Fortress of Solitude

Maybe it's because one of the owners is an avid comic-book collector. Maybe it's because the owners are the parents of not one but two sets of twins—both under three years of age. Or maybe it's because the room is so perfectly balanced, technically equipped, and ideally soundproofed as to offer a uniquely singular feeling of audio/video perfection. Whatever the reasoning, the term Fortress of Solitude aptly describes this home theater in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Experts agree, as evidenced by the fact that it was recently named one of the best home theaters in the nation by the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA). "We think of the theater as a Fortress of Solitude, like in the Superman comics," says the homeowner, an investment manager who describes himself as dangerously savvy when it comes to audio/video equipment. The solitude is wonderful. I can disappear here and go somewhere else for a while."

Room at the Top
The original blueprint for the home included a room that would accommodate a home theater. The room, at 16 feet wide by 26 feet long by 9 feet high, was the right width and length but was the wrong height. In order to fit the large screen and still provide ideal sight lines, excavation was necessary. "The ceiling was so low that individuals in the second row wouldn't be able to see past the heads in the front row," says Theo Kalomirakis, president of world-renowned TK Theaters, who designed this amazing theater. "And so, to get the screen as big as the client wanted, we called in a structural engineer to see if it was possible to dig a pit. We ended up digging only in the middle, not to the walls, so the foundation wouldn't be compromised. "Excavation is one of the tricks of the trade for rooms that start at 9 feet tall. It's going to cost more, but it's nothing compared with the overall cost of the theater and the benefit of having unobstructed sight lines."

Clarity of Sound and Sight
While structural changes such as excavation aren't always essential to a successful home theater, selection of equipment is. That's where Brett Hager, project manager for Audio Command Systems (ACS), came in. From the air conditioning to the wiring, Hager considered every electrical and wiring aspect and came up with very detailed electrical drawings (see Electrical Diagram). In terms of equipment, the client wanted everything to be on the bleeding edge. One of the most interesting selections was the Ayre D-1xc DVD player, which Hager had never installed before. The homeowner specifically requested the Ayre because the family would use the theater for both viewing and music, and the Ayre provides not only top-notch video for DVDs, it is an audiophile's CD player. In all, the theater has no less than three DVD players. In addition to the Ayre, there are also a Marantz DV8400 DVD player and a Kaleidescape DVD server for storage.

For control and connectivity, ACS installed a Crestron TPS-5000 touchpanel, which is very easy to use and requires no maintenance. "We spend a lot of time designing our panels for ease of operation. Our clients are in control from the beginning, and we avoid having to go back and help with operation," says Hager. Hager credits the savvy homeowner with requesting a piece of equipment that, in the long run, made their job easier. "The 13-inch [Sharp-LC13E1UB] LCD that we added to the rack made a huge difference in installation," said Hager. "For a small price, it saved us a lot of running around. It works for the client because he likes to be able to play with settings—and it helped us troubleshoot."

Choosing the Right Screen
Throughout this project, there was a long thread of e-mails and sustained banter about the theater, but the most debated component was the screen. The homeowner had researched different types of screens and masking options and knew almost as much as ACS. They finally settled on a Stewart Filmscreen Director's Choice perforated screen. "This is a native 2.35:1 screen with three major benefits: Optimal speaker placement behind the screen without any of the typical moir patterns as with other perforated screens; an aspect ratio that can be properly masked on the screen; and use of the full height of the screen for most formats," says Hager. Hager recommends that you consider your own viewing habits before you choose your screen. "If your preferred visual entertainment is HDTV and 1.85:1/1.78:1 DVDs, then a 16:9 screen is a good choice. But, if the you have a diverse DVD collection—such as this client with more than 2,000 selections in his library—and you want to enjoy the movie in its original format, then a 2.35 screen with four-way masking would be a better choice." Hager also recommends using a perforated screen. When the audio comes "right at you through the screen," you'll get a true cinematic effect.

Excitement in a White Box
 
"When we started, this room was just a white box, a blank canvas, which is the next best to being able to define the space from the beginning," Kalomirakis comments. "Aesthetics go hand in hand with how you integrate the technology. At TK Theaters, we start from a position of knowing what the space needs and then we micro-fine-tune it with the technology that is being selected for the space." Kalomirakis says the room had many positive features, such as the soffit and the door in the center of the room. The homeowner's decision about the number of seats dictated dimensions, such as corridor width and seat placement. To add a powerful personality to the space, speakers are hidden behind metal columns and wood paneling, and chocolate-brown leather chairs add richness and warmth. The materials play up the distinctions between light and dark, natural and man-made. Two types of lights give the theater a unique overall glow. Kalomirakis used regular MR16 spots for the columns and the wall panels and electroluminescent lights (E-lights) for a soft, even illumination around the soffit of the room. Kalomirakis also considered the rest of the house and the children in the design and furnishing of the room. "I tried to keep the color palette similar to the rest of the house. We have leather seats that are spill proof not like velvet that will stain—and Stain Master carpet," says Kalomirakis. Even with all the bells and whistles and client expertise in this Greenwich project, Kalomirakis said it's not about how much money you spend: "It's about creativity and about having the ability to use resources for the best effect. I find that, with smaller projects and space, I get more creative."

Too Much for Barney
 
Today, the Fortress of Solitude provides a respite for the homeowners, who often share the theater with friends and family. The twins, says the owner, like the room even when there is nothing playing on the system. "The chairs recline. The kids enjoy running around. In six to 12 months, I predict it will be hard to get them out, but for now, the room's a little overkill for watching Barney." As for the homeowner's plans for the near future, he indicates that he'll probably do some updating soon, adding more speakers throughout the house, particularly around the pool. He also says an HD-DVD is in the offing, as well as an upgrade to X-Box 360. And, maybe some bigger, more beautiful panels from Crestron. But this theater is just the beginning, Fortress of Solitude I. The couple has already purchased land for another home. Let the planning—and the fun—begin..

How It Works for You

  • Don't Be Afraid to Change. Your Room's Layout. "When it comes to improving the performance of the theater, do not be afraid to make changes in the room layout to accommodate the improvements. By digging down an extra foot in a section of this theater, we managed to give the client better sight lines. Without this relatively modest cost, the client would have had a problem seeing the entire screen from the second row."—Theo Kalomirakis
  • Make Yourself Available. Communication is a key factor in the overall success of any project. When you are embarking on your own home theater project, make yourself available to your architect, installer, and designer. "It was a huge benefit that this client was very accessible," says Brett Hager, project manager for Audio Command Systems (ACS).
  • Keep a File of Correspondence. If you're building your own home theater project, it's good to keep a file of all correspondence for your records. While initial meetings for this project were held in person, often on site, e-mail played a significant part in keeping the dialogue going as work progressed. Hager says that his file for this theater includes more than 3,500 e-mail entries.
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