Companies to Watch in 2019

We are thrilled to be named one of the “Companies to Watch in 2019” by Residential Systems for their December 2018 issue. To be the only integrator on a list with leaders in tech like Lutron, Middle Atlantic, Control4, Azione Unlimited and Access Networks is a huge honor. Thank you, Residential Systems!

How To: Music Management

Access

Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer and SiriusXM all come with access to over 30 million songs. Deezer and Tidal have the largest libraries with over 50 million, but Spotify has far more subscribers in part due to its broader compatibility with devices.

 


 

Resolution

Only Tidal and Deezer offer lossless uncompressed audio. Pandora delivers the lowest resolution at 192Kbpb, while Apple Music and Amazon Music cap out at 256Kbps. The rest can stream at 320Kbps.

Pro tip: Spotify does not stream at 320Kbps as a default. You’ll need to change quality to ‘Very high’ and ensure ‘Normalize volume’ is turned off (normalization reduces dynamic range on certain tracks by compressing them.)

 


 

Discovery

Pandora is the king of recommendation algorithms. The others all come with curated playlists updated on at least a weekly basis. Slacker Radio has particularly well-curated stations and playlists. Spotify shines with shareable user-built playlists, but their recommendations often lock you into a genre. Apple Music promotes more cross-genre exploration and has more obscure and live tracks to stumble upon.

Pro tip: In Pandora you can view every song you’ve ever liked by channel (even in the free version.) You can then create an IFTTT recipe that automatically adds these songs to a playlist on Spotify.

 


 

Extras

Tidal offers some great long-form editorial pieces, while Slacker and SiriusXM include live talk and sports channels. Most streaming services now include podcasts, though in our opinion Spotify navigates them most intuitively. (Apple Music doesn’t directly include them, but iTunes – which integrates tightly – does.) Amazon Music is the weakest in this category, though Prime Membership does come with podcasts and audiobooks.

 


Local Files

While Amazon Music won’t let you upload your own audio files, Apple Music, Google Play Music and Spotify will. Apple Music is particularly smooth at integrating your local without uploading them thanks to their iTunes integration. If you do upload them, iTunes Match is a great way to clean up your meta-data. For those outside of the Apple ecosystem, Media Monkey is a solid tool to make sure your songs are properly tagged and the right album art is downloaded.

Pro tip: Lossless collections stored on a computer need the right DAC (digital-to-audio converter) to send the full file to your speaker system. Audioquest’s DragonFly USB DAC is the best solution we’ve found for under $100.

 


 

Control

Sonos has the most powerful interface for managing multiple streaming services for two reasons:

  1. Cross-platform search: Its single search bar will show relevant results from all your services in real time.
  2. Playlists: Sonos lets you combine tracks from your local library and various streaming services onto a single playlist.

You can also stream directly to a Sonos speaker from within the Spotify App, and more recently from within Apple Music.

 

Voice

A growing number of smart speakers are integrating Google Assistant and Alexa, both of which integrate tightly with their own music services (Google Play Music and Amazon Music.) They also support specific commands on Spotify.

Spotify offers its own (very capable) voice control feature in its App. Finally, Siri (and therefore HomePod) works beautifully with Apple Music, but not with Spotify.

 


 

Vinyl Integration

Sonos is also adept at handling and switching between multiple inputs. Putting on a record will automatically trigger Sonos to switch to the correct input (unless you’re currently streaming, in which case you can manually switch inputs from the App.) You will also be able to listen to your records from every wirelessly connected Sonos speaker in your home.

Bonus: As of this month Sonos now lets you set max volumes by speaker, allowing you to hand over controls to guests without fear of upsetting your neighbors.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Our 3rd Annual AIA CEU Summit

Yesterday we were thrilled to have hosted over 100 members of the Architecture & Design community at the Savant Experience Center in Soho for a day of education, entertainment and networking. With courses by Lutron, Savant, Seura, Leon, Sonos and Seura we were able to issue 223 CEUs to the A&D community in a relaxed and engaging environment. A big thanks to all of the presenters and attendees. Looking forward to next year’s AIA Summit

Connected Design Feature

We sat down with the editors of Connected Design to discuss our work with architects, our focus on design first, and our annual AIA CEU Summit.

Interview: New Takes on Tech Training

Ted Green of Residential Systems reached out to us to talk about our internal training program, joining the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and how Lunch & Learns changed our entire relationship with local Architecture firms.

How To: Conference Rooms

Displays

Size: Take a display’s diagonal length and multiply it by two… That’s how far away people can comfortably sit from your display. (Less if you’re analyzing spreadsheets. An additional display across the room can be used to supplement.)

Type: For sizes under 84″ a flat panel almost always makes the most sense. Above 84″ and projectors often make more sense (though ambient light, sight lines and placement of both projector and screen are all challenges.)
Some flat panels offer touch overlay. These are pricey and your back is kept to the room while using it. Companies that frequently annotate and manipulate images in real time find them valuable, but we see them mostly in educational environments. For larger screens direct view LED (think Times Square) is also popular, but far more expensive than a projector solution.

 


 

Cabling

Ideally a conduit should be run from your conference room display to your rack so that anything can be pulled through later. At minimum, a few category cables (cat5a or cat6a) should be run to your display, which can run any signal with a balun at both ends. To future-proof for 4K content, fiber is also recommended for its increased bandwidth.

 


 

Sources

Beyond a PC or Mac, if you need your conference room to be BYOD (bring your own device) friendly, there are two ways to accomplish it:

  1. A physical plugin that comes out of the table.
  2. A wireless solution. While Chromecast and Apple TV will let you cast your device onto the big screen, performance is somewhat spotty and they’re not compatible with all devices / operating systems. We like ClickShare for its reliability, ease of setup, and brand-agnostic approach. Where it under-performs is when sharing a lot of video content, in which case a PC or Mac with a hardwired internet connection is needed.

If the space is also being used to entertain, a cable or satellite box is good, though an Apple TV with its various Apps is often sufficient.

 


 

Audio (for video)

Volume drops by 50% every three feet. A soundbar under the TV can suffice for small rooms, but longer conference rooms should have in-ceiling or in-wall speakers to deliver more even sound across the room.

 


Video Conferencing

The two main options are proprietary systems and soft codecs:

Proprietary systems are dedicated boxes that talk to other dedicated boxes (think Polycom, Cisco.) They’re great for companies with multiple locations that constantly communicate.

Soft codecs (Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting) can run on a PC or Mac, and will work with webcams that run the gamut of quality. Some webcams see wider, some narrower, some move (pan/tilt/zoom) and some automatically point to the current speaker.

 


 

Audio (for conferencing)

This is the most complex (and usually poorly-executed) aspect of any conference room. Sound on a conference call needs to blend people in the room with those calling inand anyone attending via web portal… It also needs real-time echo cancellation. For entry-level USB solutions, we like RevoLabs. For higher-end solutions, Extron and Polycom both pull this balancing act off beautifully.

For mic placement, we prefer ceiling mics hung every six to eight feet, and at a height low enough to capture great detail yet high enough to be out of the way. Some mics have multiple mic elements inside them, and will focus in real time on the mic closest to the speaker, while muting the other mics in the room.

 


 

Control

Any room with more than two sources, and any room that needs to divide into two separate spaces needs a control system that manages these changes. Our preference is Savant for its reliability and intuitive interface.

Lighting needs to be tied into the system, allowing enough light to keep people awake and engaged, but not so much that it interferes with image quality (this is particularly challenging with projectors.) Shading also needs to be tied in, both to ensure privacy and to prevent direct sunlight from hitting anyone.

 


 

Scheduling

Outlook can handle room scheduling but does not work well for on-the-fly meetings. We prefer a small touchscreen mounted outside of each conference room, with a green light or red light to show availability status. Scheduling system will let you easily send out invites from your phone, grab a room on the fly, and even report on who frequently books without actually using the room.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Audioquest Installer Profile

We sat down with leaders in cabling Audioquest to chat about our philosophy on tech for the home, our fixation on detail & documentation, and the often overlooked importance of high-quality interconnects.

Voice Control for Home

The four DIY voice platforms trying to permeate the home currently are:

 


 

Alexa

  • Benefits: Controls more third-party devices than any other platform, and integrates cleanly with Amazon shopping. It also recognizes different voices and adjusts to the behavior of each user.
  • Challenges: Prone to mistakes, struggles to execute multiple commands in a row and is barely available on your smartphone.
  • Conclusion: While Amazon’s platform is the most broadly compatible, the control it provides is relatively shallow. Combined with weak speech recognition, Alexa tends to disappoint beyond basic needs.

 


 

Google Assistant

  • Benefits: Recognizes natural language better than any other, and handles multiple command strings impressively. Like Alexa, it recognizes multiple voice profiles.
  • Challenges: Integrates with far fewer devices than Alexa, and requires a slightly more cumbersome wake word (“OK Google…”)
  • Conclusion: While behind Alexa in its breadth of compatibility, Google Assistant still integrates with the most sought-after products (Nest, Hue, Sonos), and controls them more intuitively than any other platform thanks to its natural speech recognition.

 


 

Siri

  • Benefits: Thoughtfully integrates with Apple products (especially Apple TV), as well as the limited number of HomeKit-compatible devices.
  • Challenges: Integrates poorly outside of the Apple ecosystem, limits users to a single voice profile, and struggles to execute multiple command strings.
  • Conclusion: The obvious choice for the Apple loyalist, Siri’s mediocre performance becomes almost unusable when trying to integrate products outside of Apple.

 


 

Bixby

  • Benefits: Recognizes natural language second only to Google, and handles multiple command strings beautifully.
  • Challenges: Integrates with far fewer devices than Alexa, and comes built into far fewer products than Alexa or Google Assistant.
  • Conclusion: A surprisingly capable platform despite being the least known of the group, Bixby becomes a sensible option for owners of newer Samsung appliances and/or TVs, with which it integrates smoothly.

 


 

Typical Use Cases

Music

Google Assistant, Siri and Bixby are all available in their own powerful speaker (Home Max, HomePod and Galaxy Home respectively), while Alexa comes in a variety of weaker-performing speakers. However, Alexa is built directly into SONOS, the leaders in wireless audio (Google Assistant is expected to follow suit by end of 2018.)

Bixby has a long-term partnership with Spotify that promises deeper integration than the competition, while the rest favor their own music streaming services (Apple Music, Amazon Music and Google Play Music.) However, Apple is the only platform that really tries to lock you into its music service.

 


 

Video

Alexa and Google Assistant integrate with their own streaming dongles (Fire TV and Chromecast), but Google prevents YouTube from natively working on Fire TV while Amazon prevents Prime Video from working natively on Chromecast. Otherwise, they offer the same Apps (Netflix, HBO GO, etc.)

Siri wins by integrating with Apple TV, which is the superior streaming device thanks to its smooth control and intuitive cross-App search.

Bixby is a built-in feature in 2018 Samsung Smart TVs, eliminating the need for a separate device altogether. It also overlays search results (TV shows, Spotify, weather) without obstructing what you’re currently watching.

 


 

Lights, etc.

While Alexa integrates with the most third-party brands, all four platforms integrate with DIY leaders Philips Hue and Lutron Caseta.

More advanced systems for lighting, shading and the rest of the home should be controlled by a smarthome platform. All leading smarthome platforms can now trigger scenes and make adjustments using Alexa and Google Assistant.

 


 

Just For Your Home

Josh AI

While the platforms discussed above try to tackle voice for every application, Josh AI’s singular goal is to master home control. This comes with a few advantages:

  1. Natural language recognition – Since other platforms are listening for every command possible, they require very specific phrasing to categorize and identify your request, rejecting minor variations. Josh AI only cares about your home, allowing more leniency in how you phrase things (“Turn the lights up” = “Make it brighter” = “Lights brighter.“)
  2. Context awareness – Saying “turn the lights on” in the bedroom shouldn’t turn on the whole home. Asking for The Beatles should assume you’re asking for music. Playing ‘Mad Men’ should assume you’d like to resume where you left off last time. Josh AI’s limited focus allows them to accomplish this contextual awareness more elegantly than other platforms.
  3. Privacy flexibility – Josh AI can be switched into conversation mode where it listens to everything you say, allowing you to think out loud as you control your home without constantly using the wake word. Conversely, your privacy can be tightened up with a mode that listens after the wake word but saves nothing to its servers.

Thanks to Alex Capecelatro (CEO of Josh AI) for sitting down with us.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Explained: LED Lighting

When we sat down with lighting expert Gary Gordon, he pointed out 3 common issues in homes and offices:

1. The wrong quantity of light.
2. The space is over-fixtured.
3. There is too much glare.
Here are some important concepts to be aware of before designing your next space:

 


 

Watts vs Lumens

Watts measure power consumption. Lumens measure brightness.

After phasing out power-hungry incandescent bulbs, the two popular choices are compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED.) LEDs can put out more lumens using fewer watts. They also last longer and emit less heat. 

 


 

Color Temperature

The warmness or coolness of white light, measured in Kelvin.
  • Warm Light: Anything below 3,500K begins to have a yellowish appearance. This has a calming effect, likely due to our evolutionary attraction to fire.
  • Cool light: Anything above 3,500K begins to have a bluish appearance. Great for focus but terrible for rest, as it controls your circadian clock by reducing melatonin.
CFLs used to provide a warmer, more natural temperature than LED. This is no longer the case as LEDs can be tuned to simulate CFLs, and even adjust throughout the day for a natural feel at all times. 

 


 

Illuminance vs Luminance

Illuminance measures how much light falls onto a surface. Luminance measures how brightly that light reflects off of the surface.

Lighting designers measure lumens per square foot (often referred to as lux or foot-candles) to determine ideal brightness around a room. Ideal illuminance is determined by a space’s purpose, while attention to luminance can help avoid glare and its debilitating effects. 

 


 

Color Rendering

How accurately a light reveals the various colors around the room. Comparing how colors are perceived when illuminated by your light source versus a natural light source like the sun, accuracy is rated on a scale of 1 – 100. This is called the Color Rendering Index (CRI.)

Both fluorescent and LED bulbs vary in CRI from low 60s to high 90s. Lights closer to 60 can appear different from each other even out of the same box. We recommend using lights with a CRI above 90.

 


 

Our Visit to Ketra

With dozens of patents and a remarkable approach to LED lighting, we wanted to check out Ketra as soon as possible to see what all the hype was about. Watch the video to see our experience.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Explained: Phone Systems

The two main phone system categories in 2018 are:

  1. Traditional: A phone system that physically hangs on your wall and routes calls to your desk (usually over traditional copper wires.)
  2. Hosted: A system hosted online that routes calls to your desk over your internet connection. (Also referred to as HPBX or VoIP.)

 


 

Traditional

  • Benefits: Owning the system means lower monthly cost, and many basic features perform with rock-solid simplicity.
  • Challenges: Higher upfront cost and user count is limited by your hardware. Expertise is needed to manage moves, adds, changes, security and troubleshooting. Also, telephone lines add monthly expense (exception below.)
  • Conclusion: Ideal for businesses that need a lot of handsets, but not a lot of concurrent phone calls.

 


 

Hosted

  • Benefits: Lower initial investment and user count can grow and shrink fluidly. Running over the Internet simplifies your office network and lets you travel with your phone. Also, central administration (password resets, call forwarding) is easier.
  • Challenges: If you don’t segment your network, heavy Internet usage will impact call quality. Also, as your phone’s software evolves some features need to be re-learned.
  • Conclusion: Ideal for businesses that want to avoid hardware obsolescence, need a low entry cost, and need to remain flexible in both headcount and user location.

 


 

Hybrid

Hybrid systems allow a combination of handsets (some compatible with traditional systems and some compatible with hosted systems), usually via a locally-mounted phone system with added modules to allow for VoIP functionality. This is ideal for businesses that already own traditional handsets and want to modernize their system at the lowest cost possible.

 


 

Cost

While it would seem traditional systems cost more up front while hosted systems carry a higher monthly expense, there are two elements that complicate this:
  1. Hosted systems offer monthly savings in that they can piggyback on the same Internet connection your computers use. (However now traditional systems with SIP trunking have this same capability.)
  2. While owning your system usually shows savings after five years, they also require active support contracts unless you have an in-house expert.

 


 

Providers

Phone systems and service are offered in two tiers:
  1. Consumer: A homogenized, often drop-shipped solution that works adequately for certain small businesses. (think Vonage)
  2. Business: A combination of hardware and service designed to perform with your specific network, at the highest call quality available.

 

Consumer

  • Benefits: Lowest cost. Impressive control over system and user settings.
  • Challenges: Lacks support when issues arise around customer’s unique circumstances.
  • Conclusion: Great for small businesses with tolerance for call quality and system reliability issues.

 


 

Business

  • Benefits: Improved voice clarity via bandwidth customization, a backup plan in the event of an outage, and depending on the provider vastly improved tech support.
  • Challenges: Providers need to be vetted as not all deliver more than DIY quality.
  • Conclusion: Ideal for businesses that need reliable HD call quality without paying for superfluous bandwidth.

 


 

How to Choose

In 2018 most people are opting for hosted for its ease of management and future-proofed foundation. Unless complete ownership of your system is required we recommend hosted.

There are many players in the hosted field, and almost all offer the same array of features in both unlimited and limited calling tiers. When comparing providers:

  1. Make sure they are focused not just on your phone system, but on how it harmonizes with your specific network.
  2. Get client references both general performance and for emergency support.
  3. Ask about backup plans. If city construction knocks out your service, what will they put in place to keep you connected?

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Our Favorite Productivity Tools

Messaging

Email is everywhere and therefore a necessity, but for internal communications we highly recommend Slack for its:
  • Organization – Trades the single inbox for a clean menu of topic-based channels and one-on-one conversations.
  • Search – A copy of Outlook or the local index it searches can be impacted by other factors on your desktop. Slack keeps everything online and gives faster and more accurate search results.
  • App Integration – Slack offers better integration with countless Apps for file sharing, to-do lists, video calling, etc. (Outlook has a ‘safe mode’ for a reason: Its plugins can break it.)
  • Mobile Experience – Slack’s organizational structure makes for a far cleaner experience on mobile than almost every email client.

Note: SLAM Sidebar lets you embed Slack within your Outlook Inbox.

 


 

File Sharing

Unlike One Drive which feels like a little bonus from Microsoft, Dropbox specializes exclusively in file sharing. Beyond its idiot-proof simplicity, its latest feature lets you browse through everything on your account from your desktop without taking up any hard drive space. The files only save locally once you open them.

 


 

Video Calls

For one-on-one calls Slack and Skype are great within users of the same platform. Hosting a larger meeting and don’t want anyone to have to create an account? Zoom is hands-down the easiest to use.

 


 

Remoting

Windows and Mac come with remote desktop connection built-in (your firewall still needs to allow it.) We also find AnyDesk to be an incredibly easy and reliable solution for the technically challenged.

 


 

System Admin

AutoMate can report on memory & hard drive usage, anti-virus & warranty status, programs installed… On every computer in the office. You can also batch schedule tasks like software installations to happen overnight.

 


 

Password Management

1Password and LastPass are both big time savers if you’re juggling too many passwords. Both save you time logging in, let you share groups of accounts with coworkers, and provide alerts when a website you frequent has experienced a data breach.

 


 

Notes

We like Evernote for its cleanliness across devices, as well as its browser plugin for quickly pulling content into your notes.

 


 

Ad Blocking

Ghostery is a plugin available on all web browsers that prevents businesses from tracking your information. It also blocks ads from loading making many website load faster (try loading NY Times with Ghostery on and with it off.)

 


 

Triggers

Ever wish you could get your information from one channel into another automatically? Odds are with IFTTT you can. Get your Echo’s to-do items synced to your iPhone’s reminders, or get your weather forecast delivered as a text message.

 


 

Texting

Smart phone alerts distracting you from your work? Stay focused with Pushbullet, which displays these alerts on your desktop, and more importantly lets you respond to them from the same keyboard you’re working on.

 


 

Converting

By dragging and dropping a file onto the CloudConvert homepage you can select the type of file you want to convert it to then and there. The result is downloadable moments later.

 


 

Endurance

Working late? F.lux is a must for reducing eye strain. It tints the color temperature of your monitor based on time of day. Turn it on at night and feel the difference immediately.

 


 

Focus

Noisli lets you drown out the office chatter with your own custom combination of nature sounds and white noise.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.