Home Theater for Tight Settings: Redux

A pair of real-world theaters get a makeover.

Back in July 2005, I visited the homes of several families with the common condition that their home entertainment systems were shoehorned into somewhat cozy quarters. The theme of that article was, with proper design, you don't need to reside in Hearst Castle to enjoy the pleasures of a great audio/video system. Sure, the word "theater" can conjure up a veritable Radio City Music Hall. But it's not the size of the screen that matters. Rather, it's your proximity to it and the screen's ability to capture as much of your peripheral vision as possible. In other words, it's about becoming enveloped within the audio and video images. An entertainment system properly crafted for an intimate environment can be fully enjoyable. One of the clear benefits to placing an entertainment system in a cozy environment is the efficient use of space. There is simply no room for clutter. These well-designed systems in our redux rooms provide maximum enjoyment and contribute to happy lives. One of our systems was installed by its owners, who also supplied the design brains and construction brawn. The other system required a professional custom installer, primarily because of lath-and-plaster walls, as well as layout challenges.

Why should you care about someone else's system? Most of us who are home theater aficionados live in less than ideal environments and have to deal with similar real-world issues. I can always learn something from visiting a room with unusual characteristics or A/V obstacles.

System 1: Alan and Susan
I knocked on Alan and Susan's door above a converted coach house in Berkeley, California. You may recall the 13-foot-wide space where I found a 27-inch CRT TV positioned 8 feet from the sofa. The top of the TV was at eye level, meaning the viewer had to essentially look down at the picture tube. Other asymmetrical factors inherent to the room's design also contributed to a less than optimal viewing experience.

Alan's background in architecture proved a great advantage for redesigning his media room. With an every-square-foot-counts approach, he gave this room the feel of a much larger space. Not only did he successfully create a generally comfortable environment, but Alan was able to so tightly integrate the A/V system that it seamlessly blended, as if the room and system had been created together from scratch. He even carved out room for media storage and added aesthetic touches. Nice work.

Alan added a shelf to the top of the built-in bench with bays to house the electronics and the center speaker. This created a built-in space for the electronics—hiding in plain sight, as it were, so the eye wouldn't be drawn to a large vertical stack. The design also prevents accumulation of heat, and the new shelf raises the height of the TV to a more comfortable viewing angle. Such modifications provide the space to move the front speakers closer together for better imaging, placing them at the same height they would be if they were on stands. The wires are hidden, and everything is neat and tidy—it's a pleasure to the eyes.

Alan and Susan decided on a Philips 37PF9431D/37 37-inch LCD with a 1,366-by-768 resolution. This model has speakers on the sides instead of the bottom. This means the unit's overall height is shorter, so, when seated, the top edge of the TV is below the bottom of the windows behind it. The non-reflective screen solved the problem of glare from the large, south-facing windows.

New signal sources included a Comcast HD cable box, Motorola DCT-3416 DVR, and Oppo DV-970HD DVD player. Alan wanted HDMI connections to limit the number of cables. He is happy with its 720p/1080i upconverting ability, as well as the SACD and DVD-Audio capabilities. The old Sony VCR remains as a sentimental nod to the good old days; the Onix XCD-88 CD player also remains from the old system.

The couple replaced the big old Denon direct-drive turntable with a Pro-ject Xpression II belt drive from Austria. It is quite stylish and much smaller, fitting nicely into the bookshelf on the right.

A NAIM Nait 5i 50-watt-per-channel integrated amplifier is a clever addition. As Alan says, "It is small (always an issue in our room), sounds great, and has HT bypass, we can use it alone through the front speakers for dedicated music listening, while serving as left and right front amplification for all other functions through the receiver." They also kept the Onkyo TX-SR701 A/V receiver from the old system; it now only drives the center and surround speakers. Therefore, it functions more like a processor and tuner.

Alan and Susan chose Von Schweikert Reference VR-1 6.5-inch two-way bookshelf speakers for the front left and right channels. The near-field monitor design provides a frequency response of 40 hertz to 25 kilohertz and a wide soundfield, which is much appreciated in a small environment. Aside from their tonal quality, Alan and Susan also chose these speakers because they can be placed relatively close to the wall. The couple chose the Von Schweikert LCR-15 for the center channel. As you can see in the photo, it is placed slightly off right-center below the screen. Alan claims that this is not noticeable because most voice and foley frequencies come from the midrange driver located almost exactly below the center of the screen. The subwoofer is Onix's punchy 10-inch Rocket UFW-10, with rated performance down to 25 Hz plus or minus 2 decibels. It is placed in the lower bookshelf on the left side of the system.

The surround speakers are a pair of Cambridge SoundWorks S100s. They are very small, offer dipole or bipole switching, and provide sufficient ambient sound for the room, in spite of their close proximity to the sofa. A decent pair of surround speakers can work wonders for a small space, giving the illusion that the rear wall is farther back. Alan and Susan are very satisfied with their selections and results. So is Sammy, their Maltese doggie.

System 1 Equipment List:
Cambridge SoundWorks S100 Di/Bipole Surround Speakers: $199/pair
NAIM Nait 5i Integrated Amplifier: $1,600
Onix Rocket UFW-10 Subwoofer: $599
Onix XCD-88 CD Player: $299
Onkyo TX-SR701 A/V Receiver: $800
Oppo DV-970HD DVD Player: $149
Philips 37PF9431D/37 37-Inch LCD TV: $799
Pro-ject Xpression II Turntable: $499
Von Schweikert VR-1 Left/Right Speakers: $1,000/pair
Von Schweikert LCR-15 Center-Channel Speaker: $1,000


System 2: Lori, Perry, Madeleine, and Elliot
Aside from the entertainment system upgrade, this family has welcomed another new addition, six-year-old Maddy's baby brother Elliot. All the more reason to make sure the new A/V gear is childproof. The top-heavy armoire that previously housed a 36-inch Sony CRT is gone—a smart move for this upstairs duplex unit in earthquake-prone Southern California. Due to the lath-and-plaster construction, the apartment was far from 21st century–friendly in relation to A/V wire pulls. As we'll see, this system bridges the broad span of time that has spun out under the roof of this charming 1930s structure, sans Victrola.

It took some patience and street smarts on the part of Perry's installer, Willy Videla, to make the necessary modifications to this structure. Perry raves about Videla's professionalism: He provided CAD design, room equalization, two separate evaluations, and overall attention to detail.

First, Videla mounted a Panasonic TH-PWD7UY plasma out of reach of little fingers on a long wall pointed toward the cozy seating area. This display, from Panasonic's Business and Professional series, is well known for its black-level and gray-scale performance enhanced by the charcoal frame. At first glance, when you enter the room, the display appears a little low on the wall. Yet, when seated, it's at the perfect viewing height.

The family chose the Denon DVD-755 DVD player for its reliable reputation, its generally high ratings, and Faroudja circuitry. Perry's JVC KD-V6 cassette deck and the Panasonic SLQ300 direct-drive turntable are sentimental holdovers from a bygone analog era. However, the JVC HM-DH5U D-VHS digital HD recorder is a very "today" piece. It spans the decades by being compatible with the family's VHS library, as well as being ready for the future—when the next generation of products rolls out. It features a built-in MPEG2 codec for direct connection to HDTV via Y/Pb/Pr or HDMI and digital recording of NTSC sources, HDTV digital broadcast bitstream recording/playback, and it's digital set-top-box ready with D-to-D connection via an i.Link (IEEE 1394) terminal (1080i/720p capability). Lest anyone critique the inherent flaws of HD videotape, let me tell a story: For over two years, in a previous life as manager of a highbrow A/V entertainment emporium, I experienced daily an early sample of the first World Series HD broadcast recorded on an earlier version of this unit. This snippet was the store demo, an introduction to high def in the days when people were skeptically muttering, "Yeah, sure it's good, but there's no content available." And this wasn't that long ago, if you remember. Perhaps you were one of those naysayers. The bottom line is, after two years of daily playback and rewind, the D-VHS tape looked as sharp on every video display in the store as it did the day it was recorded, even allowing for oxide flaking off the tape.

The Humax 80-hour DVD recorder-player with Series 2 TiVo allows you to burn an archive DVD using the same intuitive TiVo interface. With their active family, digital transfer of camcorder movies to the unit's hard drive through the front FireWire input is a feature that Perry and Lori use often. Once saved, they can make many DVD copies for family and friends. And finally, a DISH ViP211 HD antenna connects the family with the rest of the world.

Perry's research led him to select the Denon AVR-985S 100-watt-per-channel A/V receiver for the brains of the system. A Monster Cable HTS2500 conditions the incoming power and protects the system from potentially nasty power surges.

On his installer's advice, Perry selected Atlantic Technology's FS3200 series for the front speakers. Each left/right/center cabinet houses two 4.5-inch drivers, two 4.5-inch passive diaphragm cones, and a 1-inch soft dome tweeter. Surround channel speakers are a pair of Definitive Technology Mythos Gems that sport dual 3.5-inch midrange drivers and a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter. A fresh coat of matching putty makes them virtually disappear into the upper recesses of the rear wall. The family retained the subwoofer from their old system, the 8-inch, 300-watt Def Tech ProSub 800.

Speaking of not scaring the kids, Perry confessed a momentary lapse of sanity one day as a result of the remodel. When everyone else was out of the building, he cranked up his system, opened all the windows, and let his freak flag fly with a sterling air-drum performance along with Phil Collins on a rave cast. I'll have to ask for a DVD transfer of the camcorder video, since he's got the gear.

Logitech receives good coverage of their Harmony remote line, and, with Perry's model 880, it's easy to see why. I especially like the ability to control aspect ratio.

I always ask how you can tell good art from bad. Are there rules similar to what I know in music? The only take-away I can come up with is that you can tell good art if the piece "hangs together" and if you just plain like it. If we apply this to Perry's A/V component assemblage, I can call this a successful system. The audio and video combine to provide a cohesive image, and the speaker aesthetics are a good match for the plasma. This system hangs together well.

Both of the real-world homes I visited re-affirm my argument—you don't need a dedicated 20-by-20-foot room to enjoy an A/V entertainment system. So go out, support the economy, and buy those components you've been dreaming of.

System 2 Equipment List:
Atlantic Technology FS3200 Speakers: $850/pair
Atlantic Technology FS3200 Center-Channel Speaker: $450
Definitive Technology Mythos Gem Speakers: $500/pair
Definitive Technology ProSub 800 Speaker: $399
Denon AVR-985S A/V Receiver: $900
Denon DVD-755 DVD Player: $400
Harmony 880 Programmable Remote: $250
Humax DRT800 DVD Player/Recorder with Built-In TiVo: $240
JVC DH-40000 D-VHS HDTV Recorder/Player : $800
Monster Cable 2500 MKII Power Center: $250
Panasonic TH-PWD7UY Plasma TV: $3,999