Aussie smart homes: Coast with the most!

Studio Kai
(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)
from Sound+Image magazine


(Image credit: Future)

This article originally appeared in Sound+Image magazine, one of What Hi-Fi?’s Australian sister publications. Click here for more information on Sound+Image, including digital editions and details on how you can subscribe.

If you were fortunate enough to have a home in a stunning ocean-side location such as this, wouldn’t you want the best in home entertainment to supplement the natural environment around you? 

This home’s owner had recently purchased the three-bedroom property when they contacted Len Wallis Audio’s custom installation team to gain their input on a major planned renovation. High-end architectural fittings and finishes in the interiors were to be handled by a renowned local design firm, complementing spectacular uninterrupted views of the local surf beach. 

So while the client wanted high-performance audio available throughout the home, space was going to be relatively limited. He preferred the entertainment to be ‘hidden’, rather than detract from the stunning location or design. While large displays were requested for every video zone, these were required to blend as harmoniously as possible with the architecture; to this end each of the internal TV screens would be given a custom-made timber or aluminium surround. 

A media room had also been allocated in the renovation plans, with the particular request that its design and surround system should cater well for the presentation of sports events on the big screen. 

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

OUTDOOR LIVING: The poolside outdoor kitchen is one of five video zones receiving distributed 4K entertainment plus audio. The Savant control system includes an ‘Entertain’ scene which starts a Tidal playlist through multiple areas, also setting lighting to predetermined states throughout the home.

Studio Kai

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

An integrated home

But the planning and installation involvement of the Len Wallis Audio team went far beyond the audio and AV of the home here, into the wider realm of the integrated smart home. Here their brief included lighting control, data networking, phones, intercoms and security, climate control, even pool monitoring, all to be integrated under a single automation system which, at the request of the client, would need to be very simple to control, as he was a self-professed technophobe.

So one of the team’s first tasks was to convince the client that although a smart home may be complex ‘under the hood’, the whole point of a good integrated solution is under a single control system the multiple systems in the home can be made far more intuitive and straightforward to use – and, via the use of automation, potentially far more efficient as well. This done, the chosen solution had all the various sub-systems simply controlled using the Savant automation platform, including here the Savant Pro Host controller (see overleaf), which the team describes as having plenty of processing power for a system of this size, while the control system could be refined to remove any unnecessary controls for a client not interested in tweaking settings. 

“It’s a tried and true recipe of equipment that we have used in many past projects,” the LWA team tells us. “No shortcuts were taken here, and only premium brands have been used throughout.”

Studio Kai

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

Power first

The level of quality here begins right at the fundamentals – the provision of power to the home. To keep this architectural home as clear as possible of equipment, the majority of it is centralised in a plant room, with a rack containing amplifiers, the audio matrix switcher and the AV processor, as well as networking, NAS drives and other switching equipment. Indeed one of the first tasks faced by the Len Wallis team was to have the plant room relocated from the area originally designated by the architect.

“It just wasn’t suitable – it was in an area penetrated by salt air,” the team tells us. “We had to convince the client to lose a bit of cinema space to create a dedicated plant room which could be properly managed using a dedicated air-conditioning system to ensure the best operational environment for all the equipment under a constant room temperature.” 

This was eventually agreed, and high quality power provision was planned. The rack in the new plant room is fed by a dedicated 15A circuit, surge protected at the electrical board and connected via an Eaton UPS (uninterruptible power supply) which provides dual-online power filtration. From there, an Eaton Enclosure Power Distribution Unit is used to connect each device in the rack, this allowing remote power management and cycling of each device individually. The team notes how beneficial this has proven as a service tool on many projects, as they can then not only manage the system through a secure VPN, but are also able to schedule power cycles from devices which need it. 

“So for example we have scheduled the Foxtel and Apple TV devices here to power cycle weekly,” the team tells us. “These devices can be problematic when it comes to locking up, and this simple scheduling reduces service calls substantially.”

All other local devices in the home are connected with Thor premium surge protected power boards, with antenna, satellite and network feeds also separately surge-protected to prevent surges entering the home through these other lines. 

Studio Kai

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

Lighting and networking

Electronic dimming was quickly deemed essential for lighting control, and Lutron’s HomeWorks QS system was used, which integrates fully under the Savant control system using the DALI (Digital Addressable Lighting Interface) protocol for all light fittings within the property. When turning on and off, all the lights have been given an extended ramp rate – “to give a luxurious feel to the control”, says the LWA team – and every light circuit turns on at a reduced output when the corresponding keypad button is pressed once, or 100% if the button is double-tapped.

The Lutron system also controls motorised shades, underfloor heating and exhaust fans, and is completely integrated with the Savant system to provide various ‘scenes’ which combine lighting with other systems in the home. There are 24 Lutron ‘Palladiom’ keypads around the home, in a mixture of polymer and metal finishes, each keypad custom engraved and able to control scene-based programming for each area. A scene button by the front door, for example, initiates a ‘Welcome’ macro which turns on lights throughout, activates the TV and audio, as well as starting the HVAC in key locations. A simpler scene in the Master Ensuite just starts and stops the internet radio in that area. It’s the ability to customise such scenes and then clearly label the keypads which goes a long way to providing the simplicity of operation requested by the client.

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

There are also automated processes which require no user intervention at all. Twenty minutes before sunset, the lights in common areas will turn on to preset levels in a Savant-triggered scene which occurs every evening, the correct time identified by the astronomical time clock. Lighting on the street front turns on at sunset each night, and turns off at sunrise. A ‘Wake Up’ scene slowly ramps up light levels in the bedrooms from 0-90% over 30 minutes every weekday at 6:00am, then the motorised blinds open at 6:40am – all designed to wake the occupants gently.

Data networking was no minor task in this home; the owner had the requirement of enterprise-grade networking so he could work 100% reliably from home even before the idea of lockdown arrived to raise that priority still further. The system uses a dual-WAN connection, with a fibre-optic connection for the home’s main internet feed and a dedicated 4G modem as a secondary connection. Networking devices are hardwired for reliability wherever possible, with reserved IPs, and the Wi-Fi is delivered by five Ruckus wireless access points. For maximum security no port-forwarding has been enabled, so that remote access is solely by encrypted IPsec VPN secure network protocols which authenticate and encrypt every command. 

Studio Kai

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

SPACE SAVER: With limited space available for high-quality speakers, the Len Wallis Audio team created a frame around this 85-inch TV into which they could mount Meridian DSP520 digital active speakers. The result: style, with real sonic substance. 

Studio Kai

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

Distributed music & movies

The home has a total of nine defined audio zones, five of which also receive 4K distributed video. The music distribution uses a Savant 32×20 digital audio switch which has 16 analogue and 16 digital inputs available, providing 20 outputs and the ability to pass Dolby and DTS surround signals via its digital outputs. All the sources used here were digital, including two Tidal HIFI-level streams, making 24-bit/96kHz streaming music available to any or all of the nine audio zones. 

Other audio sources include AirPlay, TuneIn internet radio, AppleTV and Foxtel audio, while each of the TVs also allows audio from any device to be played in any zone. 

Given the space limitations in the home, architectural-style speakers were used throughout, with Meridian’s high-quality digital active speakers used in all of the critical listening areas.  These allowed the signal to be kept digital all the way to these speakers. 

In external areas, however, such active speakers would be unsuited to the harsh marine environment – this home is so close to the beach that it gets salt spray from the surf, the LWA team tell us. So rugged passive speakers were used for these exposed external areas. Each zone has completely independent source selection and volume control, with DSP applied to tailor the audio to the individual spaces, and a small amount of delay was applied to certain zones to avoid any ‘echo’ effect when playing music housewide through both digital and analogue zones. 

Savant IP video distribution allows 4K video to be shared with all the screens, from two Foxtel 4K satellite TV boxes and two AppleTV 4Ks. Each display uses a Savant

VoIP receiver connected to a Netgear 10G managed fibre switch, enabling a system capable of full 4K with minimal compression, and video tiling too. Thanks to the extended bandwidth of the fibre, Len Wallis Audio says the system will be firmware upgradable to handle any 8K screens in the future.

Studio Kai

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

Meridian and Savant

Meridian appears in this home both in the main plant room, where its rack-mounted 200 Series Digital Theatre Controller and Eight Channel Amplifier (pictured above) are situated, and throughout the home in sound-critical areas where Meridian’s digital active speakers are used. These allow high-resolution digital audio signals to be maintained right up to the speaker, simplifying audio distribution by minimising long analogue cable runs.

The entire home runs under Savant home automation, bringing together everything from lighting and entertainment to security cameras and climate control. Savant also has switching and system devices which allow 4K video and high-res audio distribution. 

Such over-arching ‘umbrella’ control of multiple systems allows the programming of ‘scenes’ which can combine multiple system changes under a single command – activating certain lights, playing music in certain areas, and far more besides. These scenes can then be automated to occur at certain times without user interaction, or can be triggered from dedicated panel switches, or selected using the Savant Pro app (pictured above), which can run on pretty much any mobile or tablet devices, even running in Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Portuguese, Russian or Swedish...

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

Main video zones

Full range performance was requested for both music and video in the Living Room. But even here the wall cavities were limited in depth and the client didn’t want in-room speakers – and Len Wallis Audio didn’t want to settle for a soundbar solution.

“Instead we designed an aluminium surround to house a pair of Meridian DSP520 speakers flanking the 85-inch 4K display,” the team tell us. “It’s a bold yet minimal statement which conceals a very capable stereo system.”

If it’s just music required, the owners can activate a ‘Living Music’ scene from either a Lutron keypad or the Savant app, which starts randomised Tidal favourites playing at a set level in multichannel stereo. Or an ‘Entertain’ scene starts an ‘Entertain’ playlist from Tidal playing through the Living, Family and Terrace areas, all at set volumes, while also setting lighting throughout the home to predetermined dimmed states. 

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

Finally there’s that media/cinema room (above). Here there’s a 135-inch Severtson woven screen, together with a Sony 4K projector for superb UHD imaging. A Marantz AV processor provides digital signals for three Meridian DSP640 active speakers concealed behind the screen, a further pair of DSP520 speakers providing the rear fill, and DSP320 speakers in the ceiling for Atmos height immersion. The bass is supplemented by a pair of Meridian DSW 12-inch subwoofers, finished in custom matte finish to complement the décor. It’s a completely digital active 5.2.2 system. 

The cinema space was not without design issues, however — the interior designers wanted all the walls finished in a lightly padded fabric, which the Len Wallis Audio team knew could lead to over-absorption. And a large feature glass-and-steel sliding door had been planned at the back of the room – which might rattle away under high pressure sound waves. The LWA team requested design input to ensure it wouldn’t vibrate, and added a motorised heavy curtain to conceal it. They also convinced the client to retain some reflection in the room by not adding a planned star-ceiling. 

“The result was even better than we expected,” they tell us. “Bass sweeps through the room without creating any audible vibration, and overall this is a near-reference immersive cinema space. Indeed the quality of audio throughout this home is exceptional – it’s a stand-out feature of this home’s system design.”

Studio Kai

(Image credit: Len Wallis Audio)

Ready for more

There’s far more to the integration of this home, with intercom points, nine zones of HVAC and climate control, smoke detection, automated control over the pool’s cleaning system, pumps and temperature, perimeter security sensors and cameras with NAS drive recording, monitored alarm systems... the list goes on. And all these systems received the same attention to detail as the audio and AV – for example the standard alarm speakers have been replaced by 3-inch Speakercraft speakers just to achieve a cleaner appearance in the ceiling. The client can monitor all security cameras and review recorded footage through the Savant app.

The LWA team also allowed for a large amount of provisional cabling, so they would be able to deliver further changes to the system after practical completion. They tell us these provisions have already been beneficial for the addition of extra sensors, cameras, lighting loads and control panels – for example, once the home was completed the owner asked for a further four security cameras to be added. Various future upgrades are also thereby possible, including for 8K video, and to enhance audio, with most zones pre-wired for the addition of active subwoofers.

So it’s ready for more – but who on earth, we wonder, as we ponder those spectacular ocean beach views, could possibly ask for more?  

PHOTOGRAPHY: Peter Tsui at Studio Kai
SCREEN SURF IMAGES: Terry Trathen, Fabrizop Passetti & Jacopo Benedetti on Scopio 

Len Wallis Audio
, Lane Cove, Sydney

This article was prepared by Sound+Image, and was recently reprinted with permission, though without attribution, in the Len Wallis Headlines magazine. While the images and source material are theirs, we’d like to reassure our readers that the article is ours, and they reprinted our work, rather than the other way around.

Jez Ford
Editor, Sound+Image magazine

Jez is the Editor of Sound+Image magazine, having inhabited that role since 2006, more or less a lustrum after departing his UK homeland to adopt an additional nationality under the more favourable climes and skies of Australia. Prior to his desertion he was Editor of the UK's Stuff magazine, and before that Editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine, and before that of the erstwhile Audiophile magazine and of Electronics Today International. He makes music as well as enjoying it, is alarmingly wedded to the notion that Led Zeppelin remains the highest point of rock'n'roll yet attained, though remains willing to assess modern pretenders. He lives in a modest shack on Sydney's Northern Beaches with his Canadian wife Deanna, a rescue greyhound called Jewels, and an assortment of changing wildlife under care.