Is That a Frog or a French Horn?

How to improve the acoustics in your home theater

Stephen Becker was perplexed. His high-end audio system sounded terrific in the TV room of his old house. But when he moved it to the media room of his new home in McLean, Va., and sat down to watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he couldn't understand the dialogue--and Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent wasn't the problem. "I thought there was something wrong with my hearing," says Becker, a patent attorney.

Prepared to spend an extra $50,000 for more powerful speakers and amplifiers, Becker sought out home theater consultant Lewis Lipnik. But Lipnik, who trained his ear as contra-bassoonist for the National Symphony Orchestra, reassured Becker his audio equipment was fine. "The room was a basket case," he said. Sounds were bouncing around the walls, creating an auditory muddle. His suggested cure: a $15,000 acoustic makeover of the room with sound absorbing and diffusing panels.

Room acoustics often get short shrift in home theaters. But as Becker learned, the fanciest audio system can't make up for lousy acoustics. "Studies have been done where you play expensive speakers in an untreated room, or cheaper speakers in a treated room, and the listener always prefers the cheaper speakers in the better environment," says Keith Yates, founder of the Keith Yates Design Group in Auburn, Calif., a specialist in high-end home theaters.

Why are acoustics overlooked? For one thing, consumers worry about getting ripped off. Acoustics is an unregulated field in which anyone can claim to be an expert. As a result, audiophiles have wasted a lot of money on equipment and acoustic treatments that had little effect.

There's also a common misconception that sound freaks have to make their rooms look ugly to improve sound quality. For example, an easy way to boost acoustics is to hang cloth-covered panels on walls, but they make the room look like a recording booth. "It is not an environment that is engaging and inviting," says Chicago architect Neil Frankel, who has helped design concert halls, home theaters, and media rooms.

Fortunately, sound panels can be made to look like regular walls, thanks to modern materials such as sound-absorbent drywall and plaster. Stretch fabric panels that resemble wallpaper can hide sound baffles, bass absorbers, and speakers.

SONIC ILLS. An acoustically balanced room should make you feel as if you're in the middle of the scene you're watching. You should be able to locate the direction of sounds--such as a bird chirping from behind left--without perceiving them as coming from a speaker. To get the right effect, rooms must have areas that absorb sound and reflect it. "Most home theaters are way too dead," says Peter D'Antonio, president of RPG Diffusor Systems, a manufacturer of acoustic treatments.

Improving acoustics isn't usually a do-it-yourself project. Rooms with naturally good acoustics can get by with a few strategically placed cloth-wrapped diffuser panels that cost as little as $10 a square foot. But you can also drop huge sums, depending on the room's sonic ills, the type of materials used, and how good you want the acoustics to be. "I've done rooms that cost $1,000 and others that cost $75,000," says Lipnik.

So, you'll need an expert who understands both acoustics and theater design. Expect to pay $150 to $300 an hour. To find someone reputable, check with trade groups that train and certify acoustics professionals, such as the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Assn. and the National Council of Acoustical Consultants (table). Make sure you check references and listen to the sound in a room the expert helped to create.

A makeover can cost plenty. But just imagine telling that audio muddle, "Hasta la vista, baby!"

By Roy Furchgott

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