Mr. White you are looking for," I replied, concerned that I was about to be solicited to donate funds to Hamas or PETA.

"The stereo guy with all of those Hollywood romances." He said.

"You are not Amanda Peet's agent by chance, because I was meaning to..."

"No, no, no, I am looking for the guy who knows about good stereo equipment and home video."

"How did you get this number?" I asked rather concerned.

"It was carved into one of the benches at the Weiner Circle on N. Clark... for a good aural experience call 555..."

 

The next morning I made my way to a rather fancy dwelling and spent the better part of three hours listening to a complete stranger tell me about his audio/video dreams. It was a fascinating tale about a man and his dog and fourth wife. He finished what he had to say and came right to the point (unlike me so far).

"I want to do it all for $130,000."

I started to tell him that I was not a retailer and that I would have to bring in other professionals, but he just cut me off.

"I'm not worried about that. Just tell me that you can do it."

 

I gritted my teeth and told him that I would get back to him after I did some measurements, snapped some pictures, and dunked my head in a hot cauldron of oil. Driving home, I realized that I had just promised a complete stranger that I would turn his multi-million dollar home into a model of audio/video perfection. What the hell was I thinking? Rather than panic, which is something that I excel at, I actually sat down and thought the entire project through from start to finish. I really do not know where the clarity of thought came from, but it just worked out…after I found a reliable contractor, honest cabinetmaker, skilled installer, and a lighting expert.

Remember, there is no "I" in Team America.

People talk.

In this case, the customer was thrilled with what we did and two more jobs came about through referrals. Six more after that. There have been a few slow weeks, but a real business is being built and all of us are learning as we go and doing our best to not burn down the house or let the dog into the bedroom with the fancy duvet from Italy.

That was such a bad day.

 

So It Began...

The purposes of this column are two-fold. On the technical side, I plan on talking about issues and products that are of great interest to the consumers and what they are watching and listening to. If at any time a conflict of interest exists, I will be quite open about it. I want this column to be both entertaining and informative, without being a commercial. Secondly, I plan to invite "experts" each month starting in June to add some of their wisdom and funny installation stories including some rather frightening tales of installations gone amok.

 

How Much For F@<&:# Wire?

Nothing kills a great presentation and potential sale faster than cables that run more than $0.65 per foot. I know that it is hard to believe, but most people (including very wealthy ones) get a very disturbed look on their face when you tell them what the bill is going to be for 1,000 feet of audiophile-approved in-wall speaker wire, let alone CAT-5, interconnects, digital cables, video cables, phone, Ethernet, termination, and a fancy box to house everything in the basement.

A majority of consumers also have little or no brand recognition when it comes to cable manufacturers. I have yet to interview one potential customer who had heard of Cardas, Kimber, Vampire, or Analysis Plus. Monster Cable is the only brand with any from of recognition and that makes selling better cables very difficult. In custom installations, the last thing the customer wants to see is wiring, so there is an attitude that spending a lot on something that one can't see doesn't make a lot of sense. Apparently, only hardcore audiophiles are interested in showing off their cables.

 

Video Killed The Radio Star...

The very first time I sold a plasma, the customer complained bitterly about the quality of the picture with cable. The local cable provider supplied a component video cable with their box, but even the HD channels looked less than... HD.

"I'm not paying $69 a month for this crap!" screamed the customer.

Now, this same customer decided against my decision to add a DVI cable to his bill when he first ordered the plasma, but he did spring for a calibration. The calibration did a great job of bringing the set up to snuff with DVD but I was not overly impressed with the picture with cable. Without telling the customer, I switched out the component video cable for a DVI and said nothing. A week later, the customer called me to tell me that the plasma was finally working properly and that "he must have touched something" to make it work. The picture quality with cable was still rather awful (at least to me), but they were satisfied with how their favorite shows looked and that I should leave the settings alone.

The customer is always right.

I think that it is imperative that one never make the customer look or feel like an idiot, but slowly educate them. For the amount of money that these people are paying, they have the right to call me anything they want... except Shirley.

 

We're Going To Need A Larger Spool...

Having run more than 8,000 feet of speaker wire since I embarked on this new venture, I have developed a certain allergy to the garden hose audiophile cables that grace our systems.

Thick cables suck.

Even the most skilled installer with a truck filled with large and wonderful drill bits hates working with the unwieldy stuff that passes as audiophile speaker wire. It is next to impossible to feed it through tight spaces (not to mention the fact that I refuse to put anything inside a wall or ceiling that isn't UL/CL approved), or bend it around corners, and a total waste of the client's money.

The other issue is that most in-wall and in-ceiling loudspeakers fall into the "analytical" category and nothing makes them sound worse than some overly detailed and thin sounding audiophile silver-coated crap retailing for $50 per foot. I have always been into "experimentation", so when the time came to install my own in-wall speakers in the bedroom, I cut equal lengths of various in-wall speaker wire and listened.

The entry-level 16-gauge CL-216 copper speaker wire from Ultralink wasn't terrible, but it lacked control – specifically in the bass, which is one of the most critical areas of concern when trying to get the best out of a pair of in-wall speakers. I must confess that I have yet to truly enjoy a pair of in-wall or in-ceiling speakers that I have heard in the garbage that passes as new construction. While far more difficult to wire, older homes have better acoustics (at least the older homes I have worked in) thanks to the construction quality of the walls that hold them up.The NHT iW2s in my seventy-five year old home were hard as hell to install through inches of plaster, but there is a total lack of "boominess", or "bloat" that I hear in the modern monstrosities where I work each day.

So, Nu... what has worked so far when faced with long runs and difficult impedances?

Two products, in particular, from Analysis Plus and Vampire Wire really have made customers happy and not driven them into the poorhouse. From an installation perspective, they are easy to pull, bend, staple, and terminate. At $0.75 per foot (plus termination), the #12C stranded copper wire from Vampire Wire is a no-brainer. It doesn't quite reach the same sonic heights as the $4.49 per foot Oval Theater 4 from Analysis Plus, but it is far superior to the generic wire that many contractors use. The Oval Theater 4 from Analysis Plus sounds very much like the Oval 9 speaker cables that I once owned and with quality amplification, the NHT in-walls really began to open up with greater transparency, a smoother and more even tonal balance, and far more control in the bass. At $4.50 a foot, the Oval Theater 4 is far from inexpensive if one is talking about wiring an entire home, but a two hundred foot spool will run you under $900.00 and I think its sound quality is a significant upgrade worthy of the expense.

 

Computers Can Do That...

While not the primary focus of this month's column, I have installed and set-up three systems so far using Apple's Mac Mini as the primary music server and the results have been interesting. On the plus side, the Mac Mini is cheap, easy to use, and reliable. If you have sworn your allegiance to the dark side of the force and given Lord Steve your credit card number and become an iTunes junkie, the Mac Mini is your gateway to an endless supply of music. The Yoda of personal computers has more than enough horsepower to surf the web, flirt with Adobe, loiter with Tony and Pussy, and shuffle between Miles, Bartok, and the Shins.

As innovative as the Mac Mini appears, it does have a few issues that need to be addressed if you want to use it as a replacement for your existing CD player;

  1. Hard drive is way too small if you plan on burning your entire collection using Apple's lossless encoder. In each installation, I have added LaCie external hard drives to the system as they offer sufficient drive space and silent operation. The d2 200GB Extreme drive retails for $220.00 and can be set-up either vertically or horizontally (depending on how much room one has). LaCie has larger drives, but the 500GB Big Disk Extreme at $425.00 seems to be the favorite due to its reliable and quiet operation, not to mention affordability.

 

  1. The CD/DVD drive is incredibly noisy. Did anyone at Apple listen to this thing before they shipped it? While most users will run the machine off of its hard drive, you still have to suffer through the tedious process of loading all of those funny looking silver discs and the Mini vibrates like crazy. I have my Mac Mini supported by a trio of BDR cones, as I can't take the noise.

 

  1. Someone sicko at Apple actually put a speaker inside this thing as a joke. The Mini sounds really awful if you use a mini-plug/Y-adapter and run it into your preamp/integrated/multi-room controller/receiver, so you are going to have to splurge for either a USB DAC from Apogee, M-Audio, Edirol, or Wavelength, or run a USB cable from it to either the M-Audio Audiophile USB or Edirol UA-5 and use the coaxial output to the external DAC of your choice. The cheapest option would be to buy a Mac Mini loaded with both the Airport Extreme card and Bluetooth, and set-up a wireless system with one of Apple's Airport Express modules connected to your system with Monster's special optical cable. After adding all of these additional pieces, not to mention a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and remote (Palm Tungsten works well), the Mac Mini becomes the Mac Expensive and you could find yourself spending more than $2,500.

 

The Sake Is A Little Too Cold...

One of the issues that I have always had with audiophiles is their obsession with equipment and not with music. As an installer, I have discovered that many of my client's suffer from the same fate in regard to cinema. Why do people insist that I bring Finding Nemo with me to every demonstration? I hated that movie.

I recognize that in order to sell people $12,000 television sets and $30,000 projectors, I have to carry with me the schlock currently passing as entertainment because it looks particularly pretty, but that does not mean that I must let my clients drown in the cesspool that is Hollywood. Each month, I plan on digging into the White movie vault (aka the bedroom closet) and recommending a few films that not only look/sound better on a well set-up system, but also have slightly more artistic integrity than some stupid fish looking for Daddy or a three-hour snooze fest about some deviant billionaire suffering from OCD.

If I could have been born a woman (sounds kind of kinky but roll with me on this one), I would have chosen to be Carole Lombard. Not only was she a genuine "beauty" who would put the entire current crop to shame, but also she had a sense of comedic timing that very few have ever possessed and the type of inner strength that every feminist hates. Lombard died, tragically, before she reached her full potential, and it is most difficult to watch Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith and not think about just how big a talent she really was. Hitchcock did comedy almost as well as he did chasing German spies and this film about a young married couple fighting to stay together showcases Lombard at her best.

I am old enough to remember when Sarajevo hosted the Olympic Winter Games in the 1980s and it is almost hard to believe that since then, Yugoslavia was torn apart by civil war and that Europe had it first major armed conflict in almost four decades (I hold Europeans to a higher standard... at least one major war every twenty years is a must comrades). Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land is a gripping tale of two men on opposite sides of the Balkan conflict, filled with biting political satire, rather justly aimed at the United Nations, and a rather grisly reminder that genocide in Europe was not extinguished with the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Most die-hard Kurosawa fans already own the entire Criterion library and have sought out copies of Ran, The Bad Sleep Well, and Drunken Angel, but it was the rather overlooked Kagemusha that had me harassing video clerks for months. Kagemusha is one of the few samurai films that give the viewer real insight into the life of a samurai and Kurosawa skillfully uses a very elaborate production to tell a very philosophic and tragic story.

While perhaps not as inward looking (how could anyone look inside with all of that blood) as Kagemusha, Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom is the best action film even made, and possibly the most copied but never imitated film in motion picture history. Imagine Robert Mitchum/Lee J. Cobb/Darth Vader rolled into one with the personal warmth of Senator Clinton and the handiwork of Zatochi. Quentin couldn't come up with something this good if he had fifty Uma Thurmans. The late Toshiro Mifune also stars in this classic samurai tale worth Criterion's lofty asking price.

 

Next Month…

We take a fascinating trip to Israel to learn more about Morel and their state-of-the-art drivers and tweeters, set-up Apple's Airport Express wireless system in four rooms, and take a listen to Russound's extremely intriguing CAV 6.6 A/V controller.

Stay Wired and may George Lucas put you in his will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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