If you are like many people, you have recently upgraded your home theater, or you’re getting ready to do so. During this process you’ve likely learned that the speakers in the TV are sub-par and you should upgrade your audio experience to include an external sound system. This has become common practice and common knowledge. What you haven’t learned, and which is probably even more important, is how to upgrade the room itself.
One of the things people overlook when trying to make a home theater, is that a real theater pays a lot of attention to the design and treatment of the theater environment. They have good left-right design symmetry (see the diagram for a sample home theater layout). A good theater also has acoustically treated the space so that people can hear everything that is happening, from anywhere in the theater. This article will teach you some of the tricks of getting that great big theater soundstage into your home theater.
Bass Traps – the low-down solution.
Low frequency problems are common to almost any room, regardless of size. The good news is that, most of the time, the solution is simple: put bass traps in the corners of the room. This is one place where it pays to put a little extra in the budget. Corners are defined as the intersection of two or more surfaces. There are not just corners at the end of each wall, but also along the floor and ceiling where the walls intersect them. The more corner you cover with a good trap, the better bass response you get – it’s that simple. Bass loves the corners, and by putting bass traps there, you keep the bass crisp and natural. If bass frequencies are allowed to build in the corners, it causes the bass frequencies to become muddy and undefined – trap them.
Some bass traps work double duty as broadband absorbers as well, which can keep your costs down when considering covering a bunch of square footage with absorbers. Bass traps alone can solve many problems in your room, and due to the simplicity of the implementation, I recommend you start with these first – at least fill the four main corners.
Foam works. But this is a theater, not a studio. Fabric wrapped absorbers look as good as they sound, and Geometrix™ by Acoustics First, fit the corners like a glove. Pick a fabric and get some quarter rounds to fill your corners – that’s it.
Broadband Absorption – tame the ring.
Another common problem in home environments can be easily verified with a clap test. Go into your room and clap your hands. Most likely you will hear more than just the initial clap. Depending on the severity of the problem, you will hear a flutter, ring, or echo after the initial *pop*. This is caused by the sound waves bouncing around off the hard surfaces of the room and returning to your ears after a delay – the more times they bounce without losing energy, the longer the delay. The best way to remove energy from these waves is to use broadband absorption, but where do you put them?
More than likely, your TV and sound system are going to be in a fixed position, and your listening position will also be fixed – so the early reflection surfaces should be easy to locate. You will need a friend for this activity, a mirror, and a pencil. Have your friend place the mirror flat against the side wall and move it around until you can see the speakers in the reflection from your seat – then mark the wall. This is where you are going to place the absorber. The diagram shows a good place to start looking for these reflection paths. Repeat this for all the walls from all the seats.
What you are looking to create is a reflection free zone, which basically means, wherever the sound could bounce off a surface and get to your ears, we are going to absorb energy from it. You can spend a good deal of time on this, but this is the only step that requires this time and effort, so make it count. Sound travels in all directions from the speaker, including behind it, so put absorbers behind it on the wall. Don’t forget the floors, ceiling, and the wall behind you – sound will bounce off those as well.
This simple process will show you where you need to treat. Hang broadband absorbers over all the early reflection points – left, right, front and back. Absorber clouds should be hung on the ceiling, and place a nice thick carpet on the floor. Placement is the first key to getting this reflection free zone. The second is the right choice of absorber.
To match your fabric wrapped bass traps, the simple choice is get some more panels wrapped in fabric. The Sonora® line of broadband absorbing panels coordinate with the bass traps, and come in a plethora of sizes and mounting options to work in your space. Need 2’x4’ behind the speakers, 4’x4’ on the sidewalls, 2’x6’ on the back wall, and a 2’x6’ ceiling cloud – all in material that match those bass traps? Done.
Finally, use broadband absorption with caution, specifically using too much. If you plan on covering more than 50% of your walls with this stuff, you’re going to notice a muffled almost claustrophobia inducing deadness. We are not trying to suck the life out of the room. We are just trying to take enough energy away from those early reflections to keep the focus on the initial sound produced by the speakers.
Diffusers – put life back into your space.
The steps we have taken up to this point have been using absorption to control excess energy that can have an adverse effect on the listening environment. We have removed the unwanted direct reflections and we have tamed the bass, but there is something more we can do to give life to this room – diffusion.
Diffusion will give us something we couldn’t attain through absorption – a sense of open space. Even after treating with absorbers, there are still areas of the room where sound waves will sit, because your room is a fixed box with fixed speakers. Diffusers scatter the energy, creating ambiance with residual energy, like sitting quietly in a forest – the energy around you being directionless, omni-present, and spacious. This simple step does not remove energy from your room, but redistributes it into a soundscape that can make you forget you are in a room at all.
There are many ways to diffuse the sound and coordinate with your room, from the fabric covered HiPer™ Panel and Double Duty Diffusers™, to the striking line of Art Diffusers® like the Model C, which can be painted to match your décor.
Advances in acoustic treatments are being made all the time, bridging form with function, creating products as visually stunning as they sound – and helping your theater, or any theater, be the best that it can be. So use these tips to set up your home theater like a real theater, and experience the difference a soundstage upgrade makes.
When not writing, Mr. DeGrandis is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer who has built professional broadcast studios and is currently working with Acoustics First Corporation on new designs for sound diffusion products