HTA Tag

Ep. 5: How to Find the Perfect Integrator

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Episode 5 opens with hosts Michael Gaughn and Dennis Burger setting the stage for a discussion of technology integrators—what used to be called “custom installers”—the people you hire to install TVs, speakers, projectors, and security and lighting systems.

 

At 3:39, Josh Christian of the Home Technology Association, Eric Thies of DSI Luxury Technology in Los Angeles, Ed Gilmore of Gilmore’s Sound Advice in New York, and our our own John Sciacca join Mike & Dennis to discuss Eric’s “How to Find the Perfect Integrator” and John’s “Why HTA Is the Real Deal,” and to talk about how HTA can help somebody locate the right integrator to install their technology.

 

At 42:47, Mike, Dennis, and John talk about some of the movies they’ve seen recently—including The Umbrella Academy, Ralph Wrecks the Internet, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; Mike talks about Pixar’s decline; and John discusses his fondness for the Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

PODCAST GUESTS

Josh Christian, director of certification, Home Technology Association

Ed Gilmore, owner & founder, Gilmore’s Sound Advice, New York, NY

John Sciacca, co-owner, Custom Theater & Audio, Murrells Inlet, SC

Eric Thies, principal, DSI Luxury Technology, Los Angeles

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RELATED POSTS

Why HTA is the Real Deal

Why HTA is the Real Deal

During the lengthy period where my career as a custom installer (beginning in March of 1998) and my role as technology editor (starting around 2000) have overlapped, I’ve written numerous posts similar to Eric Thies’ recent, “How to Find the Perfect Integrator.”

 

Sadly, none of them seem to have made much of a difference.

 

I agree with everything Eric said, but principally that most people take almost no time to vet their technology integrator. The bar being so low to becoming an integrator—most states will let you place a magnet on the side of your truck and call yourself Joe’s AV without even requiring a license for low-voltage work—has led to a glut of terrible work, and dissatisfied customers.

 

Over the years, our company, Custom Theater and Audio, has resurrected numerous projects for people who let the most random people into their homes to handle the technology install. Even though they comprehend that it’s too complicated for them to do, for whatever reason they think that virtually anyone else is qualified to handle their technology needs. I’m not even kidding when I say that some people say they hired “some guy” that was walking through the neighborhood putting leaflets on doors, had the flooring guy do it, used the electrician, used someone the electrician knew, etc. The tragedy is that most of these people ended up spending good money to get a system that was never right for their needs, never worked right, and then had to pay us more to come in and fix or replace it.

 

This is exceptionally frustrating and, frankly, bad for the entire industry because all installation companies end up being lumped together in the minds of people who have been burned by a bad installation. And them passing on their bad experience to others tarnishes the good along with the bad.

 

That’s one of the reasons why the Home Technology Association (HTA) mentioned in Eric’s post intrigued me: Could this certification identify the best integration firms and help the cream rise to the top? This would not only help customers looking to hire a good company but (more selfishly) help my company stand out as one of the good guys.

 

HTA’s Director of Certification, Josh Christian, says the goal of certification is to do for the custom installation industry what the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has done for diamonds, allowing anyone to walk into virtually any reputable jewelry store and know that they’re purchasing a stone that has been independently verified for quality.

 

While HTA doesn’t guarantee that selecting a certified professional will result in terrific performance or outcome, in a sea of uncertainty, it certainly offers a beacon to help guide customers towards making a more informed selection from a pre-qualified group of top candidates.

 

My company recently went through the application process to became HTA Certified, and I can attest that it is a rigorous process, taking me several hours to research and gather all of the required information. Compared to the CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association) application, which has you fill out a single-page form asking only the most basic information (company address, size, gross revenue) and credit card information, and essentially approves any company willing to pay the $500 annual registration, HTA mines far deeper into how a company actually operates.

 

Josh said the application process is so thorough for two reasons. First, it helps HTA identify the best-in-class installation companies and provide a real look into their business operations and the kinds of jobs they do. Second, the sheer length and breadth of it scares away exactly the kinds of companies they want to avoid. (As does the $400 application fee, which has the applying company putting some skin in the game.)

Why the HTA is the Real Deal

Once certified, companies are listed on HTA’s website. (Click here—or on the image above-—to see our company page.) A consumer looking to hire an installation firm can get a pretty good idea if a company is going to be a good fit for their needs.

 

How long have they been in business?
Longevity is generally a good indicator that the company will be around when you need service down the road. Also, “bad” companies usually don’t last. The average HTA certified company has been around for almost 17 years.

 

How many employees do they have?
Larger companies can often handle bigger projects and respond to service issues faster.

 

What areas do they service?
Working with a company that’s near your home often means quicker response times and no trip charges.

 

What kinds of projects do they focus on?
If you’re building a $15 million, 20,000 square-foot home, selecting a company that focuses on $500,000, 3,500 square-foot homes might not be a good fit.

 

What brands are they authorized to sell?
This will give you a look at the quality of gear the company can provide. This can also be important if you’re interested in a specific automation system like Control4, Crestron, or Savant, as dealers often specialize in one, but not all.

 

How many projects have they done over the past 3 years in different price categories?
A good snapshot of how busy the company is, and the focus of their projects.

 

What does a typical dedicated theater and media room install cost?
It’s a good idea to see if your budgets align with the company’s typical installs. HTA’s website also has a 20-question budgeting tool that can be very useful for getting a rough idea of what your project’s budget range should be.

 

What industry awards and certifications do they have?
Bad companies generally don’t win awards or attain industry certifications.

 

What are their service policies?
No matter how good your system is, at some point it will need to be serviced, and knowing the company’s after-sale policy upfront is a good way to avoid any frustration later on.

 

HTA understands that its certification will only mean something if it actually means something, not only to the industry but to people looking to hire an integration firm. They’re trying to do this by only letting in the best firms, and raising awareness with architects, builders, designers, and consumers that choosing a qualified—ideally certified—integration firm matters.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How to Find the Perfect Integrator

How to Find the Perfect Integrator

I have been a technology integrator for more than two decades, and many consider me an industry expert. I have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Worth, USA Today, and many other publications. My firm has won over a hundred industry awards, and our systems have been featured in world-famous media outlets like E!, HGTV, Fox, NBC, Architectural Digest, and Esquire. Not to boast, but on paper I look pretty impressive. Trust me, I am pretty underwhelming in person, but my team has accomplished a lot of cool stuff over the years.

 

I bring all of this up because I think I’m a pretty obvious choice if you want a top-tier integrator to deck out your new home with the latest and greatest technologies. Maybe I’m not the only choice, but at least a top contender, right?

 

Well, the reality is that most homeowners don’t really factor any of that stuff in when they choose a technology integrator. They tend to make really bad decisions and hire really bad integrators—or worse, they let some other trade like electricians,

How to Find the Perfect Integrator

security guys, or IT guys perform this very specialized work.

 

Why don’t consumers do any due diligence when technology plays such an important role in everyone’s lives?

 

And why hasn’t everyone caught on to the dirty little secret of the custom installation industry? 

 

What is the dirty little secret? 

A private equity firm that wanted to invest in the luxury home automation market recently surveyed homeowner’s who purchased home technology systems. The results were staggering. Over 50% of homeowners with home automation systems were “unsatisfied” with their technology. This is a lower satisfaction rate than cable companies and cellphone companies (historically the lowest industry satisfaction rates). So again, what is the dirty little secret?

 

Most installation firms . . . stink.

 

Why?

 

The AV and automation industry is the wild west. There is no government regulation, incredibly little formalized training, and in many states no licensing whatsoever is required. Anybody can pretty much hang their shingle and claim to be an AV expert regardless of their abilities. Even if there is a contractor’s license requirement, it has more to do with building guidelines than technical expertise in systems deployment. There are probably about 15,000 companies nationwide that call themselves “AV guys” or “integrators.” I would only let about 10% of them into my home. 

Well, most folks can instinctively tell the difference between a great firm and a fly-by-night, right? 

 

Uh . . . NO!

 

Unfortunately, most consumers know little to nothing about technology and have lots of anxiety about hiring a tech firm. Given that, anybody who walks in their door and has more knowledge than them will seem like an expert.

 

The typical decision-making process goes like this: “Who does my neighbor use?” “Who seemed like a nice guy?” 

“Who does my interior designer like?” There is typically no research on the firm, no reference checks, and most importantly no vetting to see if the firm they like has done a project of the scope and scale or has any expertise in the products they want to use. The guy who did a soundbar installation for your brother-in-law may not be the right guy to completely automate your home with Crestron, Savant, or Lutron—or deliver that amazing home theater experience.

 

Most consumers approach this industry thinking that most companies are probably reputable, probably sell the same stuff, and roughly have the same technical knowledge. But the reality—as people in the industry know—is much different.

 

So how does someone hire the right firm? Here are some simple question to ask:

 

Can I speak to three recent clients with similar scope and size projects?

You don’t want to be a guinea pig for this firm. They should have a proven track record of similar projects.

Are you a dealer for all of this stuff we want?

You need to be able to get support on the product in your home. If the integrator can’t get the manufacturer to answer a call, you’re in trouble.

 

What is your service policy and how do I get help after you install this stuff?

Most companies falter after the sale. They have no formal process to handle servicing their clients and typically devote all of their resources and staff to the big projects in process (with the big checks being handed out) and not the $150 service call. Find out how they handle service requests and after-hours problems, and if they have dedicated staff to address service issues.

 

Do you do all this work with in-house staff or do you subcontract any of it out?

Again, back to service. You want the company to be able to service you after the fact without relying on a pile of other subcontractors.

HTA Logo

A terrific resource to help you find a great integrator is the Home Technology Association. This is the first group to realize that 90% of companies in this trade wear clown shoes.

 

They have developed a certification system that puts integrators through the ringer so consumers can dramatically improve their chances of success. Each HTA Certified company must have a minimum of nine references from industry experts, design/build pros, and manufacturers. They must demonstrate that they have technical proficiency, have a great history of customer service, and have a stellar industry reputation.

 

I have been through the application process, and it is impossible to pass certification unless you are an exceptional company. They also do a terrific job of segregating the installers into three tiers: Estate—if you are a gajillionaire building a giant house; Luxury—if you are just a regular wealthy person; and Foundation—for the guys like me with regular-size homes. The HTA is the easy button for selecting an integrator, and as an integrator, the list of certified companies is really strong. It represents the best of the best.

 

E.T.

These are just a few easy ones to get you towards making a good choice. The bottom line is, don’t hire a technology partner unless you ask the important questions and do some research. Remember, the chances of you having a happy tech experience is less than 50% unless you do a little homework. You don’t have to understand tech in order to pick a great company.

Eric Thies

Eric Thies is the Founder of DSI Luxury Technology in Los Angeles. Eric is a board member
of Azione and an unpaid and overworked volunteer for the Home Technology Association.

So You Think Your Room’s Bad, Pt. 6

Six installments in, we’ve arrived at the end of our tale about turning a trade show booth into a reference-quality home cinema space. But we’re not here to pat ourselves on the back. Yes, the demo room ultimately drew scores of visitors, and praise from the people who experienced it.

 

But this series of posts was meant to be inspirational, not self-congratulatory. Our aim was to encourage you to not give up on “problem” spaces until you’ve exhausted all the possibilities. The technology and expertise definitely now exist to turn rooms that would have once been dismissed as impossible into killer luxury home entertainment spaces.

 

Here are the key takeaways:

 

Even rooms with weird dimensions can make for a great home theater

If we had focused all of our design efforts exclusively on performance, there’s no way we would have chosen an overgrown bay window as the geometrical inspiration for our room. The hacked-off corners inside the room were driven by the various needs of the outside of the booth. But with the right choice of gear and some optimization with the speaker placement, we made this kooky space sound great.

For more on how to make non-symmetrical rooms work 

to your advantage, see Part 1 and Part 2

 

Choose your speakers carefully—not all luxury speaker systems are made the same

This doesn’t mean that one speaker is necessarily the best answer for all applications. Speaker systems come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and configurations. Some are designed like audio spotlights. Some deliver a wider swath of sound. Some subwoofers are designed for in-ceiling placement. Of course, if you don’t have attic space to work with, you might opt for in-wall subs, or even discreet in-room subs (like we did). The point is, you shouldn’t just assume that a speaker is a speaker. Find the right solution for your unique room.

For more on choosing the right speakers, see Part 3

 

Room correction can eliminate a lot of a “bad” room’s worst flaws

It wasn’t that long ago that the room-correction software solutions built into most surround sound systems created more problems than they solved, but in recent years they’ve made monumental improvements. These days, a good room correction system can practically eliminate the need for big bass traps and other gargantuan physical acoustical treatments. And the best of these solutions can even correct for sub-optimal speaker placement.

For more about room correction, see Part 4

 

Acoustic treatments can help solve the problems room correction can’t fix

Since room correction still struggles with some acoustical problems, don’t turn your nose up at physical acoustical treatments. You may find that you can even work these treatments into your interior design.

For more about acoustic treatments, see Part 5

 

And maybe most important of all:

 

Creating a premium entertainment space is a team effort, so pick your players wisely

If, for whatever reason, subtle acoustical treatments are an absolute no-no in your luxury entertainment space, encourage your integrator and designer to work together on alternative solutions. A carefully placed bookshelf or even draperies positioned in the right place can work wonders for the sound of your room. But this requires that all of the

Jack Shafton, Golden Ear VP of Marketing & Sales
GoldenEar’s Jack Shafton on the Finished Booth

 

GoldenEar VP of Marketing & Sales Jack Shafton co-authored the 3rd installment of this series with Dennis Burger. Here’s his reaction to experiencing the completed booth at the CEDIA convention in San Diego this past September:

 

“Upon seeing the finished product when the show opened, I was impressed with how the booth turned out (it looked great and highly functional), and also alarmed by the openness of the demo space. There was already a big crowd milling about the booth (kudos to Kaleidescape) and the theater demo was standing room only. The space was basically open to the show floor, just behind a draped entryway. I waited for the next showing and grabbed a seat before the room filled. I should have known, but the demo of Baby Driver caught me by surprise—this system, in this terrible room, just rocked! And other than the small subs, the sound system was basically invisible. It presented a seamless bubble of sound around and above with pinpoint imaging, and the the subs made the air move with a thunder. Of course I kept thinking ‘louder, make it louder’ because it was fun—although they had chosen a good compromise on volume level. I got the impression after the demo that the other people in the room would have liked to kick back and watch the whole movie!”

players respect one another and their specific design expertise. There will always be some give-and-take. All parties will have to compromise at some point. But if you can find collaborators who know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, your luxury entertainment space will be all the better for it.

 

If you’re ready to tame a problem space but aren’t sure where to look for help, the Home Technology Association (HTA) can be a great resource. And, by continuing to showcase unusual but successful home entertainment rooms, we at Cineluxe will do whatever we can to lend a hand.

 

Before we wrap this up, we’d like to thank some of the greatest experts in the business—in particular, Jack Shafton at GoldenEar, Jon Herron at Trinnov, and Anthony Grimani at PMI—for making our pitifully small demo room sound way bigger and better than it ever should have. And we’d like to wish all of you luck with turning your own problem rooms into amazing sight and sound experiences.

Dennis Burger & Michael Gaughn

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.