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- August 2004 -
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For convenience and coolness, put your home entertainment components in a rack.

By Michael N. Marcus, www.theTekHouse.com

 

There are many logical reasons for putting electronic equipment in a rack. But racks look super-cool; and for big boys' toys, coolness is at least as important as logic.


The "relay rack" was originally used in phone company central offices to hold the equipment used to route calls.

Racks can hold a lot of electronic equipment, conveniently and securely; and they provide easy access to back and front. The rack was an extremely useful setup for the phone companies, and quickly became common in broadcast stations, recording studios, computer centers, theaters, stadiums, offices, science fiction movies, and homes.

There are many logical reasons for putting electronic equipment in a rack. But racks look super-cool; and for big boys' toys, coolness is at least as important as logic.

Most professional audio-video gear is designed for rack mounting. On the consumer side, rack mounting is almost a fashion item, like front panel color, that changes from year to year. In the early 1970s, when "high tech" was the rage, mainstream brands like Pioneer and Sansui offered rackable stereo components; and even crappy $99 one-box plastic systems were designed to look a rack full of components.

Today, the home audio-video rack is popular again, probably influenced by the huge amount of rackable data equipment, such as patch panels, hubs, switches and servers.

You can get rackable receivers, CD players, cassette recorders, DAT recorders, equalizers, amplifiers, mixers and other components from a number of brands, such as Onkyo, Marantz, Monster, Denon, Philips, Yamaha and Russound. Channel Plus makes a nice multi-mode audio-video input selector. There's even a rackmount phone system: Panasonic's new KX-TAW848.

If you want to use a computer as a media server or television recorder, there are lots of general purpose rackmount PCs to choose from; but I don't know of any rackmount Media Center PC. Amateur PC builders can get empty rackmount PC housings from Antec and other companies; as well as mounts for CRT and LCD monitors, and shelves for your keyboard and mouse. The standard-size PC keyboard is too wide for rack use, but IBM and others make narrow models that will fit just fine.

You can also choose from a wide range of useful add-ons that will complement your components, including lights, storage drawers for headsets and other accessories, shelves, power strips, cooling fans, speakers, keyboard shelves, monitor speakers, glass doors, perforated ventilation panels, and even blank panels that you can customize for your own projects.

A number of companies make media storage shelves in sizes to fit CDs, DVDs, VHS, DAT, analog cassettes, and LPs. Monster and Minuteman make power conditioning gear and backup power supplies that will fit in a rack. Large and heavy rack-mountable devices usually have handles to help you carry them and position them in your rack.

Racks range from desk-top size, to 12'-tall monsters. You can spend less than $100, or more than $1000.

Some racks are open frames, some are enclosed cabinets. Some stand on the floor, others go on the wall, and some can be built into a wall. Some built-ins slide out, and even rotate to provide easy access to wiring.

  • Rack-mountable components and accessories are usually made in multiples of 1.75" high (one "Rackmount Unit" or "RMU" or even just "U.").
  • Racks have have "rails" on each side that are drilled and tapped for 10/32 screw threads. Some racks also have supports in the rear for large equipment.
  • Most racks are made to hold equipment that is 19" wide, but some hold 23" gear.
  • The standard 19" and 23" rack widths refer to the overall width of the devices to be mounted, including any optional mounting hardware. The width between the side rails in a standard 19" rack is 17-5/16". These dimensions and screw thread specs are "EIA standard," set by the Electronics Industries Association. The outer width, depth and height vary from rack to rack.

Some equipment has rackmount holes in their front panels. Some manufacturers provide offer screw-on L-shape "rack ears" to install their products. But even if no rackmount solution is available from component's maker, you can still have an attractive, economical and safe rackmount.

Components that can fit within the 19" rack width, but are not designed specifically for rack use, can be installed on a shelf, but you'll have a much nicer installation with a custom-made rackmount.

www.TheTekHouse.com provides custom rackmounts from Middle Atlantic Products, that you can use to easily install almost any piece of audio or video gear (up to 17-3/8" wide) in a standard 19" rack without making any modifications to the component.

These custom rackmounts are precisely laser-cut to provide a perfect opening for the face of the component you are mounting, without the unsightly gaps you'd have with ordinary shelves. The component database has accurate details on over 6,000 units, so Middle Atlantic probably has the specs on your equipment. New products are constantly being added, but if they don't have the specs on a particular model, you can measure it yourself, or send it in for precise measuring and quick return.

Custom cut-outs are made for your equipment, and the complete custom mount is shipped to you, usually just a few days after you place your order. Mounts are shipped flat, and it will take you a few minutes to assemble with the included wrench.

The custom rackmounts are made of a handsome brushed black or silver anodized aluminum. Rear "L" brackets are included to prevent the mounted components from sliding back, and a ventilated bottom plate helps keep your components cool. Optional clamping bars are available when maximum stability is required.

Rack installation tips:

  • Give some careful thought to the placement of components in your rack. Most rackmount equipment is made in multiples of 1.75 inches height - but some companies don't follow the rules.
  • If you end up with non-standard empty places, you can make your own filler panels from metal, plastic or even black cardboard.
  • Consider installing lights on your rack to make the equipment labels easier to read. Gooseneck lamps are good for reading CD and DVD labels inside a changer. It's also important to have lighting inside or behind the rack.
  • Put your heaviest components in the bottom. Put the most-used components near eye level.
  • If you are installing an amplifier that generates lots of heat, allow some extra space between it and its upstairs neighbor. Consider putting in a perforated blank plate to improve cooling.
  • If you plan on adding components in the future, you can install inexpensive blank panels to fill up the spaces, rather than having to shift everything around later on.
  • It can be tricky getting your gear into the rack, and it's tough to support a component at the same time you are inserting screws; so an extra pair of hands can be very useful.
  • Make sure you have a nearby electrical outlet with adequate amperage.
  • Instead of running a bunch of power cords and extension cords from the rack to the outlet, install one or more power strip (with surge protection) inside the rack, and just one power cord going from the rack to the electrical outlet.
  • If you are going to connect an amplifier or receiver to speaker wires coming out of the wall, make sure that the exposed wires are long enough to reach the right spot in the rack, when the rack is moved away from the wall. Ten feet should be about right.

Michael N. Marcus is president of AbleComm, Inc. ("the telecom department store"), and a writer who specializes in telecommunications and consumer electronics. He was the audio/video editor or Rolling Stone magazine, and has written about electronic products for scores of other publications ranging from Esquire to Country Music.

One of the AbleComm websites, www.thetekhouse.com can save you money on equipment and supplies that are normally available only from custom electronics installers. It has pro-quality audio, video, telephone and computer rack mount gear, and even custom rack mounts for audio/video components that were not designed to be rack-mounted. Also: tools, cable,, speakers, volume controls, multi-port wall plates, patch panels, inserts and more.

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