Clean Up Your Cables, Home-Theater Edition

Home Theater Set-Up
Photo: Courtesy of Bose Speakers Lover Blog
Setting up a home-theater system can be expensive and time consuming, so you want the finished product to look pretty darn awesome.

Unfortunately, one aspect of home-theater setup tends to get overlooked: cable management. What good is a sexy new HDTV and attractive, modern-looking speakers if your living room is overrun with unsightly wires? The last thing you want is for your slim, wall-mounted HDTV to look like an octopus because of all the cables trailing down.

The easiest way to pretty up your home-theater system is to organize and hide its cables. Options for hiding your existing cables (rather than doing away with them altogether) range from simple zip-tie organization to under-the-carpet snaking to behind-the-wall wiring.

Organize Your Cables

If your home theater isn't too high-tech--for example, if your HDTV sits on a console table instead of being wall-mounted--you may just need to do some organizing. Nixing cable clutter will make your peripherals easier to manage, and it'll make everything look a little more organized if (God forbid) one of your house guests happens to check the behind the TV.

For open-back console tables:

1. Use cable ties to bundle your cables together. These can be simple zip ties ($3, Best Buy), or cute cable accessories like the Sarut Group's bendable cable monkey ($5, ThinkGeek) and alligator ($7, Amazon). Try to bundle audio cables, visual cables, and power cables separately for more coherent organization and to avoid audio/visual interference.

2. Use cord catchers to prevent your cables from falling behind the table when you unplug them. You can make cord catchers yourself using thick binder clips, or you can purchase individual catchers (such as the Cord Catch, $7, OXO) or multiple catchers (such as the Cordies Classic, $10, Quirky).

For solid-back cabinets:

1. Use cable tacks ($2, various) to trap your cables against the back of your cabinet. Cable/wire tacks are a cheap and easy to use (you'll need a hammer or a cable tacker, $17, Sears), though you ought to have pretty clear idea of what should go where before you start punching holes in the back of your furniture.

2. Screw hooks ($30/24, various) into the back of your cabinet and loop extra-long cables around the hooks. Be sure to use enough hooks to avoid creasing the cables.

Hide Your Cables

Want to put your home theater somewhere far away from an outlet? Instead of haphazardly stringing cables along the wall, cleverly hide them by running them along the ceiling, behind the furniture, or underneath the carpet.

1. Use cable raceways to hide and neaten cable tracks. Cable raceways aren't exactly hidden themselves, but they do hide unsightly cables and provide a clean, finished look. You can paint them to blend in with the wall or trim that you lay them against.

2. Use cable tacks along the ceiling or the floor. If you adopt this approach, it's best to lay down the cable before you put in the furniture, so you can lay the cable neatly along the floor or the ceiling. Be sure to buy the correct type of cable tack for each of your cords--flat cable tacks, for example, will pinch and damage round cords.

3. Hide cables under the carpet. Again, it's best to do this before you put any furniture down. The easiest way to hide cables under the carpet is to use a steel fish tape tool ($35, CableOrganizer) to pull the cable from one side of the room (where your entertainment center is set up) to the other (where your cable emerges from the carpet to connect to the electrical outlet).

This is easier than it sounds, even if you've never used fish tape before: gently pull up the carpeting where the cable will enter (about 2 inches of carpeting), and gently pull up the carpeting where the cable will exit. Starting from the "exit" side, slide the fish tape loop beneath the carpet and the padding, and slowly push it toward the "enter" side. Once the fish tape reaches the "enter" side, draw the loop out from beneath the carpet/padding, and loosely tie your cable to the loop. Then slowly pull the fish tape and cable back toward the "exit" side.

Hide Your Cables Behind a Wall

If your HDTV is wall-mounted and you want to maintain a minimalist look, cleverly hiding cables will take you only so far. Aside from going wireless (see below), the best way to make cables disappear is to park them inside the wall.

Unfortunately, unless you're particularly savvy with in-home wiring, it's best to leave this type of work to skilled professionals. "Let me put it this way," says Tom O'Connor, of Palo Alto-based O'Connor & Sons Electric, when I asked him for advice on do-it-yourself electrical work, "About 80 percent of my work is fixing other people's mistakes. It's not brain surgery, sure, but I went to four years of school for this. What seems easy on paper can be tricky in the real world, especially when there are wires and a $3000 HDTV involved."

The good news is that professional electric work is not a break-the-bank expense, and it will certainly cost less than your home-theater setup. O'Connor & Sons Electric charges $125 per hour and says that most HDTV jobs take about 2 hours. Todor Georgiev of San Francisco-based ElectroIntegrity says that jobs can cost as much as $850 depending on the type of wall. "Imagine an old plaster wall, 2x3 studs, old knob and tube wiring, and a $3500 TV--not good," Georgiev writes in an e-mail message, "In that case, it's necessary to brace up that section of wall before installation."

Ultimately, the cost of hiding cables in a wall depends on where you want to put your TV, how your house is built, how many components you have, and where they'll be located. Gus Kanakis of San Jose-based Anchor Electric suggests consulting your local electrician and exploring options based on budget, tolerance for construction disruption (taking down drywall, for example), and building type.

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