Master of Ceremonies

BY BRIAN SHERMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

Trevor Van Etten isn’t necessarily a big proponent of the latest, greatest, most up-to date and most expensive equipment—unless, of course, that’s what his customers want.

The owner of Innovative Theater & Sound, a company with a reputation for providing the ultimate in home automation innovation, home theaters and high-end video and audio equipment, Van Etten has
been designing and installing systems in the Lowcountry and beyond for almost nine years. One of the things he likes best about his job is that each of his clients presents a unique challenge.

“Nobody’s needs are the same,” Van Etten explains. “Every house is different. It’s not about the latest trends. It’s about what the client wants.”

A veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and a former member of the North Charleston Fire Department, Van Etten compares his current profession to the thrill of his previous jobs.

“There’s an adrenalin rush in the military and fighting fires,” he says. “It’s not just a nine-to-five job. You get the same kind of rush in this business because the technology changes so quickly.”

Van Etten says his company takes on jobs both large and small, from hanging a television over a fireplace to helping a homeowner put together a million-dollar home theater. And though he readily admits that others might charge less than he does, he points out that Innovative Theater & Sound uses only top-quality components, most of them designed and manufactured in the United States.

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“If we can do it here in this country, why not?” he says. “The quality control is better with U.S. products.”

He adds that the connection between his company and his customers is a long-term relationship because he continues to provide service long after the initial sale.

“Some companies overpromise and underdeliver,” he says, adding that in several instances, he’s been called on to fix problems created by his competitors. “It’s not the number of black boxes you can sell to someone. It’s the solution you can provide for your customers.”

Van Etten’s business philosophy apparently is working well. He’s never lost a client. In addition to Kiawah and other locations throughout the Lowcountry, he has completed projects on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies and in Colorado, South Texas and New York, among other places.

The seeds that eventually produced Innovative Theater & Sound were sown while Van Etten was earning a living fighting fires in North Charleston. A Daniel Island homeowner, frustrated with another company’s inability to make his home theater perform up to his expectations and knowing that Van Etten did this type of work in his spare time, asked him to do what he could to fix the problem. “The homeowner had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and the system still didn’t work right,” Van Etten says. “It wasn’t the experience he was expecting at the end of the job.”

The man was so impressed with his work that he gave Van Etten a “substantial” check and told him to start his own business. He took the homeowner’s advice to heart.

Van Etten cites two recent jobs he’s proud about. In a Wild Dunes home, he installed six in-wall subwoofers and three 4-foot-tall, in-wall speakers—all in a 25-foot-by-30-foot home theater with tiered seating for 18 people. In a project on Sullivan’s Island, he provided the homeowners with full control over several aspects of their home for specific occasions. For example, when they want to entertain guests, they can push one button that will dim the lighting and start a specific music playlist that’s audible throughout the house. Or, if friends are coming over to watch football, they can push a single button to control all their televisions.

Before starting work on a project, Van Etten meets with his clients to find out as much as he can about their lifestyle and what type of system they want. Some of the questions he asks are: “How many people live there? How big is the house? Do you like music or do you watch a lot of television?”

“We tailor the house around their lifestyle,” Van Etten says. “We want our customers to feel engaged with their home.”

When he first got into the business, Van Etten taught himself how to install home theaters as well as audio and video equipment. Those days are long gone. Now, he and his four employees are constantly learning by reading about the latest trends and technological advances and through training provided by manufacturers. “Nothing stays the same. If you don’t go to bed reading magazines about the business, you’ll lose track of what’s going on,” Van Etten says.

So what has changed in the nine years since Innovative Theater & Sound was launched? For one thing, according to Van Etten, the cost of installing a home theater has dropped, so more people can afford to install one. In addition, wireless technology continues to improve, which means there are fewer wires and cables to hide behind furniture and under carpets and rugs. Van Etten notes, however, that he recommends a hard-wired connection in many cases because they are faster and more reliable.

He adds that companies tasked with installing and servicing high-end video and audio equipment must have access to the know-how to deal with today’s technology.

“You need a substantial background in IT. Everything is connected to the Internet, and you need the proper support,” he says.

Based on his sterling reputation, Van Etten gets many of his customers through referrals. He also does a lot of work for local contractor Phillip W. Smith. In addition to home automation, lighting control, highend audio and home theaters, Innovative Theater & Sound also installs security and monitoring systems.

Besides providing his clients with highend equipment and “a lifetime of service,” Van Etten enjoys teaching them about his profession. “They’re fun to work with,” he comments. “They are as eager to learn as I am to teach them.”

Brian Sherman, a Mount Pleasant resident, is a freelance writer, editor and graphic designer.