Plan a Whole-Home AV System

Planning a house-wide audio and video system? This guide will get you started on the path to music and video, everywhere.


Design by DSI Entertainment; photography by Berlyn Photography

Design by DSI Entertainment; photography by Berlyn Photography

By: Krissy Rushing

Imagine pausing a movie in the living room, then starting it at the same spot from the comfort of your bedroom. Or having a party where the music moves with you, playing seamlessly whether guests are in the kitchen, the living room or on the patio. This sort of whole-house AV system distributes sources — such as satellite TV or a DVD player — to different environments or zones, throughout the home. Sources are centralized in one location (known as the "head end"), giving you the convenience and joy of your music, movies and media in any room.

20 Must-See Media Room Designs

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The design possibilities are endless when it comes to creating an elegant, inviting dedicated media room. In this urban space, a custom frame and a welded-steel support "float" the backlighted screen in the urban condo pictured here. White LED lights create a custom glow around the screen. The spiral staircase leads from the media room to an upper-level living area.

Originally a garage, this media room doubles as the client's boardroom. The TV acts as a video monitor and LAN network device for work presentations.

This room has open space for card tables, a foosball table and a large wine bar, and it also allows ambient light for daytime activities. As for its media room role, it has custom sconces that won't rattle during movie explosions, reclinable seating and a 120-by-68-inch acoustically transparent woven-microfiber screen that conceals the center speaker. The projector is concealed in a noise-reduction soffit to ensure clean architectural lines.

His and hers HD DVRs as well as two additional DVRs for guests takes this charming living room to the next level of entertainment. Homeowners have access to four DirecTV HD DVRs, Blu-Ray movies, AppleTV content, ROKU content, a computer and dual Mirage Media sources such as Pandora, Rhapsody, LastFM, XM radio, iTunes music and an iPod dock.

This room's 65-inch plasma display is recessed for a clean, polished and unobtrusive installation. A massive hearth made of native stone visually dominates the rustic room, and all the speakers and the subwoofer were positioned in the ceiling so they wouldn’t distract the eye.

When it's time to watch a movie in this room, the projector drops out of the ceiling and the screen drops down from a reclaimed beam in the ceiling. The control system allows the house sources to be shared in the media room along with a local Blu Ray player.

Photo By: Alex Fenlon

Hand-scraped wood floors and traditional design details anchor this luxe living room, which features discreetly placed audio and video components for a high-end entertainment experience that doesn't overshadow the room's design. Design by Audio Video Interiors

Photo By: HOWARD TUCKER 216-696-4616

Genesis Audio & Video turned an unused shell above a garage into a multifunctional media room to a include access to the house-wide DVD and music server, in addition to the home's security cameras, the Internet and house-wide lighting controls. Rather than hang the projector from a pole in the ceiling, technicians used a cantilevered wall mount to install it sleekly at the top of the rear wall. Photo courtesy of Genesis Audio & Video

Go back in time and spend a night at the movies with this Hollywood-inspired media masterpiece. The audio system features eight powered woofers, 10 surround speakers and three massive screen speakers. That equals 8,400 conservative system watts. Design by by Cantara Design, Interior Design by Slayman Design Associates

A large projection screen drops in front of the flat-screen TV from the 10-foot ceiling when the owner of this home wants to watch a movie. The movie screen drops enough to hide the television but doesn't cover the surround-sound system's front speakers.

Photo By: Barry Schwartz

In the 2013 HGTV Smart Home canvas artwork retracts to reveal flat-screen TVs. When not in use, TV covers scroll down to create a framed art experience. The media system is controled by a smart tablet or Web-enabled device

Photo By: Eric Perry

Moore Audio Design tamed reflective surfaces with acoustic treatments identically matched to the paint color, and added an area rug. Window treatments help eliminate natural light, while a Screen Innovations 97-inch Black Diamond Zero Edge screen amplifies light coming from the projector. Aside from the main screen, homeowners can view either of the 40-inch Samsung LED TVs if they are playing poker or getting a snack in the back of the room. Floorstanding surround speakers by MartinLogan offer true, immersive surround sound that is hard to beat. Photography by Jim Schmid Photography

Photo By: Jim Schmid Photography

This inviting room combines traditional design with a high-tech home system that allows homeowners control heating, security, and the entertainment hub. Design by Architectural Electronics, Inc.

Photo By: CEDIA

Optimized for both daytime and nighttime, this room lets viewers choose from a recess-mounted flatscreen and a projection screen that resides in the ceiling when not in use. Design by Starr Systems Design


For must-have media room products, the Panasonic ZT60 series is one of the most venerated TVs available, with stunning image quality. The My Home Screen feature allows you to personalize your experience and seamlessly integrate apps and content as you choose.

With a custom-cast space to fit the TV and a specialty finish on the TV frame, this room provides the best in entertainment without interrupting the design appeal of the home. Design by Starr Systems Design

A swivel-mounted flatscreen lets homeowners follow the action on the screen from all angles, including above. Photo courtesy of Innerspace Electronics, Inc.

With 5.1 surround sound and a sleek recess-mounted plasma TV, this cozy retreat overlooking the kitchen offers a change of pace in this combination live/work residence. Design by Beyond Home Theater

From family movie night to prime-time sporting events, the geometric patterns and artwork, a commanding 85" plasma TV and a full bar area set the stage for everyday this media room. Design by Starr Systems Design

Photo By: Alan Gilbert

In the 2012 HGTV Green Home a 59-inch flat-screen TV, mounted above the fireplace, is a family room focal point. When mounting a TV above the fireplace make sure seating is located far enough back to avoid irritating neck strain.

Photo By: Eric Perry

Planning Basics

To plan for a whole-house system, you will most likely need the help of a qualified AV installer.

Find a location.

The first step is to determine where you want the AV zones and the head end. Josh Christian, VP of marketing for DSI Entertainment Systems, recommends a head-end location with climate control to keep equipment from overheating. You can also purchase a fan or cooling system for $50-$200.

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Get the right wires.

After you choose the sources that will go into this centralized rack, it's time to wire. Even if you don't plan to set up equipment right away, wire is cheap enough to install during construction/remodeling to avoid the hassle of retrofitting it later. For video, Christian recommends a minimum of CAT5E wire for distances up to 320 feet from the head end, beyond which, fiber-optic cable is a must. HDBaseT, the latest CAT standard, bundles video, audio connections, Ethernet and up to 100W of power into one cable for even easier installation.

"We commonly distribute pristine high-definition video throughout large homes without any issue using these technologies," says Christian. "You will also need some AV distribution components that can accept the various sources’ signals and convert them to a format that can be sent over this wiring."

For audio, you will need to run in-wall rated speaker wire of the correct gauge to speaker locations. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers from companies like Speakercraft, Bose, Sonance and Klipsch ($100-$400/pair) are a popular choice for whole-home AV because they are unobtrusive and don't need to be plugged into electrical outlets.

Less-invasive wireless ecosystems from companies like Sonos and Bose are an increasingly popular choice, and can be installed for as little as $300 a room. You don't have to run wire to these speakers, but most need to be plugged into an electrical outlet. "I wouldn't go beyond eight wireless zones. The more zones you add, the more congested your wireless network becomes, and both your wired and wireless speeds will slow down," says Christian.

While there are some great wireless systems on the market, they may not be the right solution for those who want top-notch sound quality. "With wireless, there is still a possibility of lost connections, bandwidth limitations and interference problems. Wired audio provides a strong signal path and protection from outside influence. For those with a sensitive ear, a wired speaker solution will provide the best outcome," says Dave Ohlendorf, lead programmer at Bekins.

Control It All

Finally, you'll need a remote control system that can communicate through walls with centralized equipment. Home automation manufacturers like URC, RTI, Crestron, Control4, Savant and AMX have easy-to-use control systems ($250-$10,000 depending on system scope) and apps that transform your smartphone or tablet into a controller. "The control interface is the most important factor. If the user interface is not intuitive and functional, it doesn't matter how well the rest of the components work," says Ohlendorf.

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