Article by: Debra D. Brass

BEFORE YOU EMBARK ON YOUR NEXT HOME-IMPROVEMENT PROJECT, MAYBE YOU SHOULD START BY CLOSING YOUR EYES. NOW LISTEN. WHAT DOES YOUR HOME SOUND LIKE? After you've painted the walls, arranged the furniture and implemented a gardening scheme, you eventually think about one of the most overlooked aspects of home decor -- soundscaping.

Bias aside, home entertainment professionals insist that sound should be one of the first things people consider, even before they decide on where to put the couch. And we are inclined to agree, especially if you're building a home from the ground up. Getting someone to wire for sound in ceilings, walls and basements will cost only a few hundred dollars before the drywall goes up, as opposed to potentially thousands of dollars when sound is an afterthought. But if you're in the majority of homeowners who are buying existing homes, it can still help to have a professional "look" behind the walls before you decide where to put the television and stereo system. A little planning can save a lot of anxiety when it comes to drywall repairs. If you opt for in-wall speakers, you can paint the facade of the units the same color and at the same time as you paint walls for a seamless finish. "You can go crazy with a sound system," said Mark Widmann, who built a new home on the site of a former riverfront mansion along South Broadway. "There are so many options that it can really start to add up, but once I figured out what I really wanted to accomplish and what kind of a budget I wanted to stay in, the choices were easier."

The original home that sat where Widmann now lives was burned beyond rehabilitation, and while his newly completed modern mansion echoes themes of the area's storied past, it also enjoys the luxury of modern convenience. His home was wired for sound by Hi-Fi Fo-Fum during construction, even in nooks where he hasn't finished planning rooms yet. Widmann owns Randall Gallery, an event-planning Mark Widmann enjoys the Eurythmics on the computerized jukebox Hi-Fi Fo-Fum installed to catalog his music and display it on screen for easy programming. The home theater and stereo system controls audio functions throughout Widmann's riverfront mansion and party venue in St. Louis, so it's no surprise that he enjoys entertaining at home. With a house that can comfortably hold 200 to 300 people, Widmann said that he needed flexibility in a sound system. The large-screen television in his basement theater and lounge area is rigged to broadcast the big game or the movie du jour while people outside on the bluff or upstairs in the living room can enjoy a selection from his collection of music from speakers throughout the home. He could have added a third zone and given people in different areas the option of yet another channel, but "I didn't want to go overboard." Despite the nearly $45,000 price tag for Widmann's system, it's considered moderate for the scope of his whole home sound system. When it comes to audio components, there are speakers that cost $45,000 and way up. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are modest, all-inclusive home theater-in-a-box systems (five speakers and a subwoofer) at electronic chain stores such as Best Buy that sell for around $300. The price of electronics, however, can be deceptive. Ted Salava, the home theater area manager at the Best Buy in St. Peters, said that getting a $300 system installed professionally could still cost $500 to $600, depending on how clean you want the finished product to look. Additional speakers wired to distribute sound to other areas of the house could push the price even higher. "If you're including a TV, the sky's the limit" on cost, Salava said. Things can be done cheaper by do-it-yourselfers, but when it comes to electrical wiring, it's worth it to hire a professional. That's worth saying twice, but we're not ones to nag. If you are trying to cut corners, talk to your salesperson about creative solutions, and hold your ground on your budget: There is something worthwhile in every price range. It may save some embarrassment to call ahead to make sure you're heading to the right place for your budget. At The Screening Room in Frontenac, the typical minimum for one of its custom systems is around $7,500, says Felix Williams III, a partner in the business. "The difference is that we make everything look custom (made)," Williams says. The typical customer there doesn't want to see speakers or audiovisual equipment. The Screening Room specializes in hiding things and offers sleek European products that look like audio sculpture. A typical home theater uses five speakers: one center speaker directly above the television, two front speakers directed at the seating area and two rear speakers. Depending on how big the speakers are, they can be placed on a bookshelf inside an entertainment unit or placed on the floor. Speaker wire connected to the rear speakers can be camouflaged by running it under a carpet. Wireless speakers are an option, but everyone we talked to said that the technology has yet to catch up to expectations. Wireless is likely to be ubiquitous in a Photos by HUY RICHARD MACH, POST-DISPATCH... When it comes to entertaining, Mark Widmann wanted to make sure that guests outside on the bluffs facing the Mississippi River could enjoy the party music as well as those indoors. Hi-Fi Fo-Fum installed Boston Acoustic speakers. few years, but for now you're better off with wired equipment. So what's the least you can do to upgrade your sound system? Buy a receiver (the brains for your audio system) and a couple of speakers to enhance your television, stereo or both. Ask about how to strategically place them, depending on your space. It won't be surround sound, but ask yourself if you really care. What else did we learn? If sound is prone to dissipate in high ceilings, think about mounting rear speakers on the wall just above standing head height, and facing your seating area. Front speakers should sit on the floor at seated head height. If you really just want television surround sound and will play minimal music, don't splurge on expensive rear speakers. Rear speakers are only for ambient noise in movies, so they don't have to be extravagant. If you have a great room with a huge floor plan and you want a home theater setup, don't overwhelm your budget with the notion that you have to get speakers to fill the entire room with sound. Target speakers for the sitting area in front of the television, not across the room at the breakfast bar. And last but not least, if you think you need a wall-size television, consider this. A bigger television will still need speaker assistance to make it a home theater. Before you splurge on a plasma screen, ask yourself if you really need to hang it on a wall. You can save lots of money by buying the same size floor model or something that fits into a cabinet. And for optimal viewing, you want to be sitting about two to three times the diagonal measurement of the screen away. So if you can't live without a 50-inch television, stop and measure 8 feet away from where the screen sits and ask yourself if that seems practical. If you sit closer, you'll end up swiveling your head from one side to the other just to take in everything on the screen. "We once had a customer come in to buy an 80-inch television, and when we showed up to install it, we put it into a double-wide trailer. That was a surprise, but it seemed to make him very happy," said Tony Dollar, a vice president at Hi-Fi Fo-Fum. However, such a purchase would not be advised; a comfortable viewing distance from a screen that size is at least 14 feet.