How They Do It: A Ride-Along with One of the Midwest's Biggest Integrators

Ed Wenck
Aug 15, 2016

“It’s all about the right infrastructure.”

Don Wolfe and I are talking about one of the challenges the residential technology integrator faces — the forward momentum of product development and the speed of innovation. There’s a constant “push me/pull you” vibe at work here. Check the original Dr. Doolittle film for this reference: the “pushmi-pullyu” was a two-headed llama that tries to walk in diametrically opposed directions.

The result? The animal usually just stands still.

To overcome all of that, make sure the job is wired for whatever’s next.

Wolfe — GM of TRIPhase, a Midwest-based integration firm that’s one of the  top-ten  single-location companies of its kind nationally — is taking me along on a roundup of job sites in various states of dress. Before we roll in one of the firm’s 19 trucks, though, I’m getting a treat: a scene from the action flick San Andreas in 4K Ultra-HD with 360-degree sound in one of TRIPhase’s showroom theater setups.

The destruction of Los Angeles has never been rendered with better audio and video imaging.

Buildings are collapsing, The Rock is being all Rock-like whilst saving the heroine, and the subwoofers are turning the explosions into EXPLOSIONS. Helicopter noises and cracking concrete have never been more immersive. Above me is a lighting touch I hadn’t noticed at first: the ceiling’s covered with an illuminated star pattern.

Wolfe’s saved the film demo for the biggest media room they’ve built at TRIPhase HQ. The walls here are absolutely absorptive, the speakers are completely hidden, and the screen automatically masks to fit image aspect ratios. The racks flanking the screen are packed with players, receivers, and amps that are pushing an experience that beats an actual trip to the movies — I can control the volume or even pause the cinematic experience. And I know the floor won’t be sticky.

TRIPhase has two smaller AV rooms and what amounts to a three-zone area of bar, media room, and dining room. That last bit of space has a ceiling filled with lighting solutions including a programmable chandelier, a two-channel tube amp that’d certainly crack five figures, and powered window treatments. Wolfe’s playing the control interfaces like he’s running a video game, but that’s not the only bona fides here: the walls are covered with signed photos of thanks from sports celebs and music and literary luminaries.

It’s incredible that landscapers aren’t tripping over painters who aren’t tripping over Wolfe’s guys pulling cable.

As we leave the showroom, there’s music in the median between the lines of trucks. The shop pumps tunes outdoors with a system that comes complete with a mushroom-shaped subwoofer. It’s rich.

As we roll to our first jobsite of the day, Wolfe and I shoot the breeze about business trends: networking’s through the ceiling (literally and figuratively), security’s on the rise (especially now that the market’s seeing more new builds) and referrals are booming. We talk about service contracts: One super-wealthy client has a man on call at TRIPhase on a daily basis. “We’d write more of these, but we’re so busy just keeping up,” Wolfe says with a shade of lament. It beats what happened at the end of the first decade of the 21st century: His staff of 37 are stretched from jobsites in the Great Lakes states to the West Coast. To complicate things just a bit more, he’s got a showcase of new builds that’s set to open in five weeks, and his company’s been contracted for roughly half the integrations in that show.

Wolfe and I park on a street that’s humming with activity and work trucks. It’s incredible that landscapers aren’t tripping over painters who aren’t tripping over Wolfe’s guys pulling cable. We see the openings in the ceiling waiting for speakers, the dedicated area for racks yet to be installed, and the boxes that’ll be covered since they won’t be used until later in the life of the home. Wolfe looks at the termination points on one porch that won’t see outdoor TVs until well after the new homeowner’s been in the house for a while. “All photographed, all documented.” Wolfe’s crew will know precisely where to place the screen — in fact, there are two potential walls where a TV could be hung, and both are wired and ready.

The entire neighborhood, jammed with new construction, seems to be moving as one unit, even though crews are scrambling to beat the mid-September start of “Home-A-Rama,” a builder’s and installer’s showcase that had gone briefly dormant in the Great Recession. “It’s back now!” affirms Wolfe.

Next on our tour of works-in-progress: A pool’s going into a nearby backyard, and the yet-to-be built pergola off the rear of an existing home will need audio and video. Wolfe’s a bit perplexed: it seems that both electrical lines and downspout construction might interfere with the lines he’s got to pull. That’s when I realize that even the GM will need to be hands-on. “I check these jobsites regularly — that way we can be proactive, not reactive. If I show up and something needs to be done and my guys are all elsewhere, we can do it.”

Our final stop’s a spectacular retrofit, an airy ‘70s-era home that sits on a lakefront. The family has moved out for the time being since the place is being renovated top-to-bottom, and the Brady-Bunch-era shell hides a brilliant contemporary treatment. The technology in the home will include multi-room delivery of audio and video, security, and several zones of HVAC control. The TRIPhase installers working this site need a fresh control interface unit, and now Wolfe is playing the role of deliveryman.

Wolfe’s conferencing with two of his men as they work on a downstairs media room. The room’s got few right angles, but there’s glass everywhere: great for natural light, not so much for high-end audio. Another issue: the receiver powering the downstairs system seems to have developed a hum. At first Wolfe thinks it’s the wine fridge nearby, but nope — there’s definitely some embedded background noise that the TRIPhase guys need to troubleshoot. Wolfe and his guys aren’t fazed, though (pun intended) and are attacking the problem with what amounts to a pretty good sense of humor. Even on a day when “push-me/pull-you” syndrome threatens to stall a nearly-completed integration with a one-step-forward-two-steps-back development, the guys won’t let anything keep them standing still.



CEDIA blog posts are intended to provide general information and should not be regarded as legal opinions or advice.

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