A home theater's design principles are the same whatever your budget

When I turned a windowless basement room into a home theater a little more than two years ago, I first spent months visiting electronics stores, quizzing salespeople, and trolling the Internet. I also called Lewis Lipnick, the contrabassoonist for the National Symphony Orchestra, who moonlights as a home-electronics consultant and acoustician. Lipnick was just finishing up his work on what is arguably among the finest home theaters in the world, built for a communications mogul in Scottsdale, Ariz.

I don't have a mogul's money, but I didn't need it to build a pride-of-the-neighborhood home theater. The design principles are the same, no matter the size of the theater you want or how much you plan to spend. The electronics budget in Scottsdale was $750,000, mine was $7,500. With Lipnick's guidance, I tried to do what he does on a smaller scale -- and it worked.

Lipnick, along with an acoustical engineer and interior designer, started the Scottsdale project by making sure the sound stayed in the 26-by-18-foot theater. To do that, they built a room within a room that has its own separate heating and cooling system so that bass vibrations wouldn't rumble through the ducts to the rest of the house. In my 12-by-11-foot room, isolation is not an issue since I live alone. For the sake of my townhouse neighbors, though, I put no speakers on common walls.

My room still needed special acoustical treatment. No matter how good your audio components -- the amplifier and speakers -- a room with bad acoustics will ruin the sound. In Scottsdale, the designers used a space underneath the floor to trap boomy bass reflections. They also strategically placed panels on the walls that either diffuse or absorb sound. Without acoustical treatment, fine audio details are lost. You've got the acoustics right when you can close your eyes and the sound seems to be coming from a distance that's beyond your walls. Covering the $40,000 of panels in the mogul's theater was a fabric that allows sound to pass unabated.

For my room, Lipnick suggested using a combined diffuser absorber called a BAD Panel, from RPG Diffusor Systems Inc. Without complex and expensive electronic testing, it was the best solution. Peter D'Antonio, RPG's president, said to cover 60% of the rear wall at ear level with the panels and the side walls between the speakers and the listener as well. "The difference will be staggering," he said. At $2,000 for nine panels, I hoped he was right. He was.

Following the design of the Scottsdale movie palace, I used wainscoting and built recessed bays. There, I hid the panels behind fabric stretched over a wooden frame and kept them in place using Velcro strips. You can't use just any fabric; it needs to be transparent to sound. I used cloth from specialty manufacturer Guilford of Maine. Unfortunately, the pattern I chose was so subtle that the walls looked awfully bare. Some wall hangings would be nice, but I haven't yet found ones that fit the decor and won't interfere with sound.


What about the video? For Scottsdale, Lipnick chose an $8,000 12-by-7-ft. screen with microscopic perforations that let speaker sound come right through the screen itself. The image would be cast by a $100,000 high-resolution Digital Light Processor projector from Runco International housed in a soundproof, cooled enclosure, which is also known as a "blimp" or "hush box."

My video decision was somewhat more complex. Projection was out of the question -- the room was too small. Rear projection was a possibility, but the cathode ray projection units are large, and require frequent tune-ups. Rear projection liquid-crystal display and digital light processors are hard to see from the periphery, and besides, the black tones aren't very rich. Plasma TV? Pricey. Direct-view LCDs aren't cheap, and like their rear projection counterparts, can be hard to see from off center.

How big did my screen need to be? TV salesmen insisted at least 54 inches. But a thumbnail formula for the optimum size standard screen TV is to measure the distance from the best seat in the house to the screen -- in my house 72 inches -- and divide it by four, which gives you 18 inches. That's the preferred height of the appropriate size screen. (If you want a widescreen TV, divide the distance by three, not four.) But remember, TV screens are measured diagonally, not by height. A standard 36-inch TV screen is 22 inches high, which made the TV a little big for me, but so what? No one ever said "I wish I had a smaller TV." I bought a 36-in. Sony (SNE )Wega XBR flat screen for $2,100. (Today, a comparable TV would be about $300 cheaper with more features.) The conventional tube TV still offers the best color, richest blacks, and widest viewing angles of any class of sets.

Choosing speakers took still more effort. I subscribe to the theory that they should all sound pretty much alike, so I wanted to match the sound of all the speakers, front, center, and rear. The front speakers should all be placed on the same plane so that the sound effects are properly oriented. For the mogul's theater, engineer Jerry Steckling custom-built 20 of his patented speakers into mahogany cabinets that match the decor.

In my case, I took a few CDs of familiar movie music to audio showrooms and tried lots of speakers. Looking for speakers that could convey the drama of movie sound, I chose an NHT model that cost $1,800 for the full set. Price was a deciding factor. The speakers that topped NHT's cost twice as much. I also liked that NHT makes an in-wall subwoofer -- the huge speaker that produces low-frequency rumbles you feel in movie explosions -- which saved crucial space. In fact, I needed two subwoofers. In small rooms like mine, the long bass waves bouncing around can cause dead spots and muddy low frequency tones. Two subwoofers, strategically placed, allowed for a mostly crisp bass.

Dozens of audio-video receivers are on the market, and even midpriced units are packed with features. The Arizona project used a $10,000 Media Matrix digital control system ($50,000 with add-ons), which is run by software that can be tuned and upgraded with a few stokes on a keyboard. I wasn't so lucky. My first A/V receiver, a Sherwood Newcastle R-945, was great for about three years, but it lacked Dolby Laboratories Prologic II, needed to hear satellite TV's audio signal in surround sound. I bit the bullet and bought an $800 NAD T-752, which had the sound modes I most wanted.

Now that some of my equipment is more than three years old, I've daydreamed about some of the cool, new gear. But heck, the setup is good enough that my friends invite themselves over for movie nights. That should do -- for now.

By Roy Furchgott

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