Some Assembly Required

One of the oddities of writing a column for TV Technology is the firm belief held by all of your friends that you must surely possess magical abilities when it comes to helping them select, install or fix their home television set-up.

When I started writing for this magazine more than a decade and a half ago, this strange perception too often sent me to rooftops to help install a new outdoor antenna. Thankfully, that era is over. Now, we've moved on to the far more complex task of installing - you got it - the new home theater system.

I'm not an engineer, nor do I pretend to be. It doesn't matter. Last month, my next door neighbor - who had just upgraded to Time Warner's new digital cable service in New York City - was ready to take the plunge and upgrade to a surround audio system that could handle the Dolby Digital channels he was now receiving.


Having been brainwashed by too many press conferences assuring me that home theater set-up is now a plug-and-play snap, I foolishly signed on to help. Our first stop was the Sony Style store in New York City, a surreal, theatrically lit space where men in black demonstrate a wide array of impressive systems in comfy living room settings.

The young salesman had mastered Sony's style, but not its products. Because of my neighbor's tiny urban apartment, he guided us to one of Sony's "Dream" systems - a compact, self-contained home theater and DVD playback system in a single box about the size of a small coffin. It looked and sounded fine in Sony's demo space. The features seemed to fit my neighbor's requirements. And most of our questions seemed to have been answered, though the salesman intermittently disappeared to acquire information from another man in black.

I use the word "seemed" here because firm ground began to slip away after my neighbor gave Sony a thousand dollars and we had finally schlepped the huge box into his living room. First, the good news. The Sony components snapped together easily. The wires were color-coded. The five speakers, subwoofer and central component were together and working in half an hour.

Then, however, came the moment of truth: connecting the Sony system to other components. First, we found that Time Warner's set-top box had a coaxial digital output for audio. Sony's box had a fiber optic input. The two physical connectors - though both carried compatible S/PDIF audio - were incompatible.

A call to our Sony salesman resulted in a long silence on the phone: the "gotcha" moment. Sorry folks, he told us, there's no adapter and no way to make it work. Unbelievable! Of course, he was wrong.

Within an hour, after a call to Sam Ash Pro Audio, a courier brought over a coaxial-to-optical adapter. Cost: Nearly $100. Now, at least the digital audio worked.

Since Sony's system offered S-Video out and my neighbor's Hitachi rear-screen projection TV offered S-Video in, we figured this would offer no problem. Wrong again.

What Sony didn't tell us is that the three-device switcher within its main component does not switch S-Video. Only the video from the internal DVD player is sent out S-Video. The VCR and cable channels - you guessed it - are only delivered via the composite video out.

This led to a trip to Radio Shack to purchase a remote-controllable S-Video switcher to use as a workaround to the Sony system. It worked fine, but led to our next problem: creeping complexity. We now had too many components, remote controls and set-up scenarios to easily do the simplest functions.


It was at this point that I understood why Sony and other companies have introduced a new generation of sophisticated central remote controls that are essentially small computers. With the goal of simplification, my neighbor shelled out another $200 for Sony's new RM-AV3000 remote, a device that's about as easy to master as a small Cessna airplane.

This hefty remote allows the programming of macros to string together the complex series of command sequences needed to easily operate the "Dream" system. Once programmed, the press of a single button supposedly triggers all the components to the proper settings.

I say "supposedly." A month has passed since my neighbor and I installed the system. When the right buttons are pushed, it looks and sounds great. However, we are still trying to program all the commands in the remote. I'm confident that one day we'll bring all the pieces together and be able to successfully turn on the system without having a sober designated operator.

In the meantime, I'd like to make an industry proposal. The top executives and PR people for every major consumer electronics manufacturer should be required to install his or her company's products in a real world environment. Can you imagine the change that might result?

Perhaps, Sony and Time Warner might actually talk with each other and make their systems plug and play. Internal switchers might actually switch, rather than escape responsibility. And, an actual working single remote control - the Holy Grail of home theater - might actually become reality.

That would be a real "Dream" system.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.