$20,000 Theater-in-a-Box Has High-End A/V Components, AMX Automation, Xbox 360+HD DVD, iPod Dock
The ITC One from SE2 Labs packs Vidikron, Bryston and Transparent A/V components, Xbox 360s, iPod docks, and AMX controller, and more into one compact box just 21 inches tall.
The ITC One from SE2 Labs combines name-brand A/V components, Xbox 360s, iPod dock, AMX automation, TV tuners and more into one compact box that puts most home theater equipment racks to shame.
It's like a six-foot-tall A/V rack boiled down to a single box measuring 18 x 21 x 19 inches, or 11 rack units high (although it's not rack-mountable CORRECTION: Rack ears are available).
Weighing 100 to 125 pounds, the ITC is packed with everything needed to operate an elaborate home theater, including motorized drapes and lights.
Inside the snazzy console are all of the electronics that typically comprise an A/V rack, but without the extraneous cases, buttons and connectors. You get a surround-sound receiver, preamp, amplifier, video processor, video iPod dock, power conditioning, cable and satellite TV tuners, a PVR, A/V cables, an Xbox 360 + Xbox HD DVD player, and a control system to manage it all.
And these aren't run-of-the-mill components. The pieces come from name-brand, high-end manufacturers like Vidikron, Bryston, Transparent Audio and AMX.
The ITC is configured and programmed to order at the SE2 Labs. Just take it out of the box, connect the speakers, a display, and maybe a couple of contacts, plug in the power cord, and go.
All of this for the low price of about $20,000 (for starters). Not bad, if you consider that all of the gear separately, plus a rack, plus the cabling could cost three or four times that much. And that doesn't include the extra time for installation and programming, and the repeat service calls (always during holidays and in the middle of the night) that a traditional system entails.
The Little Things That Make ITC Cool
Before getting to the nitty gritty -- like how SE2 can cram so much stuff into one box without it blowing up -- let's get right to the good stuff.
In his previous life as an integrator, SE2 founder Mike Pyle spent months in various home theaters researching things that drive consumers batty. "We had a list of about 300 problems concerning usability, serviceability, installation, etc.," he says. Many of those problems are solved with the ITC.
Here are some of the little things that make the product especially lovable:
- A system-wide on/off button is located at the front of the unit so all of the gear can easily be turned off. "One issue we found is when people have a problem with something like a satellite receiver, they [tech support] tell you to unplug the receiver," Pyle says. "If it's mounted in a rack, how do you get back there?"
- A power outlet is located on the front of the ITC. If you want to plug in a camcorder that is probably dead because you used up the batteries on your vacation, you don't have to hunt for a power outlet and extension cord. Duh. If the video inputs are there, why shouldn't the power be, too?
- A plaque on the front of the unit shows the serial number and contact information. You don't have to pull out any components to find it.
- There are four status lights on the front of the chassis monitoring connections to the Internet, telephone service, television service and the local network. If the system goes awry, you know where to look. "If Comcast loses a signal, you get real-time feedback that it [the problem] is external," Pyle says. Not that that ever happens.
- Press a button on the front of the ITC if you lose the remote and follow the beeps.
How Does it All Fit into One Small Box?
First, a little history: Pyle has been in the home systems industry for about 14 years. He owned a home systems installation business in Salt Lake City, which eventually became Aurant, a leading integration firm in the area.
Naturally, during that time, he became cozy with many of the leading manufacturers in the home theater and automation business.
He was able to get them to supply the boards for the ITC -- no cases, no individual remote controls, no fans, no nothing, just the boards.
SE2 at CEDIA
Since Vidikron supplies the video processors, SE2 will be shown at the Vidikron/Runco booth, #510.
"We went to manufacturers like Vidikron and said, 'You have a great video processor, but I'm not going to pay six grand for it,'" Pyle says.
He thinks it's a little silly to have piles of boxes stacked on top of each other taking up so much real estate when so much of the stuff is redundant. And it's sillier still to have to pay for it all.
"Every component is a universal box," he says. "Each box has to have its own user interface, buttons, inputs and outputs and remote controls. In a home theater there might be 400 possible buttons and 300 inputs and outputs. Why pay for all of these if you're not using them?"
It isn't the DVD player, for example, that costs so much. It's the trappings -- the case, the buttons, the connectors, the remote control.
SE2 eliminated all of that by using only the PCB boards from Vidikron, Bryston and AMX, among others. Transparent Audio built a customized wiring harness for the innards, and provides power management for the ITC. As for Xbox, Pyle just buys those and strips off the plastic and other extraneous parts. It's amazing how small a machine you can build with a little bit of consolidation.
With ITC, Pyle says, "You're only buying one box that has one user interface and one set of inputs and outputs."
He likens his solution to a PC, where everything you need is in a single box. If computers were built like home theater systems, you'd have one box for storage, one for audio processing, one for video, one for the operating system, etc. People would have to mix and match and assemble the parts and buy a costly rack to put them in.
"We [the home systems industry] are asking people to buy a bunch of pieces that don't go together, and we end up with a clunky mess."
Why Doesn't it Overheat?
The very first and most complicated problem in developing the ITC was overheating. Back when Pyle was researching all those home theaters, he sought the causes of system failures.
"It turns out that heat is a major reason for product failure," he says.
And one major reason for overheating -- regardless of how many fans you stick in your A/V rack -- is the horizontal orientation of the components. With components stacked on top of each other, heat cannot escape, even when the individual units have built-in fans.
"DirecTV has a fan, but that fan blows hot air from the back into the chassis," says Pyle. "That can short-circuit it. …The air flow is fighting natural convection."
The problem is exponentially more difficult for the ITC since it packs so much technology within a single box. You might have 1800 watts in there. Normally all of that energy is spread out a across an entire rack with multiple gaps for breathing room.
To mitigate this problem, SE2 built its products with the "components" -- the boards -- aligned vertically. "Cool air comes in the bottom and goes out the top and it can't go back into the box," Pyle says.
Problem #1 solved. Problem #2: This architecture can be noisy.
There's nothing worse than a home theater experience being interrupted by the whirring of fans in the components.
SE2 devised a chassis where a two-inch gap at the bottom of the ITC lets air into the vents. The air goes through a series of acoustical baffles that muffle the internal fans. At the exhaust end (the top) is another set of baffles and a generous space for warm air to escape.
"It can move a ton of air and do it quietly," Pyle says.
The fans are computer-controlled so they are infinitely variable. A temperature sensor tells the fans when to ramp up and down.
"There's just a slow, consistent change in speed so you won't hear it kick in like other fans," says Pyle. On the exhaust vent, a glowing light changes colors to reflect the temperature of the box.