Home Theater Design Tips

The lights go down, the curtains part, the Blu-ray player starts to spin, and the speakers fire. Thus begins the total suspension of disbelief that results from a great home theater. To really pull it off, however, you must consider the entire experience rather than simply sticking a system in a room and hitting the play button. Taking into account the nature of your room, aesthetic details and performance tweaks will make your home theater more cohesive and enjoyable. Here are five vital tips that, though simple enough, will dramatically improve your home audio and video experience.

Be Conscious of Room Acoustics

Have you ever noticed that when you move into a new house or apartment before the furniture arrives, sound is thin and tends to echo? That’s because your furnishings have a dramatic effect on the nature of sound. The same principle applies to home theater—a large part of what you hear depends on the room itself. While mastering room acoustics is a complicated science, there are simple things you can do to improve audio output.

First, consider the type of surfaces in your room. Are there a lot of hard, reflective materials, such as wood floors, mirrors, and windows? Or do you have a carpeted room filled with plush carpets, sofas, and heavy drapes? If you have too many hard surfaces, sound will bounce all around the room, wreaking havoc on audio playback. Fill the area with too many soft, absorbent materials and the room will be acoustically dead, sucking the liveliness out of music and soundtracks. To get the best audio, you need to strike a balance between these two types of materials.

Generally, the front of the room needs more absorptive materials—especially between the front speakers and the seating area where “first reflections” occur. If first reflections are not nipped in the bud by acoustic “damping” materials, they will continue to bounce around the room and cause distortion. Start by carpeting hardwood, tile, or concrete floors. Add some window treatments to dampen sound (and keep ambient light at bay). Opt for upholstered, rather than wood or leather, furniture as well.

The reverse is true for the rear of the room, where some acoustically “live” material is desirable to add life to the audio and help break up sound. That’s why many AV installers use acoustic diffusers at the back of the room. You can create your own diffusers by simply installing bookshelves and filling them with books of various shapes and sizes. Of course, if you hire an AV installer, he or she will fine-tune your room acoustics with a combination of acoustic treatments, such as diffusers, bass traps, and panels.

Home Theater Room
Home Theater Room with Padded Walls

Choose a Dark Color Palette

While home theaters are great places to have fun with room design, getting carried away with over-the-top colors can actually hurt the image being displayed on your TV or projector screen. If you paint your walls a bright red, for example, the picture will have a reddish cast because light from your projector or big-screen TV will reflect onto the sidewalls and bounce back onto the screen. For this reason, many high-end theaters are dressed in brown, grey, black, or other dark colors. These deeper hues absorb light, rather than reflect it back onto the screen.

Buy the Right Size Screen, Sit at the Appropriate Distance

While it is tempting to make the entire front wall of the theater one gigantic screen, that isn’t always the best option. It’s important to consider your viewing distance relative to screen size. If you sit too close to the screen or the screen is too large for the room, you will start to see the display’s pixel structure. If you sit too far away or the screen is too small for the room, you will lose that big-screen impact, which defeats the purpose of having a home theater in the first place.

Luckily, high-definition displays let you sit closer to the screen than ever before, which means you can put a larger screen in a smaller theater than with standard-definition displays. Of course, the debate rages on about the appropriate viewing distance. For instance, THX recommends that you divide your diagonal screen size by 0.84 for 1080p displays, while others recommend multiplying diagonal screen size by 1.5. For a 120-inch screen, these calculations produce a recommended viewing distance from 11 to 15 feet. How far you sit from the screen and how big a screen you purchase is ultimately up to you—as long as you are comfortable, don’t see pixels, and maintain the dramatic impact of the big screen, who’s counting?

Television with Stand and Speakers
TV Stand and Audio Cabinet by Sanus Systems

Take Control

Invest in a good universal remote control to eliminate the five or six separate controls from your various devices. Make sure you purchase a backlit device too: It will help you easily locate buttons in the darkness.

Practice Feng Shui

Now that you’ve tackled the big stuff, take a look at small details that will contribute to your overall enjoyment. For example, don’t install a telephone in the theater—there is nothing worse than being interrupted during a movie with a phone call from a telemarketer. If possible, choose a room that is isolated from the rest of the home, such as a basement too, as this will keep sound from other rooms from intruding upon the sanctity of your theater and vice versa. Remove equipment from the room if possible, hiding it in a separate equipment closet or room as well. And put the entrance to the theater at the rear of the room, not the side or front screen wall.