How to achieve excellent audio solutions that are heard and not seen
July 21, 2023 - Ekin Binal has seen it far too often. "I've been in a ton of residential spaces where I've seen a freestanding loudspeaker tucked away into the corner of a room, and that's unfortunate," he says. Although that kind of placement is detrimental to the speaker's sound, Binal, Crestron's director of AV solutions, understands the motivation behind it. Many homeowners — especially those in the high-end, luxury residential market — would rather their sound system be "heard and not seen." That's been something of a tension for decades (and that tension has only been amplified by the introduction of more and more connected devices into the modern smart home).
But marrying audiophile-quality sound to beautiful architecture and design has long been a priority for Crestron, says JoAnn Arcenal, Crestron's director of business development. "The vast majority of our integrators that are in our dealer database understand the collaboration that has to exist between the design community and the technology community. We're no longer butting heads where one force is pulling, and the other is pushing."
"Live Inside the Music"
That's especially true with audio solutions. "Our goal is to create a way to 'live inside the music,' and this is best done when the experience can be as seamless as possible," says Binal. He notes that a recent addition to Crestron's speaker line does just that: "The Ultimate IC3 ceiling speaker is a great example of integrating the design aesthetics alongside the audio experience. The speaker provides a full-range audio solution while only revealing a tiny three-inch grille — all the magic takes place behind the sheetrock." Designed for new construction applications, the hidden "box behind the speaker" is responsible for its performance. The speaker's flanges and grille aesthetics match Crestron's lighting fixtures for a more uniform look across a ceiling.
As for the rest of the Crestron speaker line, says Binal, "The products in the balance of the residential portfolio are 100 millimeters (or four inches) or less, so it makes it much more flexible to go into drywall. As long as a builder is using standard two-by-four construction, it will fit in there versus some of our competitors that have six- or eight-inch-deep speakers." As Crestron's partnership with Origin Acoustics evolved, the performance of Crestron's in-wall speakers became equivalent to competing models that are twice the size. Additionally, says Binal, "Our six- and our eight-inch diameter in-ceiling speakers use the same exact cutout ring." This makes for speedier installations and upgrades without making any new cuts in the wallboard.
Amps, Racks, and Streaming
Of course, speakers are just one part of the audio equation.
"Our DM NAX streaming amplifiers have all the audio sources built in, so that means you'll need less equipment," says Binal. "It's all rack-friendly gear. We do have new products with form factors that could be hidden under tables or behind displays." Ultimately, as the technology progresses, the source components become easier and easier to hide.
However, it's true that the modern smart home — especially those in the luxury segment — will need some dedicated square footage for racks and ventilation. The upside? An equipment rack is a handy replacement for an audio cabinet chewing up pricey square footage. "Let's suppose that cabinet covers six square feet or so," says Arcenal. "Rather than taking up that living space — which in a lot of cities can average thousands of dollars per square foot — you're taking over a closet space that can power multiple rooms." (A caveat — vinyl enthusiasts or those interested in pieces such as high-end "statement speakers" should rest assured: With a knowledgeable integrator, that gear can work and play well with larger systems.)
The shift to streaming (and digital) content has also all but eliminated the need for physical media, which chews up room itself. "It 'cleans up' the entire experience," says Binal. "Everything from movies to music can now be delivered digitally, from one or two rack-mounted devices — and should anything ever need service, that centralized location is the only place that will need a technician's attention."
"What's more, these amps come with digital signal processing that can help 'tune' the system to an individual room or even an outdoor deployment," he adds.
The Art of Control
There's another part of any system that deserves equal attention: How does one control it? Keypad, touch screen, perhaps voice? Arcenal notes, "One of the most beautiful things about Crestron is the flexibility. We make everything. We offer that end-to-end solution. You're not tied to just one aesthetic." So whether it's a touch screen customized to a specific user or a keypad with an elegant finish, it will fit seamlessly into the overall design. "So it's really up to the user as far as what kind of functionality they want in any one space," she adds. "From there, it's as easy as picking a finish and where that interface should go." The heart of that control is the Crestron Home® OS, a platform that can handle every aspect of the modern connected residence.
Another thing that clients need to be aware of: Sound travels, and can intrude into unwanted spaces. "We've got a lot of accessories, like acoustic back boxes and highly dampened speaker enclosures, to help protect from audio bleeding into adjacent spaces," says Binal. This is especially important in multiple-dwelling units. There are a variety of construction techniques that can "sound isolate" a room should a client want a dedicated home cinema that won't rattle the neighbors during a big galactic battle scene, and a knowledgeable integrator will be very familiar with those solutions.
Making a System "Future-Ready"
"The design/build community has become very well-versed in the manner these systems are installed — and the likelihood that they'll be expanded and upgraded in the future," says Arcenal. Preparing for that expansion by "pre-wiring" — running cable where it may be needed one day, even if there's no speaker at the end of a wire quite yet — can offer a client huge savings later on. "We can't stress that enough," says Arcenal. "We know that our clients are going to want to scale up at some point. As new technologies come out, the people that are passionate about these spaces are going to want to integrate them. And just to be able to do that with ease is so key for all of our clients."
"And hardwired solutions are always superior to wireless," adds Binal. "We're building out your infrastructure so that you can actually have the wireless experience, but all your fixed devices are part of the infrastructure. A physical cable helps ensure that devices are always connected and there are no dropouts when you're enjoying your movie or your NFL game."
And those who will want to scale up down the road should rest assured that Crestron's the right choice. "Over the years, we have built a lot of experience in both residential and commercial spaces, spanning from simple huddle rooms to dens to outfitting the largest, most complex outdoor spaces and board rooms," says Binal. "Our high-power solutions support everything from home theaters to lecture halls/presentation spaces. In short, Crestron audio solutions are built to provide the ultimate in flexibility and scalability in most residential, educational, or enterprise environments."