Building a Home Theater? Avoid these Pitfalls

Courtesy of SONA.

Are you thinking about building a home theater — or maybe converting an existing mixed-use media room into a space dedicated to movie viewing? If so, there are a whole host of things to consider before you break ground, so to speak. Drawing on its 40-plus years of experience as a home audio and video specialist, North Carolina’s Audio Advice has identified the most common mistakes home theater builders make — from picking a screen that’s too small to ignoring room acoustics — and come up with meaningful advice on how to avoid these pitfalls to ensure a great home theater experience. The good news is, following these recommendations doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend more money — it’s often more a matter of rejiggering your budget to make sure your hard-earned money is spent where it counts most.

1. Wrong Right Screen Size

One of the most common questions Audio Advice gets is, “How big should my screen be?” The goal, of course, is to create an engaging home theater experience that pulls you into the story so you want to make sure you get the screen size right.

“The number one mistake we see is the wrong screen size,” says Audio Advice CEO Scott Newnam. “Most of the time it’s because the screen is too small for the room and the seating position. Sometimes — although a lot less often — the screen is too big and the seating is too close.”

If you choose a screen that’s too small, you’re shortchanging yourself by settling for a viewing experience that’s not as exciting as it could be. The screen needs to be big enough to pull you into the story but not so big that watching fast-paced action movies make you dizzy. If you’ve ever sat in the first or second row in a movie theater and felt nauseous, you know what I’m talking about.

Audio Advice has a multi-faceted home theater design tool that makes it easy to visualize different size screens in your room and figure out the ideal screen size for the space and setup you have in mind. You enter your room dimensions and select among seating, screen, and speaker options. As you adjust screen size, you can see how the “immersion level” changes, going from “very low” for small screens to “very high” for large screens and with low to medium immersion for screen sizes in between.

The patented tool is free and performs other important tasks like showing sound-dispersion patterns for different speaker layouts with pop-ups that alert you to problems with speaker location based on the size of the room. You can check it out here.

2. Wrong Wall Color and Finish

If you think the color you choose to paint the walls of your home theater is inconsequential, think again. The walls in a movie theater are dark for a reason — to absorb light from the screen and keep your eyes focused where they should be. If you choose the wrong color and finish, light from your TV or projector will reflect back into the room and wash out the picture, which can be especially problematic for video-projection setups.

“When you go into a room that has a great projector and great screen with white or light colored walls bouncing light all around, it just doesn’t look good,” Newnam observes. “Ideally, you want darker colors.”

One of Audio Advice’s go-to choices is the Sherwin Williams color Grizzle Gray with a flat or matte finish as opposed to a gloss or semi-gloss finish that will reflect light. The color is dark enough to prevent light from reflecting back onto the screen (but hopefully not so dark that it alienates your significant other) and neutral so it won’t affect images on the screen; you’ll want to steer clear of primary colors like red as they can “bias” the image, lending a reddish cast to onscreen characters.

Also make sure cabinets and finishes around the screen are not reflective. When you place a surface like granite below the TV or projection screen, the image from the screen will appear on that surface, creating a distraction that will destroy the illusion of being there.

3. Bad Sight Lines

The notion of providing a comfortable, unobstructed view of the screen is so simple that it’s often overlooked, leading to an intolerable situation where viewers have to crane their necks to see the screen or — worse — can’t see the entire screen because it’s blocked by the seat/person in front of them. What could be worse than spending time and money building a home theater only to find on movie night that not everyone can see the screen?

The first scenario happens when a TV or projection screen is mounted too high on the wall — an all-too-common mistake, often done for aesthetic reasons like mounting a TV above a fireplace. The second scenario occurs in rooms with two or more rows of seating when seats behind the first row either aren’t elevated at all or not elevated enough.

Planning is the key here. Before you even think about picking up a hammer or screw driver, you need to map out the seating to ensure a clear line of sight for all viewers and make sure the screen is situated at eye level. In spaces where there will be two or more rows of seating, figuring out sight lines can be tricky because you need to calculate the proper elevation of the “risers” used to lift seats in the second, third, and fourth rows.

“If your risers aren’t high enough, you’re basically looking into the back of someone’s head,” Newnam cautions, “so you really need to think about the design of the room.” Bottom line: Any theater with more than one row of seating is going to need a riser unless you place the screen high off the floor, which, as noted, will make viewing pretty uncomfortable for everyone.

Audio Advice’s home theater design tool calculates and provides riser height based on the room parameters you put in. The company also offers a tutorial covering the ins and outs of riser design, including how deep risers should be, which is critical if you’re planning to have seats that recline.

4. Blowing Your Budget on Video and Skimping on Audio

Nothing galls the pros at Audio Advice more than when they walk into a theater space and see a grand TV suspended over a $150 soundbar. Such a mismatch is usually the outcome of a budget gone awry with a disproportionate amount spent on video and next to nothing on audio — a rookie move that can all but mute the excitement of movie viewing. If you must cut corners, audio is most definitely not the place to do it.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid this pitfall with a little planning. Audio Advice finds that video is the first thing most people research when they decide to go the home theater route. Problem is, they get so caught up in dreaming about that big screen that they never stop to think about the essential role sound plays in creating an engaging theater experience. Watching a blockbuster like Godzilla on a big screen hitched to a cheap soundbar would be…let’s just say, less than thrilling.

“When you go into a theater and it immerses you in the emotion it’s because the designer found that balance of great video and great sound,” Newnam explains. “When you cut the sound out and put everything into video, you just don’t get that great experience you’re looking for.”

With all of the amazing audio technologies available today — whether we’re talking Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D, or IMAX Enhanced — audio is more relevant than ever with the best of today’s movie soundtracks designed to produce a lifelike sense of envelopment and an ever-expanding range of speaker systems ready to transform an ordinary audio experience into one that’ll send chills down your spine.

Audio Advice has a rule of thumb it recommends for those working with a home theater budget of $10,000 or less: Don’t spend more than 30% of that budget on the TV or video-projection system. Doing so leaves plenty of room for a Dolby Atmos (or comparable) surround sound system, electronics, cables, seating, and everything else you will need to create a credible home theater. As for the audio portion, they recommend allocating 40-50% on a speaker package and about a third of that amount on audio electronics.

Of course, the bigger your budget, the more you can (and should) spend on video and, as that number increases, you will reach a point where it makes sense to allocate a larger percentage of your overall budget on a TV or video projector/screen combo. For more from Audio Advice on how to allocate a home theater budget, click here.