Building a New Home Theater
Feb 17, 2009 12:00 AM, By Jason Bovberg
I've gone through several "home theaters" in my adult life, and I feel as if each incarnation has instructed the design and construction of the next one. I use quotation marks because only one of those theaters was a dedicated room; the others were simply living areas decked out with nice audiovisual equipment. Nevertheless, I learned lessons from each one of those theaters, and those lessons are particularly valuable now, as I'm embarking on a large-scale basement-finish project that will include a front-projection, 7.1-surround-sound home theater.
We built the new home a few years ago and couldn't afford a finished basement at the time, opting to leave it unfinished until we could afford it years down the line. Now, as interest rates plummet to historic lows, the time seemed right to refinance the mortgage and take some cash out to finish our home. Today, with money in hand, I find myself recalling all those lessons from past projects, as well as seeking advice from all corners about technologies and designs I've never considered before.
I'll admit that my past projects have been learning processes. They even seemed that way from the start. My first living-room AV project, back in the late 1990s, focused on sound. I upgraded from an old Yamaha 2.0 stereo receiver to my first 5.1-channel surround-sound receiver, also a Yamaha, accompanied by a terrific bookshelf Klipsch loudspeaker system. It was a superior-sounding system married rather embarrassingly to an aging 27in. Panasonic tube TV. It was my first introduction to the home-theater experience, and I was hookedin a big way. Coming from a stereo mindset, that first theater gave me a valuable introduction to a new world of audio technologyenveloping, three-dimensional soundfields that depend on accurate receiver-based tweaking and careful loudspeaker placement. Even as I configured and ultimately enjoyed that system, I knew that I would take lessons from it going forward. In any eventual dedicated theater, I would almost scientifically coordinate loudspeaker height and position; I would carefully evaluate audio-absorption materials (this living room was far too acoustically reflective); and I would put more thought into buying the right equipment for the space I had.
My next theater was a dedicated basement room about 10’x13'a modest room that would provide an intimate home-theater space for a small group of people. And it was a true DIY project, slapped together with some woodworker buddies. We even worked without a permit. (Probably my biggest, most painful lesson, for any building project, is to never work without a permit, but that's a long, ugly story that I don't have room for.) I elaborately sketched out wiring plans and loudspeaker heights, designed can-light placement with dimmer switches, andbased on previous lessonsput a lot of thought into how to acoustically treat the walls. My solution turned out to be a mistake: I overcompensated for any audio reflection by treating all walls with sound-dampening acoustical carpet. The entire room became an audio dead zone. It felt as if you needed to pop your ears down there! Despite that overcompensationand its relatively diminutive sizethat home theater was a joy, providing as-excellent-as-possible sound quality through Atlantic Technology loudspeakers (7.1 surround this time), a new high-end Denon receiver, and 720p imagery through a 65in. Mitsubishi DiamondVision rear-projection TV. I enjoyed five years in that theater and sold the home with a tear in my eye. It had been my first dedicated room, my first HD image (the necessity to upgrade later to "better" 1080p HD would sting), and my first truly immersive home-theater experience, thanks largely to the size of the image.
In my new home, with its basement unfinished for the time being, I focused on building a modest new living-room theater until a larger-scale basement theater would become a reality. I was able to reuse my audio equipment in the service of a much larger, more acoustically dynamic space. The sound field opened up dramatically. But, with no room for my huge, blocky Mitsubishi set, I bought my first flat-panel plasma HDTVa Panasonicto fit into the area next to the fireplace. This setup marked my first foray into true HD imagery, as I took my first tentative steps into the technology through HD DVD and eventually Blu-ray. This theater took care of that essential 720p-to-1080p evolution that every 21st century home-theater enthusiast will undergo: I had absolutely pristine imagery matched to the audio nirvana of a great surround system. The multipurpose, angled room was a challenge, but I learned essential lessons about fitting existing AV equipment into new spaces and making them work.
Now that I'm staring into the face of my ultimate home theater, in a dedicated 15'x20' basement space, I'm ready to gather all the lessons I've learned and embark on an extremely careful theater project. This time, I've hired an out-of-work contractor who has a similar mindset regarding smart, common-sense acoustical treatments (as well as bass-dampening building materials to mitigate the screeches and thumps felt upstairs), cosmetic touches, and lighting. I've measured out my seating area and taken precise measurements from seated positions to screen. This will also be my first experience with front-projection HDTV, so I'll also need to be exceedingly cautious about that and other new and even forward-thinking choices.
In future installments of this series, I'll keep you up to date on those choices and show you photos of the project in process. I'll show you the compromises I've needed to make to adjust to the requirements of the space. I'll show you how, in a budget-conscious frame of mind, I've incorporated older components into a theater than also brings in new technology. By the end, I hope I've built a modest home theater that impresses any visitor without breaking the bank. And who knows, maybe your experiences can help me in my process. Feel free to comment with ideas or suggestions!
Jason Bovberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editor for Windows IT Pro and SQL Server magazine and a regular contributor to Residential AV Presents Connected Home. He specializes in networking, mobile and wireless, hardware, and home computing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor in magazine, book, and special-interest publishing.
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