Wired For Sound
Home Entertainment Division Proves Profitable For Comtronics
By Margaret Hooks
When John A. Campau, President of Comtronics, looks at a radio or a CD player, he sees its potential as a source of music to fill an entire house. Ever since his company entered the home entertainment business five years ago, Campau has observed that the demand for full-house music systems and home theater is increasing. In fact, the home entertainment industry as a whole is growing by leaps and bounds. According to the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), some 30 million homes will be wired for music and theater over the next three years.
In Jackson, Campau reports dozens of installations in homes, office buildings, schools, churches, government buildings and warehouses. Residential installations lead commercial installations at a 3:2 ratio. Many new homeowners now want every room in the house wired for music. Some of them are also designating one room in the home as a surround-sound home theater center.
Call it serendipity or chalk it up to being in the right place at the right time, but for whatever reason, Campau explains that Comtronics got into the home entertainment business as a natural extension of its alarm system installations. “We’re low-voltage contractors and have been for 40 years,” he says. “When we were installing home alarm systems, customers would often ask us to run wire for their stereo speakers. It made sense. After all, the Comtronics technician, already knowledgeable about running wire, was on site with a truck packed with materials, drills, ladders and wire. As we got more and more requests to run wire for music – and we realized no one else in town was doing it – we decided to create a separate home entertainment division.”
The new home entertainment division, started in 1993, is the third of Comtronics’ three divisions. The communications division, started in 1958, focuses on business telephone systems, two-way radio communications, fiber optic cabling and computer wiring. The security division, started in 1968, installs window contacts, motion detectors, door contacts, alarms and video-surveillance cameras.
Music in every room
Installing alarms has given Comtronics a definite advantage in the home entertainment business, says Campau. “We’re already on site, and we always suggest it to the homeowner. For many of them, it makes good sense to add the music system while the house is being built.” Installations are easiest in new construction, when the wire can be run before the drywall is hung. Comtronics has a working relationship with approximately 20 premier home building companies in the area. “Right now we have nearly 20 jobs in progress in new homes, including The Woods and The Legends at the Country Club and the Belote subdivision off Horton Road,” Campau points out. “We also have three homes with whole – house music systems in the Parade of Homes.”
Comtronics technicians have been asked to tackle elementary tasks such as installing two speakers wired to an AM/FM receiver, but most of the work is more elaborate. Most customers opt for a pair of speakers and a volume control in each room in their home. The rooms are wired individually, so the music can be turned up, down or off from each locale. Flush-mount speakers are installed right in the wall. When covered with a coat of paint they virtually disappear. “The music seems to be coming out of nowhere,” says Campau.
Customers pay an average of $400 per room to wire a room with two speakers and a volume control into the customer’s choice of music source – a CD player, an AM/FM stereo receiver or a cassette player. A room can be wired to more than one source for an extra $200 per source. Then, for a few hundred dollars more, Comtronics will install a keypad that allows the home owner to switch from one music source to another, room by room. Campau explains, “Say you’ve got a CD playing throughout the house, and a cut comes on that you don’t like. You’re in the bedroom and use your keypad to advance the CD to another cut or switch over to the radio. The original tune is still playing in the rest of the house, but in your bedroom it’s been changed. Whatever you can do at the source unit you can also do from the individual rooms.” The total cost can be as much as $2,000 per room, depending on the caliber of the speakers and the number of extra features.
For commercial accounts, the speakers are usually installed in the ceiling, flush with the ceiling tiles. Individual volume controls can be installed in every room so people can adjust the sound level, or turn off the source. In the new site of a local insurance company, Comtronics installed 35 speakers, one in every room. “We also added individual volume controls in every room and wired all of it into a CD player.” The company took advantage of Comtronics’ other services to install an alarm system, fiber optic cabling, computer wiring and a phone system. Clients like this are called “grand slam” customers, according to Campau. “When a customer takes on four of our different product lines, we give them a three-year no-questions-asked warranty on all parts and labor,” he adds. “We try to make it worth their while to deal with only one company.”
The theater in your home
Home theaters let customers reproduce movie sound in their homes exactly as it was recorded in Hollywood – “exactly” being the operative word. And that’s what customers pay for. A typical acoustically balanced, soundproof theater room costs from $3,000 to $5,000, Campau says. For that money customers get six “Surround Sound” speakers – three in front, two in the back and a woofer on the floor – plus a hi-fi VCR, a Dolby Prologic receiver and a 36-inch television. Home theater systems that include an overhead projector and large screen start at $4,000. The results are extremely impressive, Campau adds: “Imagine watching the scene from the film Top Gun where the F-14 jets are flying overhead. You’d swear they were coming right at you!”
Of course, the higher the quality of the projector, screen and speakers, the higher the cost of the installation. Order top-of-the-line equipment and the costs may run anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000. Comtronics sells, installs and services all the equipment. The company’s largest home entertainment customer to date is the owner of a 10,000 square-foot, multi-million dollar home in Marshall who wanted the entire house wired for music and had two home theaters installed. “This owner has it all,” Campau says. “One of the theater rooms has 60 speakers, a large 10-foot screen and a movie-theater-quality projector.”
Training for growth
As head of the home entertainment division at Comtronics, John Campau makes sure he and his technicians keep pace with new technology. “We read everything we can, we go to trade shows to see what’s new, and we attend training seminars,” he explains. “To us, it’s well worth the effort because the technology changes constantly.” The home entertainment industry is already a multi-million dollar industry, and growing bigger each year. In 1994 the average installation cost was $2,750; last year it was $4,295. “What is more staggering than the size of the industry is the speed of its growth,” Campau points out. “Growth rates of 68 percent or more are not uncommon among dealers. We anticipate that Comtronics’ home entertainment division will have nearly 100 percent growth in 1998 over 1997.” To keep pace with anticipated increase in demand for installations, companies like Comtronics will need to attract and keep skilled employees. This is a challenge Campau hopes to meet by cross-training the entire technical staff. “Everyone here receives cross training,” he says. “Of the 13 technicians on staff, only four install whole house music on a regular basis. But when we need to get a job done, we can pull from a team of 13. So far we’ve been able to keep up with the demand.” JM
Reprinted with permission from Jackson Magazine
Copyright November 1998