HOME THEATER DESIGN BASICS
You’re ready for a home theater set-up, and you’re quivering with excitement at the thought of a fully immersed movie experience right in your own home. But there’s that one BIG question:
Where do you begin?
There are so many things to consider, both technical and financial. For example, a home theater can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 — or more. Or that Amazon lists several hundred possibilities for home theater speakers. With so many options, setting up your home theater can be a head-spinning experience.
Most likely you know where your home theater will be set up. It might be in the main living area, a spare bedroom or a basement where you can set up a movie palace complete with a popcorn machine. Each of these areas has special considerations in terms of comfort and sound quality. There are many common factors as well.
• Room shape. Square rooms tend to produce odd harmonic distortions. If you have the option, choose a rectangular room for your Home Theater. Also, plan to place your televison and main speakers along a short wall for best sound projection in your Home Theater.
• Windows. The fewer windows in your Home Theater room, the better. Windows are hard surfaces that reflect sound-causing audio distortion. They also give off light that can produce reflections on your viewing surface.
Heavy curtains and shades may help, but that means closing blinds or drapes every time you turn on your home theater system. Opt for blackout-style window treatments, if you must, that track tight against window jambs to seal out light.
• Walls. If you’re tempted to staple inverted egg cartons all over the walls of your home theater room to try to muffle the sound, just relax. Regular drywall is a decent surface appropriate for home theater walls. However, break up spacious flat surfaces with furniture or drapes. Don’t add framed picture with glass as they are too reflective of sound and light.
Concrete or concrete block is a big no-no. If you’re setting up you Home Theater in a basement with concrete walls, think about installing studs and drywall.
Another option is acoustic wall panels designed specifically for home theaters. These panels are called “sound absorption” panels. They help to balance high and low frequencies to prevent echoes. Panels come as 1′ x 1′ or 2′ x 2′ squares costing anywhere from $4 to $20 per square foot.
Peel-and-stick carpet tiles are the budget-minded preference as they range from $2 to $4. You just don’t want to end up with a room that looks like Lloyd and Harry’s shaggy van from Dumb and Dumber.
Remember decreasing the sound works both ways. Controlling the sound in your home theater room means peace and quiet for the rest of your house.
• Flooring. Wall-to-wall carpet, with a cushy pad underneath, absorbs ambient sound and adds to the coziness of your home theater. Kids like to sprawl on the floor to watch movies
• Wall/room color. Paint your walls of your Home Theater as dark as you can stand them: Bright colors reflect light that’s particularly distracting when there’s a brightly lit scene on the screen. Choose eggshell or flat paints instead of gloss or semi-gloss..
Opt for colors such as neutral browns, tans or olive. Stronger colors, like red and blue, will give an odd cast to any ambient light in the Home Theater and may affect the colors you see on your screen.
Speaker technology is remarkably advanced. Competition among top speaker manufacturers has helped turn home theater sound reproduction into a fine art. This means that a system you choose for your home theater is likely to be of very high quality.
Most home theater speaker systems (and movie soundtracks) are designed to provide specific sounds from specific areas of your listening environment. When a train goes thundering through a scene, you hear the sound move from one side to the other. However, speakers labeled as bipole or dipole aren’t compatible with this essential feature of home theater, so check before you buy.
• Speaker placement. A typical home theater features 5.1 surround sound, which means there are five full-range speakers and one low-range subwoofer. Place three speakers and the subwoofer toward the front of the Home Theater room, and the two remaining speakers on either side and slightly behind your viewing position. Keep speakers at least 20 inches from your Home Theater walls.
Each room is unique, and the best sound for you may come only after experimenting with your speaker placement. Luckily, speakers are moveable.
• Ideal distance. In a perfect world, your ears would be equal distance from each speaker in your Home Theater room. Seeing as your ears are on opposite sides of your head, it’s safe to say you won’t ever acquire this kind of perfection. Nonetheless, come as close to that target as possible.
Some speakers — certainly your subwoofer — will have individual volume controls you can fine-tune. More refined speakers provide millisecond adjustments, called delays, that time sound projection from each speaker so that everything makes it to your ears at precisely the same instant. This is a handy feature for large Home Theater rooms with speakers at various distances.
Audioholics Online A/V Magazine even gives a formula: a 1 millisecond delay equates to 1.1 feet of distance. A speaker 5.5 more feet away from your head than your other speakers would require an advance setting of 5 milliseconds.
• Playing center field. Of all your speakers in your Home Theater, your center front speaker is probably the most influential. It is in charge of projecting sound directly from the screen. This is important mainly for dialogue. You don’t want to see the actors talking in front of you while the sound of their voices is coming from the side.
The center speaker shouldn’t be downgraded in your home theater budget. This speaker can sometimes be overshadowed by the tower speakers that are skirting it. Spend time adjusting your center speaker so that dialogue seems to come directly from your display.
• Woof, woof. Your subwoofer goes up front in your Home Theater. There’s only one, so you decide which side to put it on. The low bass ranges reproduced by a subwoofer will go through your Home Theater room, so angle is not as relevant as with the other speakers. A corner spot helps distribute your subwoofer’s sound evenly but, as with all components, experiment with a variety of positions before settling on the perfect location.
The forerunner of any home theater set-up is a high-definition display screen. The temptation is to balance size with increased viewing pleasure, but there are limits to this. You want to be immersed in the experience, but you don’t want a display so big that you have to move your head back and forth in an effort to take in all the action. You need to look for the right combination of display size and viewing angle.
Optimum angle. HDTV manufacturers and home theater experts place the best viewing angle between 30 to 40 degrees. Therefore, if you draw a triangle from the edges of the display to your nose, the angle that points at your head sould be 30 to 40 degrees. This angle lets you take in all the action with the least amount of eye movement.
If you stay the same distance from your display but move off to the side, the viewing angle gets smaller. If you plan to have multiple seating in your Home Theater room, make sure all the chairs have the best viewing angle.
Optimum distance. Ideal viewing angle can be expressed simply as distance as well. This angle is usually 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal width of your screen. This means that you should sit no closer than 7.5 feet from a 60-inch-wide TV, and no more than 12.5 feet away. A viewing distance calculator can help when math skills falter.
This formula can work in reverse, too. If you know your viewing distance — say it’s 8 feet — then you can select an ideal display size. Eight feet is 96 inches. Divide by 2 (an average of 1.5 and 2.5) and you’ll get 48 inches. So the recommended HDTV display for your viewing distance in your Home Theater would be about 48 inches wide (measured diagonally).
Viewing height. The best viewing height in your Home Theater room is to have the center of the display screen at eye level. While that might seem primitive, some folks are tempted to elevate the display so that it hangs above their theater set-up. If you do raise your display, tilt it so that it faces the seating area in your Home Theater. It is even better if your seats recline so that you’re square to the display. Don’t forget to lift up your center speaker as well. When someone speaks you don’t want it to seem as if they’re talking out of the side of his mouth.