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Sound Advice: The Media Room Arrives

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

A new use for the old rec room presents audio challenges.


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This Calls for a Server
Powered by the Windows Home Server operating system, the HP MediaSmart Server allows you to share media files on all your networked home computers in your media room and beyond.

Powered by the Windows Home Server operating system, the HP MediaSmart Server allows you to share media files on all your networked home computers in your media room and beyond.

Builders have been reporting lately that home theaters are increasingly being left out of new-home construction plans as a cost-cutting measure. However, a new trend in home-entertainment technology may help to offset this issue. The media room is more than a theater — it's a location in the home where family members convene to use multiple technology platforms simultaneously. And if you think that sounds like the definition of a kitchen, you're close. The media room tends to be adjacent to the home's hearth, often also opening onto the family or great room. The media room is bringing the home theater out of the basement and into the daily flow of the home, and that brings its own set of challenges — particularly for audio.

One of the characteristics of the media room is multiple video screens. Generally, there is the conventional home-theater screen with one, two, or even three video displays also in the room, depending upon the size of the room and the budget. The fact that there are multiple screens in the same room tends to argue against projection for the main screen in favor of a large flatscreen display, although bigger rooms and budgets can accommodate projection. While parents watch a movie on the main screen, the kids could be playing videogames or watching cartoons on one of the others. In some cases, sports fanatics want to have an additional screen or two within sight of the main screen to keep an eye on several games at once.

But this configuration of multiple picture sources complicates the sound aspect. How do you maintain the integrity of multiple stereo and surround-sound audio sources and not have the sonic equivalent of a car wreck? The key is to focus the sound as narrowly as possible, which Altec Lansing's PT6021 powered theater loudspeakers are designed to do using a vertical array of six 1in. neodymium microdrivers that create a narrow vertical pattern to provide better focus of the sound and to prevent secondary reflections that often defuse the image. Another product along those lines is Yamaha's new YSP-3050 Digital Sound Projector — which focuses audio signals into precisely directed beams via 21 beam drivers, two woofers, and 23 corresponding digital amplifiers.

Some systems integrators don't try for tightly focused sound in this kind of environment, preferring to maximize the compromises that are inevitable. Robert Ridenour — president of Connected Technologies, a Colorado Springs, Colo., integrator — advises not to try to achieve complete control of the sonic environment. “It's not uncommon to find a flatscreen positioned over a fireplace or some other structural element in rooms like these, making the positioning of speakers very difficult,” he says.

The solution is to employ dedicated ceiling-mounted loudspeakers — available from companies such as KEF, Speakercraft, Niles Audio, and Triad — that are designed to act as surround or LCR loudspeakers, which get around the lack of cabinetry or wall space where loudspeakers would normally be placed. The key to successfully using these types of loudspeakers, he explains, is to keep them within 8ft. to 12ft. of the screen.

“As long as the distance from the center speaker to the center of the screen isn't too great, the eye and the ear get used to that relationship pretty easily,” he says. “You're essentially fooling your brain, but that's part of the compromise that all of the audio has to work with in multiple-source media rooms.”

ACOUSTICS

Just as important is the need to control reflections from all of the audio sources — more so than in conventional home theaters, where the sweet spot is predictable and static. Because the media room is essentially yesterday's rec room, interior design tends to be less formal. Integrators report encountering lots of etched concrete floors, which generate plenty of reflections and are anathema to intelligibility. Thickly padded carpeting is preferred, but even plush throw rugs can help.

Again, audio is a constant compromise in these types of environments, but there are products out there that can help. Acoustical Standards and Acoustical Surfaces are online retailers that specialize in industrial noise-control solutions that can be nicely adapted to residential applications. Acoustical Surfaces Acoustimetal, for instance, is a perforated-metal absorption product that can be configured to fit media-room-type spaces — fitting in with contemporary interior design but countering reflections those types of interiors are prone to.

In addition to audio-for-video, media centers should make provisions for increasingly popular plug-ins that ride on the system — specifically, personal music players such as the iPod and Zune and game consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation. Each has specific connection interfaces — such as HDMI for the game consoles, component connections for stereo equipment, and VGA connectors for laptop computers. These can be programmed into the routing matrix to send their output to specific screens in the room as well as to specific loudspeaker combinations if the room is large enough to be zoned.

Systems such as Anthem's Statement D2 offer multiple zones (in this case, three: one multichannel and two stereo zones), each with its own processing and tone controls. The advantage to using discrete audio zones is that the volume can be kept substantially lower and still project useful impact on the listener for action films and games. Increasing the proximity of the loudspeaker to the listener in each area also reduces bleed. Decreasing the distance between the listener and the loudspeaker by half decreases the audio level needed by 6dB. In secondary zones, such as for the bar area or a game station, it might be advisable to roll off low-frequency gain and eliminate subs; as frequencies go lower, they become less and less directional.

If zoning isn't warranted, there are other solutions that help keep audio localized. A number of loudspeaker makers offer in-ceiling loudspeakers with directionalized cones. Paradigm's CS series has a cone set 30 degrees off axis; rotating the loudspeaker determines where most of its energy is directed. A relative newcomer, Dakota Audio, makes highly focused loudspeakers that are used in digital signage and other commercial applications, but their full-range capability means they can be successfully used on home-entertainment situations. At $1,600 per loudspeaker, it won't show up in home-theater-in-a-box anytime soon, but it certainly could be viable in the very high end.

The media room remains a good gambit for systems integrators because it resists being packaged for a mass market. Getting the sound right for that kind of space in the home is a challenge, but one that makes the cost of systems integration eminently worth it for the homeowner.



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