Designing a Custom Installation (Jan. 1976)

Home | Audio Magazine | Stereo Review magazine | Good Sound | Troubleshooting

Departments | Features | ADs | Equipment | Music/Recordings | History

By Paul Seydor

IF YOU'VE often glanced enviously at custom stereo installations while paging through audio or decorating magazines, perhaps you are also less than fully satisfied with the present arrangement of your system, especially if it appears as just so many black or gold anodized boxes stacked one on top the other with electronic spaghetti tangled up around them. You might be surprised, however, to discover that a custom installation is neither so difficult nor so expensive to make as you may fear.

I designed and built both installations pictured here with absolutely no previous experience or training in carpentry and woodwork. My own installation, the display panel built into a closet doorway, cost under $30 (excluding tools), which is less than most of the decorative cases manufacturers sell to dress up individual components. The other installation, a home-entertainment ensemble that I made for a close friend and his wife when they redecorated, was more expensive, but still only a fraction of the cost of an equally commodious store-bought ensemble like those sold by the "custom" manufacturers.

No tools more complex than a screwdriver, a level, a 1/4-inch electric drill, and a light-duty sabre saw were required. (My drill and sabre saw are both Black and Decker models, costing under $10 each). I needed the sabre saw to cut out the holes for flush mounting; all the rest of the cutting was done to my specifications by the lumber yard where I purchased the wood (most lumber yards offer this service, provided you buy the wood from them and ask only for straight, squared-off cuts). The trick, of course, is to do all your designing, planning, and measuring on paper before you order the wood or start cutting. The first thing to do is to interview yourself. Exactly what functions must the installation serve (merely to organize and display the equipment attractively, or to be a complete home-control and entertainment center, or just to hide the equipment when it isn't in use)? You will have to make a thorough appraisal of the present state and future development of your sound system. Do you have the equipment you want to use for some time to come or are additions and replacements imminent? What about four-channel? Be fairly thorough but realistic in this appraisal, yet don't cramp your system's possibilities for expansion if your enthusiasms take you in that direction.

You will also want to appraise your living conditions, primarily to determine a location for the installation.

Probably you will want to install the source and signal-amplification components in the same room as the speakers. If this room is a multi-activity room, like a living room or a den, you should select a location not inconveniently out of the way but also try to avoid high-traffic areas. Chair-side accessibility to controls is a nice idea, but hardly practical if you regularly use your coffee and end tables for serving snacks and drinks, or if your children occasionally turn the living room into a gymnasium.

------------This drawer from author's closet installation holds spare wire, signal cables, tools, etc. (top two drawers were removed for photo). Square lathing was used instead of slides; drawers were made from 1/2-in. A.D. plywood.

Type of Installation

Deciding upon a location is, of course, difficult without simultaneously considering what kind of installation is going to go there. Here are three basic installation designs that can, with some modification, be accommodated to a broad variety of listening rooms:

(1) A complete installation, that is, an installation built right into the existing structure of the room. Any closet or doorway of marginal utility will do. I built mine into a large, gloomy walk-in closet that had been strategically ill-placed between the living room and the kitchen. If you own your home, you can build an installation right into a wall (though not an exterior wall). Since this is an extreme measure, you should proceed very cautiously, paying close attention to what is on the other side of the wall (a walk-in closet would be ideal) and being fairly certain that you're committed to the present arrangement of the furniture.

(2) The wall-ensemble, shown here, became the focal point of the living room and looks almost built-in.

It functions as a total audio-visual center, as a storage and display unit, and as a general room-organizer. The construction itself is modular, breaking down for easy portability into three bottom units, three top units, and two cabinets (one for components, the other for liquor). Usually it is a good idea to keep speaker systems out of the source- and signal-component installation, because of potential acoustic feedback and inadequate spread between the speakers. This rule was broken here, as the floors were sturdy enough (a prerequisite for any floor-standing installation), the ensemble massive enough, and the span wide enough that acoustic feedback and insufficient speaker separation weren't a problem.

(3) A free-standing column, about six-feet high, two feet or more square, one side of which serves as the display panel for flush mounted components, the other sides of which serve as whatever you design them for--shallow shelves to display knickknacks, plants, books, and so forth, or bare sides for hanging pictures. This design has many virtues, especially for apartment dwellers, as there is no need to mar walls to set it up, and it solves the problem of rear-access to the components. Simply cut a large hole in the side of the column opposite the back of the components, and when you're not using the hole to get at the components, cover it with a suitably large print, painting, or wall-hanging.

Rear access to equipment is, of course, the most vexing problem with custom installations. If you have little interest in equipment as such, and your installation will be a "once only, thank goodness that's done" affair, then you shouldn't be overly concerned with designing in quick and easy access. If, however, you enjoy trying out the latest preamplifier or tape deck, then you'll want to plan something that won't involve wholesale destruction every time you want to patch in a new piece of equipment.

Apropos of which, you might want to consider making up a patch panel for this purpose. (That's going to be the next addition to my installation). You should be aware of two potential problems, which I discovered almost too late when I built the first of these installations. Hum fields from power supplies tend to be more potent and pervasive in the vertical than in the horizontal plane. If components are to be in a stacked configuration, then you will want to know in advance just how close they can be to one another and you can check this easily enough. Turn the volume control to a slightly higher setting than you ever listen to music at, do the same with the bass tone-control (you might want to turn the treble all the way down), then hold your turntable directly above the amplifier, and have someone measure how close you can lower it toward the amplifier until you begin to hear hum that wasn't there before. Next, leave the turntable in place and repeat the test with the amplifier held above it. Do the same with tape decks, if you have them.

Since you will have a ruler out, measure each piece of equipment in all dimensions. Be certain to do this yourself rather than trust the measurements provided in owner's manuals and advertising literature, which I've often found to be only approximate, and even when precise don't always account for protruding knobs, jacks, and antennae, or the heads of screws used to fasten the protective case to the chassis.

What Goes Where

------This close-up of a turntable opening shows how the night-light functions. In this installation, no discrete dust cover is used, and an unused disc serves to keep dust off the platter.

With your preliminary questions answered, a general idea of what kind of installation you would like and where it is to be located, and your no-hum distances and equipment dimensions in hand, you are ready to sit down with pencil, paper, and ruler.

(1) Layout of components. No matter what kind of installation you decide upon, you should let convenience and ease of operation determine the equipment layout. Look at the kinds of knobs that are used for controls. Note especially where their indicator markings are placed (some knobs, for example, are marked only on the edge, not on the face, which means that the component cannot be placed above eye level, otherwise you won't be able to tell the setting). Take a good look at the placement of all meters, tuning dials, and indicator lights. As your installation will likely be located several feet from your listening chair, there are doubtless some things you'll want to know-volume and tone control settings, whether the system is on at all-without having to get up and walk all the way over to the installation. By all means, do some experimenting here, arranging your components in various configurations and at various heights to see where they can be most conveniently operated.

Perhaps the best advice I can give here is by way of explaining the rationale behind my own layout. I wanted the installation to be a control center, with each component placed for upmost convenience of operation, within, of course, the limitations imposed by location and available space.

The manual turntable, used for most critical work, was placed at shoulder height, for ease of sighting during cueing. The automatic unit was placed lower, because it is automatic and is not much used for dubbing. The tape deck was placed highest, allowing the meters and control settings to be seen from anywhere in the room, and putting the knobs and joystick comfortably at arm's length-not too close, yet not so far that I have to stand on tip-toe to reach them.

The preamplifier was given a center location because, with the power amplifier, it forms the heart of the system. The best reason, however, to place this main control component near the center of any configuration is that it is the only component that will be connected to every other component; thus a central location permits you to work within the lengths of the signal cables provided (especially important for turntables and tone-arms). I put my amplifier up front because I often refer to the meters. If your amplifier has none, or if you don't use them, you can leave it off a display altogether, tucking it out of sight wherever you find most convenient.

I have no tuner in my system. But an ideal placement for one is at eye level, where you can look directly at the tuning dial. This was the placement chosen for the receiver in the other installation shown here.

(2) Turntables. In any display panel there is no way you can flush mount a turntable (or some, though comparatively few, tape decks). Instead, you will have to cut a window into the panel for access to the turntable. The width of the window should be determined by the width of the turntable's base. (If you own a changer and plan to move up to a manual, you should make this window wider than you now need, as changers tend to be more compact than most manuals.) The vertical dimension of the window should be at least ten inches for free and easy operation of a manual or a changer used in the manual mode and 12 inches for a changer used in the changer mode. More height is desirable if you can afford it.

To enclose a turntable window when it is part of a display panel, make a four-sided (top, back and sides) plywood box and then set it, unfastened, on the same shelf as the turntable, its front edge pushed flush against the back of the panel. The advantage to leaving it unfastened, at least in my installation, is that when I'm working behind the panel I can simply lift the box out of the way and thus have access to the turntable from both front and back.

In some installations you may not have room to use the dust cover of your turntable. In my small-town location, I've discovered that if a turntable is used at all frequently, a dust cover doesn't need to do much of a job of keeping dust off. Furthermore, the only dust you really have to worry about is dust on the platter itself, for the prevention of which I recommend cutting out a platter cover from wood, cardboard, or other stiff material. I keep a worn-out record on each platter when the turntables aren't in use.

Such a cover does a superior job of keeping dust away where it counts, and I recommend the use of one even if you do use the turntable's dust cover. A good cleaner is naturally best.

(3) Lighting. For most installations ambient lighting from elsewhere in the room will be sufficient for normal operation of your system, since meters and tuning dials are illuminated.

With turntables installed in hutches or compartments, however, you probably will need more lighting. I cut a hole in the left-hand side (that is, the side opposite the tonearm) of each turntable hutch, fastened an extension cord into the hole, and plugged in a "nite-lite," which provides enough light to find selections on discs yet its seven-watt bulb presents no heat problems. Other ways to tackle lighting are goose-neck and spring-loaded lamps. However, watch out for high-intensity types as they radiate hum.

(4) Ventilation. Heretical as this is no doubt going to sound, I've found that in most installations where transistorized amplifiers are used, heat build-up isn't a serious problem.

However, if heat-producing components are to be installed in extremely tight enclosures (say, with less than two inches of space around the top and sides), then you should install a whisper fan. Too, since the FTC amp power rule, many amps now have their own fans. Other, or additional, ways to provide ventilation is to cut holes in portions of the compartment that the component, when set in place, will hide (the bottom, the bottom back), or to leave off the back of the compartment altogether. This was done with the receiver in the wall-ensemble. In order to achieve a finished appearance, the receiver was framed with a plexiglass escutcheon large enough to cover the front opening of the compartment.

(5) Structure, Support, and Shelving. In any kind of free-standing installation, you will probably have to back at least some portions of the cabinets for sturdiness. At the same time, I recommend that you try to relieve a display panel, if you are planning to have one, of the burden of supporting any equipment weight. There are two good reasons for this. You can use 1/4-in. thick plywood for the panel, which will be the easiest in which to cut out mounting holes with the caliber of sabre saw I referred to earlier.

And if someday you have to cut a new display panel, the job will be easier and less expensive.

No matter what kind of installation you design, the equipment itself will probably rest on shelves or framing.

You have the option of making them either adjustable or non-adjustable; the former permits greater flexibility, the latter greater sturdiness. Just how much of a trade-off you can afford to make between these will depend upon such factors as the size, weight, and number of components, and the size of the installation itself. Small cabinets should be sturdy enough with just a back; larger cabinets will benefit from a back and from shelves or braces that are firmly fastened to the sides. For shelves, sides, tops, and bottoms, 3/4-in. plywood is recommended. It comes in a number of grades and finishes, and depending on the styling you have in mind you will have to select accordingly (for example, if you want a wood-stained appearance, you will have to buy a veneered plywood). The salesman at your local lumber yard can advise you best here and, as well, offer suggestions on the exact shelving hardware you will need. For backing, 1/4-in. masonite is ideal-easy to cut and inexpensive.

(6) Subsequent modifications. The adaptive capacity of any custom installation is always going to be inherently limited. Your success in modifying it for later additions or replacements will be determined by how prescient and ingenious you were when you first designed it. Try not to crowd components too close together, for example. Chances are if you replace, say, your present preamplifier with a newer model, the newer one is going to be larger, so you will want to have some room for enlarging the mounting hole. A more ticklish problem is when the replacement component is smaller than the original. The best way to cope with this is to do what was done to the receiver in the wall ensemble here: simply make an escutcheon that will frame the faceplate and be large enough to cover the portions of the mounting hole that would have shown. And come the day when you have made so many replacements or acquired so many additions, you can just spent a rainy Saturday cutting out a whole new display panel, which will be easy and inexpensive if you followed the advice already offered of not making it support any weight as such and of using 1/4-in. wood.

In many ways, the biggest obstacle to a project like this is overcoming the inertia required to get started. One of the first things to do is go to a library, take out some decorating and stereo publications, and look at the custom installations featured from time to time. Then spend an afternoon browsing through the home improvements section of a good, well-stocked lumber yard. You will familiarize yourself with the kinds of materials available, find booklets that contain lots of valuable construction and assembly tips, and be able to ask the salesman questions (I've found they are eager to help, and most of the time their suggestions resulted, for me, in less work and less expense.) Beyond that, there's not much more that I can do to help you get started. I found both projects to be consistently engaging and equally a challenge, an education, and a delight-a challenge because you will be presented with a series of thoroughly practical problems that you must solve to meet a number of different requirements, an education because to solve the problems you will have to master some skills and learn some things that you probably didn't know before and that you will find valuable long after you've completed the project, and a delight because when finished, you will have an installation that blends your equipment more functionally and harmoniously into the rest of the room, yet that showcases it when you want it to claim the lion's share of attention. Surely no audiophile, professional or amateur, could ask for anything more.


(Audio magazine; Jan. 1976)

Also see:

How We Hear (May 1977)

= = = =

Prev. | Next

Top of Page    Home

Updated: Monday, 2018-10-22 21:27 PST