What housing slump?

Don't get him wrong. Neal Manowitz, who as director of marketing for Sony Electronics' consumer systems and applications division runs the company's sales in the new-home market, certainly empathizes with builders as they struggle through this downturn. But his business continues to grow.

Granted, much of that growth is in the so-called "retro" market, in which A/V systems and home theaters are being added to existing homes. Still, Manowitz estimates that A/V and home-automation gear is now going into some 15 percent of the new-home market, most of it at the uppermost end of the product lines. It is because of this, he suspects, that business has kept up during the downturn. "We're a little bit protected," he says. "Consumer appetite for HD and A/V has not diminished."

Sony, Manowitz says, continues to do most of its business in the new-home space through its dealers, who are subcontractors to builders. The direct-to-builder market has not really developed beyond a handful of companies, and Manowitz does not expect it will for "some time to come." He does, however, talk to builders regularly and says that the No. 1 reason why they choose to offer home entertainment and control systems in their homes "is to help sell the home. 'Show me a system that can help me move the inventory I have,'" is a common response, according to Manowitz.

"Throughout the downturn, we haven't seen the percentage of homes that have this technology going down," he says.

That's probably a good thing for Sony since, at its annual dealer show in Las Vegas in late February, it unveiled a new, high-end A/V rack system that will readily integrate Control4's home control systems for lighting, security, HVAC, and more with its entertainment system. This isn't entry-level stuff, or perhaps even move-up, given that the system, installed, can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $85,000, depending on its robustness. Subprime this ain't.

Dubbed the NHC-130C, the system includes a 7.1-channel, high-definition home theater for the living, media, or home theater room, plus HD video distribution and multi-room music capability for up to 12 additional zones. It has a 400-disc DVD/CD changer with a management system, a 160 gigabyte music server, a Blu-Ray Disc player, an AM/FM/XM/Sirius radio tuner, three auxiliary inputs for gaming systems or a Macintosh or PC or whatever–it can even handle an iPod.

Onto that rack system can be hung anything that is controllable via Control4 technology. That includes lighting, security systems, HVAC, and other goodies like that system that turns on the lawn sprinklers that make life in the 21st century feel, well, like life in the 21st century. It is all done via an easy hookup of modules and keypads that control the various systems using Cat 5 Ethernet, the Zigbee wireless standard, or speaker-level wire.

The integration means checking in on the security system from any video screen in the house, or changing the temperature in the viewing room to a cool 65 degrees for the showing of "Snow Dogs."

The best part is the ease of installation. The entire system was designed, according to Manowitz, "to squeeze out the cost and time needed for installation. It is very close to plug-and-play for the installer."

Now, that doesn't mean a builder can have a laborer, or group thereof, do it. But it does mean the system should go in without a hitch, and should it need tweaking in the future, it won't require the likes of Stephen Hawking.

Add to this in-wall-and-ceiling speakers from Sony's Sposato line, and the customer will be getting a knock-your-socks-off complete home control and entertainment system that will stand up against those that cost four or five times as much.

"What we are hearing from the builders is to keep things simple," says Manowitz. "But bundling all these things together, we can give them a great value.

Now, if only we can get this downturn over with.