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 arent 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 isnt 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 cant 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. RPGs 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.