Creating Your Ideal Home Theater

Here are some expert tips for your dream media room.

Photo: Flickr

Just a few years ago, a home theater was only for the lucky few who could spare an extra room and tens of thousands of dollars on furnishings, equipment, and accessories. But today, as high-definition has become mainstream and more people integrate wide-screen televisions and souped-up audio systems into their homes, a true media room is within reach of more people. If you’re thinking about adding one of these high-tech spaces, these tips will have you headed in the right direction.

Choose the Right Space
If you want to go all-out, experts say the best way to integrate a home theater is to start from scratch. “It’s always ideal to either work with a client on a new construction, or be able to have the budget to take a room down to the studs and start from there,” says Stuart J. Allyn, president of Irvington, NY-based A.D.R. Studios, a high-end home theater design company.

The sheer amount of wiring labor, as well as the benefit of being able to design the room for the singular effect of creating a home theater cocoon, makes a blank slate room most attractive. Starting from scratch allows the client to thoughtfully consider factors like the area required for seating, viewing distances and angles, room acoustics and so on, says Bobby Bala, CEO and founder of Elite Home Theater Seating in Vancouver, BC.

But not everyone has that luxury, of course. If you can’t do a new room, the best choices are square or rectangular rooms that are enclosed, have standard-height ceilings, and have few windows or controllable light, says Paul Diggin, managing director of Advanced Communication Technologies, a custom electronics integrator in Hingham, MA. “Many people think about putting a home theater in their ‘great room’ or a large room with high ceilings, lots of windows and architectural angles, but this is the worst type of room for a home theater.”

Pick the Right Video System
One of the most intimidating parts of buying for a home theater can be choosing the right television or projection choice. With the many options available, figuring out what’s best for your room can be difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Knowing your needs is important, so you neither overspend nor underspend, says Bala. “We use this analogy: Just because someone can afford a Ferrari doesn’t mean they’ll be happy with it,” he says. “On the other hand, if he buys a Volvo and wants a Ferrari, then he’s also going to be dissatisfied.”

If you’re buying a television, there are a couple of rules of thumb that can help, says David Meneely, co-founder of Pro-AV, a home theater company in Gonic, NH. “If you’re looking for a screen under 42 inches, an LCD, or liquid crystal display, is the way to go. On the other hand, plasma screens are the most affordable choice when looking for a set over 42 inches,” he says.

Meneely says LCD sets tend to have a longer lifespan, consume less power and don’t have problems with burn-in, which can occur on plasma televisions when an image is left on the screen too long. But he notes that manufacturers are making great strides in correcting burn-in and other problems.

For really huge screens, however, projection is hands-down the best choice, says Allyn, who has designed luxury home theaters for Hollywood luminaries. “When you want a really crisp, large image, projection theaters are the only option,” he says. “And when you’re going with projection, it’s important to consider not only the quality of the projector but also the quality of the screen, which is incredibly important in itself.”

Consider Your Components
Once the exclusive domain of men, the home theater now has to serve the needs of everyone in the household. “These days, home theater products cater to entire families and their friends,” says Bala. “Everything from wall décor to seating design, to user-friendliness of controls and integration of gaming systems for everyone’s enjoyment, is available to create an experience that is fun and flexible.”

Since different members of a household often have different uses for the home theater, choosing the right components is an important factor in having a room everyone can enjoy.

Some components, however, are more important than others when it comes to making sure your room has that “wow” factor, says William Fried, vice president of operations for Anthony Gallo Acoustics in Chatsworth, CA.

“The two most important components in a home theater are speakers and the A/V [audio/video] receiver,” Fried says. “Without the proper power and features you get in a good A/V receiver, you won’t be able to bring out the best qualities in the speaker system.” This, in turn, will affect the overall experience in the room.

Don’t Forget Sound
Experts say people almost always underestimate the importance of sound quality in the design of the home theater. Good sound is about more than great speakers, though having quality products is important. “The goal in any home theater is to re-create a movie theater setting, where you are positioned to watch video or listen to audio in a cozy social environment,” says Fried. “You can have a big plasma, a high-performance audio surround sound system, and powerful A/V equipment, but if the setting is designed for looks, not sound, you will be disappointed in the result.”

Fried says one problem is that good acoustics aren’t always compatible with the decorating style of the homeowner. “In a home theater room, there will always be a compromise on sound quality versus interior design,” he says. The best solution? “It’s always good to have the interior designer and the home theater installation company collaborate on the room design so everybody is happy with the result,” he says.

Lighting It Right
Light is another factor that too often takes a backseat to other more technical concerns when designing a home theater, but it is also a make-or-break factor in a real quality design. “Lighting control can turn it into a real cinema-like experience,” says Diggin.

The key, says Michael Berman, lighting designer for national retailer LAMPS Plus, is to layer the illumination and have full control over all the different layers. “A home theater needs to have a special environment, different from the rest of the house,” he says. “For a home theater, the most important factor is lighting control for both natural and artificial light. All layers of room lighting need independent level control to maximize the viewing experience and comfort of the room.”

Using controllable combinations of recessed and track lights, as well as other indirect lighting sources, can transform any room, he says. And for daytime viewing, adjustable shades or heavy drapes are essential so you don’t have to deal with glare.

Practical considerations are important, as well. “Don’t forget small task lights to accommodate activities while viewing a movie, like eating, drinking and viewing guides, and use night lights as path lights,” Berman says.

Home Theater

Photo: itsjustwire.com

Control Your Systems
Whenever you install a high-tech system like a home theater, having controls that work for you is incredibly important. “A good control system is important for maximum homeowner enjoyment,” says Diggin. “Whether it’s a basic universal remote or a touch screen interface, it needs to be easy to use and offer good functionality.”

Universal remotes you buy off the shelf can work for less-complicated systems, but Meneely says homeowners should consider choosing a radio-frequency (RF) remote, rather than infrared (IR) remotes. “With RF, you don’t have to worry about someone standing in front of you, blocking the signal. Or, if your components are behind doors, you don’t have to worry about opening those doors up because the RF control won’t be blocked like infrared will,” he says.

For a true custom experience, however, Allyn says nothing is better than a control made specifically for each client. “When each component has its own remote, it can be a real problem,” he says. “Unless you like having 10 remotes or a remote the size of a 3-ring binder, most [off-the-shelf] controls just don’t have the physical real estate to control all the functions most people want.”

His company makes touch-screen controls to fit the needs of each user. These remotes can control anything the client wants, including lighting, HVAC, media components, and even clocks. “It’s all a matter of what they want because it’s designed specifically for each user,” he says. “Technology should serve you.”

“Future-Proof” Your Theater
One aspect you shouldn’t neglect when deciding on your home theater design and components is what professionals call “future-proofing.”

“Although you should keep long-term use in mind when choosing your initial equipment, there are now a host of upgrades that can be made in the future as technology develops,” Bala says. “I suggest to my clients to take the time and effort and minimal expense to future-proof their theaters, like running extra wires and cable,” for technologies that may come in the future, such as seats that can be programmed for individual users or peripherals for future technologies.

One technology facing change is the high-definition DVD system, says Nathan Adams, the digital technology sales manager for DR Group, a Los Angeles-based home theater specialist. While Adams currently recommends that consumers shell out for a Blu-Ray player, he believes the “old school distribution model” of hard-copy DVDs is headed for extinction.

“I think digital distribution over high-speed Internet will eventually be the delivery method of choice for Americans that have high-speed Internet and a computer,” he says. “Once the studios embrace the immense opportunities presented by Internet distribution and stop clinging to the dying business model of DVD distribution, the consumer and the studios will be much happier.”

Don’t Neglect Creature Comforts
When putting together a home theater, the electronics get the most attention. But all the technology in the world won’t make a room great if you can’t get comfortable in the space.

“Seating’s significance in a home theater is often underestimated,” Bala says. “In a good home theater, a client should expect to spend hundreds of hours of enjoyment in that room. No amount of audio or video technology will compensate for an uncomfortable or improperly designed chair.”

Make sure you leave room in your budget for seating that you’ll want to spend time in. “We recommend that 20 to 30 percent of the theater budget be dedicated to seating and seating-related accessories,” says Bala.

Think Professional for Best Results
If this all sounds complicated and a little overwhelming, the experts say that’s because designing and installing a home theater is a detail-oriented, technical process that is best handled by a professional.

“To get the most out of a home theater, homeowners should hire a professional, industry-certified installer,” says Diggin. “A pro can recommend the best products for the homeowner’s budget and help design the theater room for maximum performance and enjoyment.”

You wouldn’t sit down to design and build a home without an architect and a contractor, says Allyn, and you shouldn’t drop big bucks on a home theater without a specialist, either. “We are the advocate for the client,” he says.

Protecting Your Investment
A home theater is a major investment in your dwelling, and too many times homeowners fail to consider the insurance implications of this type of improvement. Tim Bowen, director of claims for MetLife Auto & Home, offers a few tips on making sure your investment is protected:

  1. Reconsider the basement theater. Bowen says basement rooms are risky because of their propensity for flooding. He says events like sewer backups or flood damage are excluded from many policies and can leave homeowners uncomfortably exposed. He says if you plan on adding a home theater in your basement, modify your risk by getting sump pump or sewer “endorsements” on your policy or choose “all perils” coverage for the contents of the room.
  2. Think about contents. Even in the event of a “named peril,” like a tornado or fire, homeowner’s policies have a cap on the amount of contents they cover. “If you go out and buy a $10,000 television and only have $100,000 worth of contents coverage on your house, well, you only have $90,000 for everything else in your dwelling,” he says. Again, scheduling an item like this by purchasing a rider for your policy can be a good investment.
  3. Consider your electric system. Investing in a whole-house surge protector and making sure you hire a licensed technician may cost a little more, but it is well worth it when you consider how much you’re spending on the room.
  4. Look at your total budget. It’s time to call your agent to double-check your coverage when you spend more than $10,000 on any type of home improvement, including a home theater, Bowen says.