Installation of the Epson Ensemble HD Home Theater System
Finally, real home theater for everyone. The Epson Ensemble HD 1080 puts almost everything together in one neat package, making the purchase decision nice, and straightforward. Better still, Epson designed the system for simple installation. This is a system that even most novice do-it-yourselfers, can install, but more importantly, for the typical family, one that can be quickly and affordably installed by your local home theater dealer.
I know that Epson has rolled out the Ensemble HD systems through their authorized home theater dealer network, but sooner or later, I imagine the system will be available from places like Best Buy, and Circuit City, and maybe even Staples and other office supply stores.
What I really like is that the installation is really so easy, that even those "basic" installation teams (Geek Squad, Firedog, etc.) that the big box houses have, should be handle this type of installation, without difficulty.
Installing the Epson Ensemble HD in my Office/Testing Room/Theater 2
First, a little about the room. Our house is a 10 year old, typical So. California tract home. These homes had a builder's option regarding the garage. The house could have a two car garage, and a separate one car garage, or the one car garage could be an office/extra room. Our home came with that one car garage converted into an office (complete with lots of built-ins, as this was one of the original model homes. The point is, the dimensions of the room, are that of a typical one car garage, in this case roughly 10 feet wide, by 17 feet long, and it happens to have a 9 foot ceiling.
I must admit, that it is nearly the perfect size for a theater like this, although if the room was a few feet wider and deeper, that would have been just fine!
OK, let's get started. In this case, I behave like a typical consumer. Once the decision was made, to "buy" the Epson Ensemble, I got in touch with an Epson authorized AV dealer here, in the LA area. Because I am reviewing this, they came down a day in advance, to check out the room, and discuss the few options with me.
Now, for this room, I would have been perfectly happy not cutting into the walls, and just using the provided wiring channel system. But, because this was to be a full review, I decided, that since going "in-wall" on the installation, would be more complex, and possibly encounter some problems, it made sense to got that route, to better report to all you folks.
When Kory (from My Custom Theater, in Torrance California) arrived, I already knew where the screen, equipment cabinet/subwoofer, and console would go. It was obvious, as it would be in most people's rooms.
We discussed the option of going channels or in-wall, and I told him, for review purposes, in-wall was the better choice (although if I wasn't reviewing I wouldn't have gone in-wall). One interesting thing we discussed, was where to mount the projector and its housing. Because I have built-in - up to the ceiling cabinets on one side, we decided to mount the projector slightly off-center, relative to the screen, so that it would look more centered in the room. Thanks to the Epson's wide range of lens-shift, this was not a problem. We also discussed how far back to put the projector. I decided to mount it almost 3 feet from the back wall, as that is my screen wall for testing (with a fixed Carada screen, and a motorized Elite screen), and I wanted a few feet of clearance, as I occasionally switch out screens.
With the Epson screen size, the front of the Epson projector could be as far back as 21 feet from the screen, but we settled on just over 12.5 feet (measured to the lens).
I happened to have left over paint cans in the garage, matching the paint on the walls, and the ceiling, and the installation team also does drywalling and paint touch up, so we had all the bases covered.
Because of the in-wall installation, we decided that they would do the job in two, half day sessions. Had I opted to use the channels, they told me the installation would take no more than 5 hours, in one afternoon. With going in wall, they estimated 11 hours or less, depending on what surprises lie inside the walls and ceiling, to complicate things.
Home Theater Installation: Day One
The plan was to open the walls, and run all the wiring. Since they would have to drywall, and let it dry, before touching up the paint, once the wiring was completed, they would drywall, and call it a day.
As agreed, the two man team arrived shortly after 10am. The first thing they did, was unload all the boxes from their van, brought in their ladders, and tools, and started organizing. After they pulled out what they needed for day one, they stashed everything else in my garage about 6 boxes, including the long screen box.
Then, the work began. Because of the "in wall" installation, (mostly "in ceiling, actually), they first opened the wall, and the ceiling up where the wires to the screen would go just a few inches from the screen wall so the wiring coming out would be hidden behind the screen.
Bingo, at that point, they discovered Problem #1.
Because our house's second floor sets back a couple of feet from the first floor, it seems that local building codes require that the ceiling have wood in the ceiling in that area (1/2 inch thick) running the length of that wall, they had no access to the open area above. (see image to the right) They widened the cut to about three feet from the wall, to find out how thick the board was. Once finding it's end, they cut open the board (two spots, as you can see), to allow access for the wires. That was the first additional chunk of labor needed, compared to a more typical ceiling without that board ( required by local building/fire code, no doubt). Still, it didn't add that much additional time (about a half hour, perhaps).
Next they opened the wall down below, for where the wires would run in, and out of the AV Controller and sub-woofer (the sub-woofer has the amplification for all the speakers).
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As I warned them, I believed that local fire laws also required homes to have firebreak 2x4s running horizontally every four feet (I believe) in height, so they also had to add an additional cut, between the lower cut and the ceiling. We can call that problem #2, an extra cut, and therefore a little extra drywalling, etc.
Smooth installation from there on out:
Next, they had to get the wiring from the screen cut opening, across the ceiling, to where the projector would be going. They were able to drop out our existing "whole house sound" speaker, which is mounted about 5 feet from the screen wall, to make it easier to run the wires, and they put two more cuts in the ceiling, one mid-way, and the other by the projector's soon to be location. No surprises!
Shown below, Kory and Joe, the owners (and installers) of My Custom Theater, as they get ready to start work on Day 1.
At that point, they started running all the wires. This means running the speaker wiring, the screen control wiring and power, and the HDMI video signal, from the lower wall cut by the equipment, up to the screen cut-out. From that point, the power, and control, for the screen, as well as the speaker wiring for the three front speakers (built into the screen housing), exits the ceiling, while the power for the projector, and the speaker wiring for the two rear surround speakers (in the projector housing), continued, through the ceiling, to the cut by the projector mount.
When finished there were bundles of wires hanging down from the screen area cut, and from the projector area cut.
To finish up day one, at this point they drywalled all the openings, then we all had a round of beer (am I a good customer or what?), and we went over the day's activities.
That didn't take long: Day 1
By the time the dry walling was done, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon. Total time so far, five hours and fifteen minutes!
By the way, during all their work, I naturally had to come in and out of the room to see what they were up to, asking questions (I can be a disruptive force), to a greater depth than most would have (afterall, I had to write this), and general kibbitzing, not to mention interrupting to take dozens of photos of the work in progress.
Day 2: Smooth as Silk!
The team returned, as agreed, around 10am. The dry wall was ready to be painted over, and that was the first business of the day. They slapped on one coat over each of the drywall areas in the ceiling and wall. A second coat would be added if needed. While it was drying, the guys started getting all the equipment and mounting brackets ready.
The first to go up, was the long mounting bracket for the screen. The bracket was attached to the wall just below the ceiling. (I do believe you can mount the bracket to the ceiling as an alternative.) They then put the mounting plate for the projector housing, into the ceiling.
Hooking everything up:
At this point, the equipment cabinet (slightly misleading name, since it has no doors), with the subwoofer on the lower shelf, was put into position. They placed the Ensemble AV Controller on the top shelf and hooked up all the wiring.
Next, they placed the projector in its housing, and hooked up the power and the HDMI cable from the cables in the ceiling, and the wiring for the rear speakers. At this point, they put the back cover on the projector housing (it covers all the wiring, so you can't see it). Note, in the image below, the back cover that will hide that wiring, is not yet in place.
One, Two, Three, Go
At that point, everything was installed. Now, all that was left, was to adjust the projector. That consisted of them powering up the projector, adjusting the focus, then the zoom and lens shift, to perfectly position the image on the screen. A few minutes at the most.
In addition they adjusted the audio. Cleverly, the system let's you tell it where you are sitting, relative to the projector housing/rear speakers, so as to properly adjust the surround sound speakers to be in best balance with the fronts, depending on where you sit. You simply punch in the number of feet that the projector sits from the screen, and the number of feet back that you are sitting from the screen.
Would you believe it? That's all there is to it. Well, with one exception. The projector, ideally should be calibrated, for maximum performance, but that's my job, in this case, not theirs (although this dealer has the ability). Ultimately, Mike and I (mostly Mike) did the calibration days later, as planned. If you get your dealer to calibrate the projector figure anywhere from $250 to $500? for the calibration
Meantime, in went the first DVD into the internal DVD player, and bingo, "Houston, we have lift-off". I turned off the room lights, and voila, a beautiful image on the screen, and sound to match. The only thing to do at this point, was to offer the guys another beer, and finally thank them, and send them on their way.
If Only You Could See What I Saw
Early hat evening, I entered the room, pressed the Power button on the remote (twice actually to fully lower the screen), and popped a DVD into the AV Controller's internal DVD player. I then watched parts of a couple of movies, starting with the SD-DVD (standard DVD) version of Men In Black, and then also put on a music video. Everything was just great. Sure, the movie and music video were standard DVD so the picture quality was not going to be as good as a Blu-ray movie, etc.
Image above, from Men In Black shot from the SD-DVD version.
I wanted, however to see how the system performed out of the box, so I didn't want to start off by hooking up my Sony PS3 as my Blu-ray DVD player, nor calibrate the system before looking. As expected, the colors and skin tones in Theater Black 1 ("best" movie mode), looked really good - and very acceptable, but not the best the projector was capable of. I also switched to Living Room mode, and Dynamic mode, and found them to be exactly as expected, which is to say, definitely, significantly inferior to Theater Black 1, and more seriously in need of a proper, if basic calibration. Dynamic mode has a definite shift to green, and the color temp of Living Room mode, out of the box, is strange.
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Finally, late that night, I plugged in the Sony PS3 into one of the two available HDMI ports on the AV Controller. Naturally, I had to start with the Blu-ray version of Men In Black, since I already viewed the standard with the internal DVD player.
OMG! Anyone who tells you that there isn't much difference between standard DVD and Blu-ray... stop listening to them! It's not just more resolution but better color dynamics, that improve dramatically. The difference is usually stunning, to say the least.
Between then and now I've watched more than 30 hours on the system. For about a week, exactly as described above, then two more things happened:
First: The cable company finally shows up, a week late. Well the guys from My Custom Theater may have been on time and professional, but forget the cable company (Cox). They did a complete no show (then denied even finding a record of my call, to set it up), the first time, but finally came over, the following week and got my room set up (it had cable internet, but not cable TV running in that room, until then). They slid the new HD-DVR cable box on to the middle shelf of the equipment cabinet, and hooked it up to the cable feed, and out via HDMI into the 2nd available HDMI slot on the Epson Ensemble HD controller.
Outstanding! Now I have HDTV with a DVR rocking and rolling in T2 (as we now call theater 2, our office). Cable - finally! The Olympics had now been underway for several days, so I was delayed in determining how good the system would do on sports. Fortunately, I already have all these capabilities in T1, so I didn't miss any Olympics, but since I'm an Olympics fanatic, I wanted to watch (and record) a good deal of it in T2.
And, finally: Calibration, then - All Done
Mike came by a few days back, and, in about two hours and change, the projector was calibrated, including defining a whopping four user savable presets. The calibration job took more time than it should for the normal person, because Mike has to record for me, every setting and measurement he does, so that I could intelligently report all of that to you, in the Calibration area in the General Performance section.
And what have we learned today?
If the system was impressive with standard DVD, in Theatre Black 1 mode, the first night, it was far more impressive with Blu-ray content from my PS3. But there was a fair (modest) amount of further improvement with the calibration done, when watching movies in Theatre Black 1. Where the calibration really made the difference though, was in the brighter modes. All of a sudden, Living Room mode, somewhat brighter than Theatre Black 1, looked great, instead of "off". When it came to the Dynamic mode, well, we created two different Dynamic settings. Consider that the purpose of Dynamic is to function as your "no holes barred" bright mode, for when you need every last lumen. Even after we created two new Dynamic modes, of course the default Dynamic is still available right off the menus.
What I always recommend when a "dynamic" type mode is significantly off in color accuracy, is to sacrifice some lumens for better color accuracy. The thing is, when going that route, Mike and I see things differently. Mike really tries to get the color accuracy to be really, really good, which he did (our first User saved Dynamic mode), but by my standards he goes too far. His color is great, but he sacrifices too many lumens. In this case about almost 300 lumens, down from the default measured 1422 lumens, to 1157.
At that point, I took over, making only two minor changes, mostly putting some of the green back in (a great way to get a brighter image), but still far less than default. My version yielded an extra 146 lumens. I probably should do a little more tweaking, as I might even find another 50 lumens or so, without really affecting picture quality. Mike's mode looks a tiny bit better than mine, but most people probably wouldn't even notice a difference switching between these two new User defined Dynamic modes.
So, now the Ensemble HD has all of its default color modes (6 in all), plus four, post calibration User saved ones:
Theater Black 1
Dynamic (1) (Mike's settings)
Dynamic (2) (Art's settings)
The Bottom Line: Installation of the Epson Ensemble HD
Because I went "in-wall" (as I imagine only a very small percentage of people will) the total installation time was 9 hours and 15 minutes! And that includes my bothering the guys with questions and photo shoots.
And don't forget, that includes the drywalling and touch up painting, not to mention overcoming some extra "in-wall" work due to some fairly "over the top" building codes down here. (Hey in my town, all new homes built since the mid 80's have had to have fire sprinklers throughout the house (even the garage).
I could predict that an "in-wall wiring" installation that didn't hit those minor hassles, might have taken 30 minutes to an hour less, but in reality, you have to expect some surprises when you go in-wall wiring.
One great thing that keeps it simple, is that all power comes from one source. It gets routed from the AV Controller Subwoofer (which is plugged right into the wall, to provide power for the subwoofer's amp, and the controller, as well as the screen's and the projector's power. With an installation of all separate equipment, you are probably drawing power to three different spots, from either two, or three power locations in your walls and ceiling, so this is simpler!
I wanted to mention, that you need special wiring for power when you go "in-wall". You simply are not allowed to use regular power cords and extensions I don't know of anywhere you are allowed to run a regular power cord through a wall. Our installers followed proper code, using romex wiring in wall, and the romex is connected to proper two gang receptacles, to meet NEC (National Electrical Code) standards.
OK, that's it, installation all done. All that is left, is to enjoy it, and truly, that has been great.
Complete job (less calibration time, but including electrical, drywalling and touch up painting), with all wiring "in-wall": 9 hours 15 minutes
Timeline: Spread out over two days to allow for drywalling to dry, etc.
Best estimate of installation, using Epson's paintable, channels for all wiring, instead of going "in-wall": 4 to 5 hours
Timeline: One afternoon!
The Low Cost of this Complete Home Theater Installation
Installation rates will vary depending on the dealer you work with. I asked the guys from My Custom Theater to provide me an invoice, reflecting how they would charge for the job, and they did. Their invoice offered the standard installation using the channels for a flat $500. They listed the "In-wall Upgrade" at $600, for a total of $1100. (In my case, I didn't have to pay for this - reviewing has its perks).
I figure that either way, it works out to about $125 an hour, give or take. I think that generally, from home theater dealers you are probably looking at between $100 and $200 an hour with most in the $125 to $150 an hour range. If these systems ever get to Best Buy, etc., their rates are probably lower, but they are also probably slower, and not quite as experienced. Still, the basic installation should be well within their skills, which is one of the beautiful things about the whole Ensemble concept. I imagine that if those big box houses (Best Buy, Circuit City, etc., do start offering the system, they too, will probably have a basic fixed charge, but more likely $400 - $500.
Money Left Over? Don't Worry!
Additional thoughts of how you can spend more money: Well, let's see: In our case, we bought a new small couch for the room (and rearranged a few things to make it fit). And some of you might choose to paint your walls darker (and even your ceiling), but the system looks great regardless (our walls are a light/medium brown).
Do you realize, that if you read the Epson brochure, and have read everything in this review so far, plus the final (Summary) page, that your local friendly AV dealer could already have a good start on the installation in your house?
What on earth are you thinking about/waiting for!?!