Building The Basic, Badass Home Theater 
Home Theater Feature Articles Other
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Wednesday, 01 February 2006

AV Education on RHT

Building The Basic, Badass Home Theater
Part One: Getting Prepared

Written by Jerry Del Colliano

Welcome to Part One of a series of articles designed to teach you the inside tricks, tips and advice needed to help you build a top performing yet entry level home theater. As much as we all want a $1,500,000 media room in our homes, most of us aren’t capable of footing the bill. This series is designed to get you thinking about all of the elements you need to make your $5,000 (and up) home theater perform like a set-up costing many, many times more than your investment.

Picking and Preparing Your Room
For most AV enthusiasts, it seems pretty obvious which room your theater should go in, but before you get too far into the project, take a second to think about who uses your theater and where they use it the most. If you have a large family and they watch lots of TV or movies, you will want to pick a high-traffic area of your house. If you are building an escape to enjoy your music and HDTV movies that is more for you alone, you might consider a basement or converting an extra bedroom. One key element in deciding which room to use is picking a room that can be made pitch dark if needed. If there are skylights in your living room, expect your TV picture to look washed out during the day. If you are never home during the day, then it isn’t that much of an issue. The goal is to get you thinking about how you will use your system before you start buying gear.

Once you have settled on the room, you will want to consider how you can make it ready for a topnotch theater system, no matter what your budget. If you are a renter, tearing up walls to run cables is likely too costly and problematic. If you own a condo or a house, I recommend considering tearing open your walls to run cables, add dedicated circuits for electrical needs and potentially add in-wall speakers. While there is mess created by poking holes in the walls, the end result is far superior to the clutter found in most theaters. Many wives hate big AV systems because they rarely ever look finished or neat. If you tear up the walls and hide your cables like a pro, you will have overcome potential objections from the get-go. Expect to pay a drywall contractor $400 to $750 to patch the holes, or you can do the work yourself. You can do your own painting or hire a contractor to do it for $200 or so, depending on the job.

Creating a floor plan for your media room is a great way to build a theater from scratch or rebuild your system after years of additions and subtractions to your beloved collection of gear. Do some measurements of the dimensions of your room, including ceiling heights, doorways and other elements. If you are doing your drawings by hand, be sure to get the general dimensions of the room on a master sheet and make copies. This allows you to try different layouts of gear, speakers and furniture that you might buy. Involving your better half in this process is the way to get what you want when it comes down to plunking down the platinum card on that 60-inch rear projection big screen.

When considering your media room, think about the acoustical elements in it, such as drapes, carpet, wall coverings, ceiling textures and more. I find most theaters are too “live” or reflective. Glass walls, hardwood floors and coffee tables add to this effect. It is possible to make a room overly dead or absorptive, but this is not normally the case at the entry level. Consider adding a fabric wall on the walls beside your left, right and center speakers. The improvement in imaging can be radical. If you are handy, you can install a faux wall with reasonably affordable, fire-retardant acoustical dampening material. At the Audio Video Revolution offices in Beverly Hills, we had our designer create a fabric wall as a design element. We bought pretty upmarket fabric for the wall, resulting in a total cost of about $1,200, including installation. In other cities, this would be less. Also your choice of fabrics is the largest cost factor you can make in this decision. There are fabrics for $20 per yard that will look fantastic. I have also seen home theaters with 40-foot-long walls and 12-foot-high ceilings with $375 per yard fabric. This is a bit extreme, but the effect of a fabric wall can be very striking. It also allows you to better hide side channel speakers in the wall where no one can see them, resulting in less clutter without any level of compromise in performance.

I can’t stress how important your room is to the overall success of your system. You can spend $100,000 on equipment and not be able to correct simple acoustical problems that are easily dealt with before you head out to buy your equipment. Fabric side walls help. Hanging an unobtrusive treatment above and slightly in front of your main speakers is also an amazing acoustical improvement for any home theater. This treatment absorbs the first order sonic reflections on the ceiling and really helps to sharpen your image. Creating a complex texture on the back wall of your theater also helps to diffuse energy that can wreck your overall sound. A brick wall or your CD shelf or bookcase often does the trick. RPG’s diffuser products have a somewhat “recording studio look,” but they really rock. Depending on your budget, I would highly recommend you consider calling in a guru to consult you from afar. Bob Hodas and Rives Audio offer services starting around $500, which include drawings and measurements of your room, as well as recommendations on how to improve your acoustical situation as best you can within your realistic budget constraints. For anyone looking to spend over $15,000 total, I would recommend spending as much as $1,000 on acoustical design. The benefits can make a $1,000 pair of speakers sound better than a $3,000 pair in many cases.

Lighting and Darkness
Lighting control is one of the most overlooked elements in the basic home theater. With your floor plan in place with furniture and gear, take another copy of your plan and note where your lights are currently located. Look for places where you would like to remove lights. If you have a floodlight right above your screen for your new DLP projector, you would be well advised to move or remove such a light. In-ceiling lights are very slick, but track lighting is a more affordable and comparably effective way to get light where you need it. Consider lighting options so that you can read a book in your favorite seat while the rest of the room is basically dark. Consider how you will be able to see and access your equipment rack of gear in a darkened room. Normally, one or two spots will do the trick without ruining the mood during a movie. Calling in a professional electrician is best in this situation. Be sure to get a dedicated circuit for your equipment rack with at least a quad outlet for plugging in gear.

The best way to make your picture look better in the room is to make the room as dark as possible. This sounds simpler than it usually is, nor is it cheap in many cases. Window treatments can cost a pretty penny, depending on the fabric you choose. I recommend ordering blackout drapes for your windows which use multiple layers of fabric to absorb light. You will want to flush-mount them in a track in your ceiling or use some sort of covering for a more traditional track. Drapes also help your acoustical situation. A more cost-effective way to deal with window treatments is to look to stores like Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware or Room & Board for pre-made drapes. Do your measurements as though you’re doing them for NASA. It is really easy to mess up. For a few hundred dollars, you can get nice thick drapes up that do a suitable job of blocking light. In order to create a dark room suitable for the best in HDTV in the middle of a summer afternoon, I am not installing windows in the dedicated theater that I am building onto my house in Los Angeles. I have planned spaces for windows in the room in the event someone later wants to tear out the theater and make it into an additional bedroom or office. Getting all of the light out of your room costs a lot more money, but your wife might consider window treatments to be a different budget than you AV gear acquisitions.

What you park your butt on is sometimes overlooked in a theater. In my current theater, I got caught up in the idea of furniture as art. I bought some really beautiful modern sofas and chairs from a designer in Paris that cost a fortune and took seven months to arrive. No joke – seven months. While what I bought looks cool, it wasn’t a good fit for sitting for three hours watching the back nine at The Masters in HDTV. My mistake was treating furniture like art, not like fashion. In 10 years, you will want a new sofa, so it is crazy to invest in a couch that you will need to own forever in order to increase its value.

In my new theater, I am using dedicated home theater seating for six adults. While I find some of what the theater seating industry has to offer is tacky (think cup holders in your armrest), there is no denying the comfort you can get from even an affordable home theater chair. I recently sat in a $1,200 home theater chair at a La-Z-Boy showroom. I was impressed with the quality of the chair for the price. What is most important, no matter what the brand, is to get a seating configuration that allows you to suspend gravity. In other words, you need to be able to get your feet up off the ground. If you have a sofa that you like, consider adding an ottoman. Consider where your primary seating positions are and budget a little more money for those spots. Consider having some pillows made that allow guests to be able to crash on the floor for a movie. Plush carpet is also a smart move if you think people will sit on the floor. Modest theaters today more and more use another surprisingly affordable trick: creating a stage that is six inches high for the seating in the rear of the room. For a few hundred dollars in two-by-fours and plywood and a day’s worth of labor, this can be built into your theater, creating a dramatic effect and really good sightlines for your guests or kids who want to sit in the back of your theater.

Equipment Racks
Traditional racks used for audiophile systems are a sore topic with many wives, designers and system owners who need to continually make changes to their system. Radical improvements have been made to store-bought home theater racks, including most importantly the ability to install a flat TV on top of your gear.

Depending on the size of your system, in addition to the extra components you may purchase at some time in the future, you need to consider the size of your rack. Personally, I prefer installed equipment racks like the kind Middle Atlantic sells. You buy the shelves you need for the gear you have and install them neatly in a rack, which saves space. With a pullout style, you have easy access to the back of your rack to make equipment or cable changes with relative ease. You can mount one or two racks like these into a custom piece of furniture or into a closet which you will find can create much more space in your theater. Consider ventilation in any rack system you might install. Overheating is a classic way to get AV equipment to fail on you. Consider ways to get cool air into your rack, as well as sucking hot air from your rack to another place in your home or venting it outside. The parts needed for a pro rack could cost you between $600 to $800, depending on the size and amount of cool custom faceplates that you order. Also be sure to get a rack drawer for about $50, so that you have a place to store all of your remotes in case you ever need them. Also consider installing an AC power strip that rack-mounts with a light. I use mine all the time when changing discs in a dark room during a listening session.

Wife (or Husband) Acceptance Factor
It has been 10 years since I designed home theaters for a living, but back then nothing would derail a good system sale more than a pissed-off wife. A guy who loves gear and spends a ton of money on his rack of components trying to eek the last one-tenth of one percent of performance from his system is a guy who also knows his salesperson at Tiffany’s on a first name basis. If you play your cards right, you shouldn’t need to bribe anyone to get the theater you want.

Sell the idea of changing your theater into a media room that will increase the value of your home and will be a place where the entire family and your friends will want to congregate. Pitch the idea of making your theater look more “finished” by hiding cables, rack-mounting your gear and using smart interior design techniques to make the room be the best-looking space in your home. Your spouse will start to buy into your concept.

The most important part of the process is to involve your wife or girlfriend in the project on a number of levels. Allow her to pick the colors for the room. If she is into it, go shopping for fabric with her. Test seating on a Saturday afternoon at real furniture shops as well as a few top home theater installers or retailers. If you really want to break out the heavy ammo, find an installer and system integrator that has a very trick AMX or Crestron touch panel remote system set-up. Schedule a demo (the salespeople love it when you schedule a demo) and have her run the entire system. You should never really touch the remote. Allow her to believe that, when you are away at work or on the golf course, she can make your pending system do everything she wants it to do. She will quickly see that the system you are designing is more than a tweako collection of esoteric audiophile gear, although we aren’t going to compromise on any of the performance. In fact, by getting your room all dialed in before you install your theater, you have without question guaranteed better performance.

The Next Installment of Building a Basic Badass Theater
Part 2 of this series will deal with system decisions and block diagrams of possible systems, as well as budgetary concerns.

How to Rack Mount Your Gear
Home Made Acoustical Treatments
Bob Hoads Sound Tips 1 - Proper Speaker Placement
Bob Hodas Sound Tips 2 - Speaker Placement Continued
Bob Hodas Sound Tips 3 - Placement Without Measurement
Bob Hodas Sound Tips 4 - Don't Let The Speakers Block the View of the Golden Gate Bridge
Bob Hodas Sound Tips 5
Bob Hodas Sound Tips 6

Bob Hodas
Rives Audio
Echo Busters
Pottery Barn
Room and Board
Restoration Hardware

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