Home Theater Design

This article will teach you the basics of home theater design.
Home Theater Designs

So you’re thinking about turning one of the rooms in your house into a Home Theater, dedicated and optimized for movie, music, TV, and/or even video gaming.  Also commonly referred to as a Home Cinema or a private Screening Room, there are so many things to consider when designing your Home Theater.  Depending on what you have to work with and how much you are willing to spend, the options can be limitless.  The design of a great home theater experience goes beyond just deciding how many seats will fit in your room or what kind of equipment you need.

A private home theater is a room where you and your family can get together to watch movies, TV, listen to music, play games and be entertained.  It’s a special place that draws you and your family together.

If you don’t have the space for a private room, you can use your family/great room as a media room.  This is by far the most popular option, and you can drastically enhance your experience with an awesome TV and sound system.  With the technology available today, you can turn any family room into a great media viewing room.  However, in this article we’ll be focusing on basics of what you need to know to design your own private home theater room.

No matter how small a space you have or what your price range, there is still a whole lot you can do to maximize your home theater experience.

How to Pick Your Room

The room you choose to set-up your home theater is a crucial decision.  It will affect the overall sound quality as well as the viewing experience.

Home Theater Dimensions – The Golden Ratio

The dimensions of the room are also important.  If you have the freedom to determine the exact size of your home theater, there are some general rules of thumb.  A square room should be avoided since it is acoustically the worst shape to have, producing odd harmonic distortions.  A good general rule of thumb is to use a room where the width is 1.6 times the height, and the length is 2.6 times the height.  This is also referred to as the Golden Ratio, where the room acoustics result in the sound being balanced and normal where ever you are in the room.

Windows: The fewer, the better

Windows are hard surfaces that reflect sound and light, causing audio distortions as well as unwanted glare on your viewing surface.  Heavy curtains and shades will help, but it can be a pain to close them every time you want to enjoy a movie.  If necessary, use blackout-style window treatments to seal out external light.  You can even use sound dampening curtains to help absorb some of the sounds.

Wall-to-Wall Carpeting

Carpets absorbs ambient sound, while hardwood floors and tile reflect sound.  So use carpeting with thick padding underneath whenever possible.  If you’re really serious, get a high performance acoustic carpet underlay.  This will reduce the transmission of impact-generated noise, like footsteps, as well as airborne noise such as speech and music.

Sound waves bounce off of hard surfaces easier and travel further, so a room with hard flooring could easily turn your expensive sound system into mush. When sound waves are allowed to bounce freely off of hard surfaces, you lose audio clarity and the sound from your speakers will be cluttered and noisy.  Hard floors in your home theater is like listening to music in an open gymnasium.

If hard floors are unavoidable, then strategically placed area rugs are a good way to eliminate the worst of it. You can even put acoustic tile on the walls to help deaden the sound, but this will add to the overall cost and may not look very appealing.

Sound Dampening Walls

In many cases regular drywall cam provide sufficient sound dampening for a home theater.  However, you should break up large flat surfaces with furniture or drapes.  You can also use sound dampening drywall (a.k.a. zero-sound drywall), which can reduce sound transmission between rooms by up to 90 percent.  This cam allow you to create smooth, streamlined walls for a more sleek and modern home theater design

If your room is in a basement with concrete walls, consider installing studs and drywall.  Also, use acoustic ceiling tiles to help absorb sound.

Another option is to use acoustic wall panels. Acoustic wall panels and acoustic wall finishing are designed to absorb sound waves, ensuring a pure acoustic experience.  They help modulate low and high frequencies, preventing echoes.  However, at $4-$20 per square foot, this can put a pretty good dent in your pocket book.

Soundproofing Your Room

Home Theater with triple band acoustic fabric wall finishing

Soundproofing your home theater room cuts both ways.  Not only does it prevent annoying and unwanted sounds from entering your room, it also means peace and quiet for the rest of your house.

Soundproofing vs. Sound Absorption

It’s import not to confuse soundproofing with sound absorption.  Sound absorption can be achieved with carpet, heavy draperies, and closed-cell foam or similar materials.  Even the fabric of the furniture will help to absorb some sounds.  However, these will do little to prevent the transmission of lower-frequency bass and vibration through the walls and studs, and mid-range sounds through air leaks to other rooms.

Within a house, any passageway that allows air to escape will allow sound to travel out of the room.  Doors and windows are especially vulnerable, but don’t ignore electrical boxes (AC outlets), wall plates, and heating ducts.  Electrical boxes and wall plates can be sealed with a non-hardening silicone caulk.  While interior sound absorbing baffles for heating ducts are available from specialty soundproofing supply companies.

Replace Hollow-Core Doors

Hollow-core doors, are hopeless at reducing the passage of sound. Replacing these with solid wood doors will help considerably. A steel door will be even better, with effective weather-stripping seals.

Like hollow-core doors, single-pane windows have very little sound insulating properties. Double pane windows with an air space between the panes will improve soundproofing considerably.

Reducing Vibration

Dual layers of drywall with silicone caulk between them are very effective, and adding a bead of caulk to the studs before the drywall is screwed or nailed will dampen vibrations.  Filling the air space inside the walls with fiberglass insulation will help to further reduce sound transmission.

Surround Sound

Surround sound delivers a more realistic and entertaining experience whether you are watching action movies, sports, horror flicks, or even children’s movies because quality audio puts you in the middle of the action.

Perhaps the most common option is the 5.1 surround sound system, but if you’re tight on cash you can start with a 3.1 sound system.  If you have some room behind your listening position, then a 7.1 system would work out very well.  However, it takes a room that is long enough for the extra speakers to be worth it.  So, if your room doesn’t easily support a 7.1 system, then you’re better off upgrading your 5.1 speakers.

3.1 Speaker System

With a 3.1 speaker system, you’re not really getting the surround sound experience.  However, it is still a significant improvement over a 2 channel system.  It consists of front left, front right, and center channel speakers, as well as a subwoofer.  The “.1” represents the subwoofer.

The center channel is perhaps the most important speaker in your home theater since it’s responsible for the movie’s dialogue.  It should be placed horizontally above or below your TV, lining it up with the midpoint of screen.  Make sure to use a speaker that has a tweeter in the middle of the speaker.  This balanced design will provide an even dialogue for all of your seating locations.

The front left and right speakers, obviously, go to the left and right of the TV, placed vertically and pointing toward the viewing area.

The subwoofer usually works best when placed near a corner or a wall.  Bass frequencies are omnidirectional, so you have some flexibility as to where you place your subwoofer.  Most people place their subwoofer in the front of the room since it’s easier to connect it to their A/V receiver.

5.1 Surround Sound

In a 5.1 system, you have the addition of 2 surround speakers, which are best placed to the side and just behind your listening position.  This addition makes you feel like you are part of the movie.

Point your surround speakers directly towards your seating area for the best sound. You’ll want to place them one to two feet above ear level to get the best sound effects.

Consider using surround speakers with tweeters that fire in different directions.  This design delivers life-like sound in a wide area.

If you can’t place your speakers to the side, then a good alternative is to place them along the rear wall or a few feet behind your seating area.  However, be sure not to point the rear speakers towards the listening position, but facing forward.

7.1 Surround Sound

A 7.1 system includes all of the benefits of a 5.1 system with an extra pair of speakers to help with transitioning audio from front to back, giving you an even more immersive experience.

Surround speakers are positioned beside and behind your seating area.  As in a 5.1 setup, the side speakers are placed to the left and right of your seating position and face directly towards you.  The rear speakers are positioned behind you roughly 60 degrees apart along the rear wall, facing forward.  For best performance, position both pairs of speakers one to two feet above ear level.

Add a second subwoofer for better bass

Using two subwoofers will improve bass distribution by filling in gaps where bass response may be weak.  Dual subwoofers also increase the available system headroom, meaning they provide greater dynamic range, reduced output compression, lower distortion, and less potential for overdrive artifacts.

The layout of your room will determine where the second subwoofer should be placed.  Some rooms get the best results by having a subwoofer in each of the front corners of the room, while others get more even bass distribution when one is in the front and the other in the back.  Experiment with a few different arrangements to see where you get the best bass.

You might want to try out these configurations first:

  • Opposite diagonal front/rear corners
  • At mid-points of side walls
  • Front corners
  • Front surrounding the center channel to the inside of the main speakers

Dolby Atmos

You can setup a Dolby Atmos system with in-ceiling speakers or Dolby Atmos upward-firing speakers.  An Atmos system starts with a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound speaker setup.  You then add two or four speakers to project sound that rains down from above the listening position.

This gives you a truly immerse experience coming from all directions.  With the addition of ceiling speakers connected to your A/V receiver with Dolby Atmos decoding, you’ll feel the rain gently falling through the trees in the jungle.  You might even duck as a jet takes off directly overhead.

What Kind of Speakers Do You Want?

When it comes to speakers, there are so many options to choose from.  You can go with floor standing cabinet speakers, surface mount speakers, in-ceiling or in-wall speakers, or even wireless speakers.  It’s a balancing act of how you want your system to sound, what you want it to look like, and how much space you have.

Cabinet Speakers

Cabinet speakers will generally produce better sound than in-ceiling or in-wall speakers and wireless speakers, but they can take up a lot of space and may not fit in with what you have in mind for the look of your room.

Surface mount speakers are also considered to be cabinet speakers, but are intended to be mounted to the wall rather than sitting on the floor.

Built-in Speakers

In-ceiling and in-wall speakers won’t take up any space on your floor and can easily blend into the wall/ceiling without being noticeable.  They can also be easily hidden behind acoustic panels or placed inside columns.  The finished product is a very smooth and polished look.  The speaker grilles are paintable, so even if you can’t hide them behind an acoustic panel, you can still match them to the colors of your walls/ceiling.

Ceiling speakers are generally best for whole-home or multi-room music.  In-wall speakers are ideal for space-saving surround sound.

Try to avoid in-ceiling speakers for your front and center channel speakers.  You want the sound to come from the screen/TV and elevated speakers tend to take the action away from the screen.  For these reason, opt for in-wall over in-ceiling speakers.

An in-wall surround system can provide a true theater experience.  When placed at ear-level, in-wall speakers provide a more direct field of sound and a “sweet spot” for stereo imaging.  This makes you feel more immersed in the movie.

Wireless Speakers

Wireless speakers are a great solution for applications where running wires simply isn’t possible.  They receive the audio signal wirelessly eliminating the need for speaker wires.  However, they usually need to be plugged into a power outlet, unless they can run on batteries, which will require constant recharging.

While wireless audio continues to improve, wired speakers, in general, offer the most dependable and high quality sound compared to their wireless counterparts.  Wireless speakers, especially the older systems, may suffer from interference when you use your WiFi or Bluetooth devices, or even your microwave.  However, modern wireless speakers, often using WiFi or Bluetooth technology, have significantly improved performance.

These days the difference between a high quality wireless signal versus a wired signal is starting to get to the point where only the most hard-core audiophiles can tell the difference.

Generally speaking, wireless audio products tend to be a solution to installation challenges, and often come at a premium over their wired brethren.

Optimal Viewing Experience

With any home theater system, you want to get the best high definition screen for your room.  However, bigger is not always better.  You want an immersive experience, but a screen that’s too big will have you swinging your head side to side until you go dizzy.  You want the right balance between display size and viewing angle.

The best view angle is usually between 30 and 40 degrees.  This will allow you to take in all of the action with minimal effort.

As a rule of thumb, the optimal viewing distance is generally about 1.5 to 2 times the diagonal width of your screen.  So you can use this simple formula to determine the size of the screen you should get for your room or how big a room you should build if you already have your eyes set on certain size screen.

Seating

Home Theater Design Sofa

Seating Layout

In general, your seating area should be at least 4 feet from surround speakers.  You want to ensure that the surround speakers are not localized for enveloping sounds.  This means that the sound pressure level from the surround speakers should not be significantly louder than the main channel speakers.  Also, speakers are generally not designed to be listened to up close, and provide their best performance farther away.

Similarly, try not to place your seats against a rear wall.  If you can even move your seating area foot or two away from the rear wall it will help eliminate acoustical problems associated with being up against a boundary wall.

There are a variety of seats that can used in a home theater.  The most obvious, and the one that takes the most space, is the recliner.  Other common options are stadium seats, like those found in a commercial theater, and couches.  Careful choice of seating, number and placement can be used to ensure that the home theater meets your needs.

Home Theater Recliners

Home Theater Recliners

One of the best parts of watching a movie on a large screen isn’t just taking in the action on a massive display or immersing yourself in the audio/video experience.  It’s seeing those movies come to life on a lavish, cozy and slightly over-sized recliner.

Home theater recliners take up a lot of space, both in width and length/depth.  They are typically made of leather and come with motorized recline features.

Recliners vary in size, however, as a guideline they are generally about 34″ wide by 38″ deep when upright, and 67″ deep when fully reclined.  Therefore, a row of 4 theater recliners with common arms would be about 123″ wide, which is over 10 feet.  Allowing just 18″ between rows, 2 rows of seats would occupy up to 152″, or 12.7 feet.

Stadium Seating

Stadium Seating

Stadium seats are what you would find in your typical commercial theater.  These take up less space than a traditional recliner, and usually provide ‘rocker’ functionality, which is basically a partial recline.  As a guideline, stadium seats are roughly 26″ wide by 31″ deep.

The main advantage of stadium seats over recliners is the higher seating density.  You can easily fit almost twice the number of seats in the same area compared to traditional recliners.

Couches

Home Theater Sofa

Couches are a great way to save space, while still providing great comfort as well as higher seating density.  Who says you need a theater chair to feel comfortable?  They are also a good way to make your home theater look more informal and cozy.  In fact, you can find a wide variety of sofas and sectionals that transform into theater seating, yet maintain their original design.

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