Today anyone can purchase a flat-screen TV, nail it to a wall, hang a few speakers, heat up some popcorn, and say they have a home theater.
While this bare-bones approach is fine for a family room, it?s miles away from the home theater experience. Genuine home theaters are a highly sophisticated blend of high-tech audio/video equipment, sophisticated interior design, and seamless home integration.
It?s the last two elements?interior design and seamless integration?that make designing a home theater on your own a truly daunting task. One way to eliminate uncertainty and get a superb, speedy result: engage a home theater design and installation expert to guide you through the complex process.
An expert designer and installer can help you select the appropriate elements to fit both your architectural and technical requirements, and meet all your personal entertainment needs.
Let?s Get Started
Your first decision is perhaps the most important: choosing a qualified designer and installer to partner with. The Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) is a great place to start.
This industry-supported group is dedicated to education on the nuances of home theater design, then training them in everything from lighting techniques to acoustic speaker to whole system design.
CEDIA also tracks the latest in audio and video technologies. You?ll find their membership list and other home theater resources at WWW.CEDIA.ORG.
After you?ve selected a designer, they?ll visit your home and inspect the targeted theater area. They?ll consider factors such as ceiling height, room size, your personal style, and your tastes before making any recommendations.
You might think the next logical step is to shop around for the theater?s electronic components. But while understanding and choosing the right technology is crucial, it is important to first consider the theater experience. A good designer will help you get your head around the atmosphere, ambiance, and sensory elements that separate a home theater from a family room.
Do you want a sophisticated, intimate setting for just a few friends? A golden-era Hollywood cinema motif? An over-the-top ultra-modern multiplex? Or some unique vision of your own?
After the basic layout and design are defined, an expert designer will suggest colors, fabrics, wood finishes, lighting, window treatments, seating, flooring?everything from wet bars to popcorn poppers to cup holders.
Only then does the discussion turn to the fundamental technology and gadgetry that bring the ultimate home theater experience to life.
You can?t be sure the theater in your head will perfectly translate into reality. Every designer has a different way of helping customers through this. In our case, we?ve developed virtual reality software that lets people express and experience their ideas through vivid, computer generated, 360-degree views of home theater designs.
Consumers walk through and play ?what if? with the room, inserting, moving, changing, or deleting literally every conceivable element that constitutes the ultimate home theater?including furniture layout, wallpaper, trim, lighting, and of course, all the audio/visual components.
A designer will also help you select and install lighting that reduces or eliminates glare and reflections, and sets the perfect mood. In many cases, indirect lighting, such as ?washing a wall? (focusing spotlights on a wall) can be used to great effect.
Most designers will suggest recessed lighting to keep the room free of visual distractions and to maximize usable space. Spotlights are most often used to create exciting visual effect, create pathways, highlight regions, or generate shadows that make a small room seem larger.
Projecting a Great Image
The projection screen is one of the most important investments you?ll make in your home theater. Since your theater will be custom designed, the screen you choose will be tailored to fit not only the available space, but also the interior design.
Screens can be mounted flush against the wall, retractable, or even hidden by decorative doors or curtains. They are at least 90? and often larger. They?re scaled based on the size of the room, and the distance between the seating and the screen.
A good general rule of thumb: keep the distance between the theater seating and the screen no less than three times the height of the screen itself. For example, if you?re using a screen that?s 100 inches wide and 49 inches tall, the ideal distance between the seating and the screen would be no less than 15 ft.
One of the most popular projection devices is the Marantz VP12S4, which uses Texas Instruments? Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology to create an incredibly bright, crisp picture.
Sharp and Yamaha also offer DLP projectors; however, Marantz?s model uses a flatter industrial design, making it rest closer to the ceiling and, therefore, it?s less obtrusive. For more information about DLP technology in general, check out WWW.DLP.COM.
Another great projector is Sony?s SXRD Qualia front projector. This gives you a slightly larger projected image, with much greater resolution (sharpness) than the Marantz. However, while the picture quality of Sony?s SXRD is unrivaled, the device is also twice the price of the Marantz.
Before you think about audio electronics, think about acoustics. Wall treatments, such as soundproofing, ensure excellent sound quality, and keep audio from bleeding into other rooms.
That done, the number and type of speakers for a home theater are determined by the room?s environment and its intended purpose. Some people want traditional behind-the-screen stereo output, while others will opt for fully-immersive surround sound. Still others might want wireless or in-seat headphones for late-night private listening.
The designer will discuss what kind of listening experience you?re after, what types of audio you?ll be playing through the system, and the ideal speaker placement given the room?s acoustic fingerprint. For example, the system can be engineered to support music CDs and satellite radio, as well as HDTV audio and movie soundtracks.
There are also two types of speaker systems: freestanding or built-in. Both produce spectacular sound. Whether you want the speakers visible or hidden is a matter of aesthetics and personal style. Note, though, that hidden speakers free floor space, and are a great choice for households with small children.
Ideally, there should be no less than five speakers situated around the room. Additionally, up to two subwoofers boost response in the lower ?bass? frequencies, giving your home theater-goers the ?booming? audio experience they can feel in their bones, and expect in a true cinema.
Your choice of amplifier also depends on the theater?s intended use. An experienced designer will make certain you don?t buy more amplification than the room needs. The flip side: the designer will also take care to ensure the amplifier is properly matched to the number and type of speakers in use.
Each speaker needs its own ?channel? to reproduce sound, so the amplifier will need at least as many channels as there are speakers.
Digital Remote Controls
Digital remote controls require complex programming?something few home theater owners want to deal with. That?s just fine with good custom designers, because they can handle all the programming requirements, leaving the home owner free to enjoy their new custom remote.
Trained engineers will program the central remote control to operate literally every aspect of the home theater, from the usual suspects?such as changing channels, controlling the DVD player, adjusting volume, etc.?to advanced functions, such as raising or lowering the screen, opening and closing curtains, and dimming lights.
The best custom remotes feature an actual flat-panel LCD screen, and can even access and allow use of the Internet.
Your designer will see to it that the high-tech remote is visually and ergonomically integrated into the overall home theater design. In fact, much of the system will be completely out of sight, hidden away in an adjacent electronics closet or compartment.
From virtual reality to actual reality, creating a custom-designed home theater can be a pleasant experience when you work with the true design installation professionals who have your best aesthetic interests at heart.
Jon Robbins is Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Hifi House, the Philadelphia region?s leading supplier of exclusive high-end audio and video electronics. He oversees all operational aspects of the company?s retail division. For more information, visit www.HifiHouseGroup.com, or write to JRobbins@HifiHouseGroup.com .