Designing Your System
You've been saving forever, it seems, and now you can finally get some gear for the home theater you've been building. There's a dizzying array of different home theater components available these days. Which of the myriad of components will give you the best combination? How do you design your system and choose components so that you'll get the system you're looking for? Should you do it yourself or get some professional help?
The answers to these questions depend upon your knowledge and comfort level. It is entirely possible to design and install a great system yourself. Alternately, you could hire an installer to integrate components you've selected, or you could hire one to design the system only. Either way, the keys are thoughtful design and careful implementation.
The first step in the system-design process is to assess your requirements. You need to ask some questions and give yourself some honest answers. Really, it's OK if you like to watch Days of Our Lives and Terms of Endearment in your home theater. If so, you'll have a different set of performance requirements than you would if you enjoy movies like Batman Begins and Mission: Impossible III.
The most important questions to ask during the assessment part of the design process are:
1. How large is your theater? The dimensions and shape are important, as well as the interior's volume.
2. How many people would you like to seat? Are you using theater seating or a couch/love-seat scenario?
3. Does your room have windows, doors with windows, or other openings?
4. What type of space is available for equipment, and can it be properly ventilated?
1. What type of films do you watch most?
2. Do you watch a wide range of different programming in your theater?
3. Will you use the system for only TV and movies, or will you also be watching DVD concerts and music videos, as well as simply listening to music?
4. If you will use the room for music, what type of music do you prefer?
A common response installers and designers get when asking this last question is, "A little bit of everything, I guess." While that may be true, it doesn't help you with the design process. An easy way to determine your favorite types of music is to look at the presets on your radio.
1. How will you control your home theater system?
2. Do you want simple "press one button" control?
3. Do you have an existing wholehouse control system, or will you in the near future?
4. Would you like a unified (smart) remote control?
If you have a large variety of components, one of these remotes can take the place of all of the other remotes and can sequence multiple commands for seamless operation.
1. Will many different people use the system?
It's nice if everyone can use it without requiring your constant attention—or a degree from MIT.
1. What is the ambient light level in the room?
2. Are you able to control the ambient light completely (or do you want to)?
If you are designing a media room, such as a family or rec room, you may not want or be able to completely control the ambient light. In addition, for occasions like sporting events where you're entertaining guests, you may want to use the system with lights on in the room. Take these types of conditions into consideration during the design process.
1. What type of aesthetics are you trying to achieve?
2. Can your speakers or other equipment be visible, or would you rather they be hidden in some way?
1. What is your budget?
In many cases, you'll have no idea what you need or have little background on what comprises a realistic budget for your project. That's one occasion when it's a good idea to get an installer involved. They can help you determine a realistic budget to reach the design and performance targets you're aiming for.
1. Do you have any existing equipment you'd like to incorporate into your system?
If so, you must take it into account. You may want to use an existing piece of gear that isn't practical. For example, those speakers you've had since college could be awfully hard to match with a center channel.
When you've answered these questions, you'll be able to complete the assessment process. Once you've determined your needs, you can start the actual design process.
Getting Great Audio
The room itself is an often overlooked component that can dramatically affect system performance. Incorporating pertinent information about the room into the design process is vital to the ultimate success of your theater or media-room project. Your room's shape and interior volume will impact your equipment selection.
You'll want to select speakers that will allow for correct speaker placement. They must also deliver the sound pressure and dynamics you're looking for, or you'll risk your friends thinking your theater's wimpy. Placement, especially for the front speakers, is critical for proper performance. Optimally, you should place the center channel behind the screen, but that is impossible if you're using a flat-panel display or a rear-projection TV. If you incorporate a two-piece projection system (a separate projector and screen) into your system design, you can use a perforated screen to allow the sound to penetrate the screen.
If you plan on using your home theater for music listening, keep that in mind when you choose speakers. Some speakers tend to be better suited to high-quality music reproduction than others. That being said, a high-quality speaker should reproduce movies and great music with equal aplomb.
When selecting speakers, look to the manufacturer for recommended applications. Most manufacturers of quality loudspeakers will be able to give you an idea of the room size that a particular speaker will be able to work correctly in, given your performance targets. This is especially true, and important, when choosing subwoofers. Room size impacts the subwoofer dramatically. Its output potential in the lowest octaves is a function of its ability to move large quantities of air. The larger the room, the greater the volume of air the subwoofer must displace for a given sound-pressure level. If you use a subwoofer that is too small for the job, you'll end up with not only insufficient output levels, but the subwoofer will also sound overworked and ragged. That's how you feel at the end of a long day, but it's not how you want the bass in your theater to sound.
Because of the interaction of low-frequency sounds with the room, bass response tends to have locations where the bass is accentuated at certain frequencies and cancelled at others. These accentuations and cancellations are known as peaks and nulls. That's why your system can sound fantastic from one seat in the room, while, from another seat just a few feet away, it can sound boomy, like your neighbor's kid's Civic with the 15s in the trunk. Alternatively, you can get almost no bass at certain frequencies, depending upon your seating location. Both of these situations can, and do, occur in the same room at the same time.
You can usually obtain much better bass response at all seating locations throughout the room if you use two (or more) subwoofers. With bass energy entering the room at two locations, the peaks will be shorter, and the nulls will be shallower. Audio guru Dr. Floyd Toole, VP of acoustical engineering at Harman International, has done much research on this.
Another benefit to using two subs is that each sub won't have to work as hard. In audio parlance, this is known as increasing the headroom. This sounds like something you'd like to do in your car. But trust me—you'll like it even better in your theater, and you won't need a Sawzall to do it. Headroom is the difference between your system's maximum output capability before distortion sets in and the output level you're using. The greater the headroom you design into your system, the more realistic your soundtracks and music will sound. The lower you set the subwoofer level control, the greater the available headroom. See the diagrams above for different subwoofer arrangements.
After you've selected your speakers, you can start shopping for components. If you know beforehand what speakers you'll be using, you'll be able to properly match your electronics for great sound without going overboard. Some speakers are more difficult to drive than others. The higher demands that such speakers place on amplifiers require amps that can keep up; otherwise, your music will sound lifeless, and your soundtracks will lack that oomph that really scares the you-know-what out of you. It's a basic rule of thumb that more expensive speakers require more expensive amplification. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, better speakers tend to be more revealing. They'll reveal everything, good and bad. If your electronics have faults, high-quality speakers will let you know.
Getting Great Gear
When selecting electronics, you'll be faced with a daunting number of choices, but fear not. The first choice is: Separates or an A/V receiver? An A/V receiver is a surround preamp/processor, a tuner, and a five- or seven-channel amplifier all crammed together in one box. With separates, as the name suggests, each component is in a separate chassis. If you've got the coin, go with separates every time. The disadvantages of separates are greater expense and greater space requirements. Everything else is in favor of separates.
Because they're single-purpose components, you can better optimize separates for each unit's specific purpose. The amplifier can have a huge power supply designed to keep pace with its demands. There is a separate power supply for each component, optimized for that component. The high-power amplifier circuits are located far away from the delicate, low-power circuits found in the preamp/ processor and the tuner, which will reduce background noise. There's more flexibility, too. When the next new surround format is introduced—and you know it will be—you can, in many cases, upgrade your surround processor to accommodate it. That feature isn't as common with receivers. With separates, if you can't get the processor upgraded, you can replace it, while retaining those great amps you already invested in.
Conversely, if you upgrade your speakers to a huge set of towers in the future, you can get larger amplifiers or bridge some of the old ones and add a few new ones. While they take up more space, using separate components allows you to distribute the components into other locations to get the amps closer to your speakers or accommodate cabinet restrictions.
Whether you decide on a receiver or separates, make sure your components will allow you to connect all of your sources. You'll need enough analog and digital audio inputs to plug everything in. Be aware that there are two common types of digital audio inputs: optical (Toslink) and coaxial. Coaxial digital inputs use an RCA jack and look like a composite video or analog audio connection. Some source components have one of each; some only have one or the other. Make sure there are enough extra inputs to provide your system with room to grow.
Some upper-end preamp/processors don't include video switching. If yours doesn't, you'll need some way to switch video, or you'll end up watching only DVDs all the time. You can use a dedicated video switcher or a video processor with switching built in, or you can run multiple cables to your display and let it handle the switching chores. And throw in some conduit while you're at it, just to be safe in the future. If your receiver or pre/pro does have switching, make sure it has enough, especially component video. Many components now have HDMI switching, as well. You'll need that when you watch multiple 1080p sources, such as an HD DVD player, a Blu-ray player, or a PlayStation 3.
When choosing a control system, discrete commands will make your life much easier. Discrete commands give you the ability to tell your components to go directly to a specific state, input, mode, or ratio. You can easily check this by looking at the remote. Do you see separate on and off buttons and separate buttons for each input? If you do, great. If not, you'll have some trouble getting your system to work with a single button press from your remote. You can find some discrete codes for things such as your DVD player's power commands at various places on the Internet, but sometimes you're just out of luck.
Determining the seating capacity of your home theater is important, because it will determine the seating layout. Knowing where your viewers will sit is vital to determining the screen size. The key dimension here is the distance from the primary viewing location to the screen. You must have this dimension in order to correctly size the screen for your application. If the screen is too large, your eyes won't be able to track motion without excessive movement. That eye movement, while subtle, leads to fatigue and a loss of enjoyment as the program progresses. Another problem with an excessively large screen for the distance is that pixels will become visible. As the pixel count and density on digital displays increases, however, this is becoming less of a concern.
Use a screen that's too small, and you may as well be watching a movie on that old TV in your kid's room. There just won't be that sense of dramatic impact that really makes a home theater special. Details that a big screen affords you, like subtle facial expressions, bring a whole different level of emotion to the show. There's nothing like seeing that intense expression on players' faces during Monday Night Football to really bring the game into your home.
A good rule of thumb for screen size is to use a screen that will provide a 30-degree viewing zone, or 15 degrees off center to each side. Another oft quoted rule is that the primary viewing location should be 1.5 to two times the screen width from the screen. For example, a 45-by-80-inch screen would have primary seating 12 feet away from the screen. These are only general rules. There are many examples of successful home theaters with screens that are a bit too large.
Once you've determined the optimum screen size, you can select a display. In most cases, if you're able to use the optimum-sized screen for your space, you should use a two-piece projection system. This can be either a front-projection or a rear-projection system. With a front-projection system, the projector is mounted in the viewing room, either on the floor or on the ceiling. With the advent of small, quiet, high-performance digital projectors, ceiling applications are far more common. When using a rear-projection system, you shoot the projector at a translucent screen from behind. This is basically a larger version of the rear-projection big-screen TV.
Both systems have their advantages. A front-projection system is typically less expensive and uses less space. A two-piece rear-projection system has the advantage of keeping the projector out of the room so that you don't see or hear it. In addition, because the light in the projection area behind the screen is controlled, the room's ambient light is less of a concern. If the theater is to be part of a multiuse room, such as a family, rec, or game room, a two-piece rear-projection system works very well, due to its relative insensitivity to ambient light.
The throw distance, or the distance the projector must sit from the screen for a given image size, varies from projector to projector. Most digital projectors are equipped with zoom lenses that give you a range of image sizes from a given projection distance. Some of the more custom-oriented projectors have different lens options. These will accommodate a wide range of throw distances and enable you to tailor the projector to your specific installation.
You can set up the projection system to fire the projector directly onto the screen from behind; or, if distance is limited, you can use one or more mirrors to optically fold the light path and decrease the distance required. Rear-projection screens are usually more expensive than front-projection screens, and the addition of mirrors, which must be of very high quality, increases the price even further. A well-designed rear-projection system has a high wow factor, though. From the front, it looks like a huge, flush-mounted plasma or LCD screen.
There are three main digital technologies in use when it comes to projectors. Whether you choose a front- or rear-projection system, your projector will likely use digital light processing (DLP), liquid-crystal display (LCD), or liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS). DLP is the leader in terms of units sold, with LCD close behind. There are fewer LCOS projectors, but that's because they're basically marketed by only two companies, JVC and Sony. Each company has its own flavor of LCOS—Sony has SXRD, and JVC uses D-ILA. The different projection technologies have their own strengths and weaknesses, but there are many successful examples of all three technologies.
Take care to choose a projector that is designed specifically for home theater. Many projectors on the market are business or converted business projectors. Such projectors have a completely different set of design criteria than home theater–specific units.
After you determine the screen size, look to the manufacturer, dealer, or installer to determine which projector best matches your application. Most digital projectors, except for those at the lowest end of the market, deliver plenty of light output for common screen sizes. When the screen starts to get larger, say over 52 by 92 inches, you should consider a brighter projector. Brightness and contrast specifications can be confusing and, in many cases, are best used only to compare projectors from the same manufacturer.
You should be able to start evaluating your requirements and find a combination of gear that will give you a great theater experience. There's no one best combination. Show six different professional designers the same room, requirements, and budget, and you'll most likely get six totally different systems that would all give you goose bumps. The goal of a successful system design is to maximize the experience and work within the constraints of space, aesthetics, and budget to do it.
Where Do I Put My Subwoofers?
At low frequencies, room interactions take on a special flavor because of the way standing waves dominate what we hear. Dr. Floyd Toole, VP of acoustical engineering for Harman International, recommends the above placement options for a rectangular room with multiple subwoofers.
When Only the Best Will Do
You've reached that station in life where you can pluck some of the nicer fruit from the tree. If that's you, then this theater's right up your alley. You're not frivolous, but the pennies in your wallet aren't flat, either.
Vidikron Vision 90t Three-Chip DLP Projector $18,995
Stewart GrayHawk Reference Screen With Masking $7,850
Thiel MCS1 LCR Speakers (3) $6,600
Thiel Powerpoint 1.2 Side/Rear Speakers $4,800
B&K Reference 50 S2 Pre/Pro $2,799
Bryston 6B SST Three-Channel Power Amp $2,799
Bryston 9B Four-Channel Power Amp $3,795
Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player $1,000
Velodyne DD-12 Subwoofers (2) $5,998
Richard Gray 600 RM Pro Power Conditioner $1,195
Crestron TPMC-8X WiFi Touchscreen Remote $3,595
Crestron MP2E Control Processor $1,195
At the Movies, In Your Den
For too many people, the luxury of having an entire room they can dedicate to their home theater is just that—a luxury. If you live in a smaller house or a condo, the following system will give you great performance in a multipurpose room.
Olevia 747i 47-Inch LCD HDTV $4,495
Thiel Powerpoint 1.2 On-Ceiling Speakers (5) $5,999
Velodyne SPL-800R Subwoofers (2) $1,998
Arcam AVR300 A/V Receiver $1,999
Samsung BD-P100 Blu-ray Disc Player $999
RTI T2-C Remote With Color Touchscreen $799
RTI RP-6/RM-433 Control Processor $745
Watching sports demands a great surround sound system and a video system that will handle fast motion with ease. The following system will let you see every interception in detail and hear the crack of the bat in crystal clarity.
Mitsubishi HC-4000U DLP Projector $2,995
Draper Onyx High-Def Grey Screen $1,385
PSB Alpha Speaker System With SubSeries 5i Subwoofer $1,612
Marantz SR4001 A/V Receiver $550
Denon DVD-1730 DVD Player $169
Furman PL-8 II Power Conditioner $149
Universal Remote Control MX-900 Smart Remote $395