Top Home Theater Design Mistakes, Part Two

As I mentioned in my last blog Top Design Mistakes, Part One, I’ve worked as a custom installer for the past 20 years, and a key part of my job is designing and installing media rooms and home theaters. (The difference between the two: a media room is typically an open, multi-use space, while a home theater is a dedicated room purpose-designed for watching movies.)

Having worked on hundreds of installations, I run across the same basic design mistakes over and over, and this series of columns is designed to help you avoid or correct those same mistakes in your own room. Last month we tackled three major design fails: too many seats, risers that are too low, and a wall color that is too light. Let’s now discuss a few more easily fixable problems that I routinely encounter.

Doing Too Much
In a similar vein to cramming too many seats into a room, media spaces frequently become a dumping ground for other forms of entertainment: card and foosball tables, arcade games, bars, and — by far the most common and problematic space hog — pool tables. I’ve seen many plans where an otherwise great movie room gets chopped up to accommodate other random activities. When you consider that you’re usually working with a roughly 14 x 20-foot room, a size that’s only just adequate to pull off a nice movie presentation with properly placed seats, sightlines, and speaker locations, all that other stuff creates a crowded mess. In other words, the movie-watching experience has been compromised. Now, before you write in to say how the pool table and bar in your room works perfectly, I’ll admit I have seen some well-designed theaters that incorporate gaming and bar serving/drinking areas. But these rooms were usually quite large to begin with.

Size Matters
The fundamental reason for building a dedicated viewing room is to deliver a cinematic experience. That’s why I cringe when I visit what could have been a great room and see a 60-inch flat-panel TV mounted on the wall. If you’ve made a commitment to creating a dedicated movie-watching space, I strongly recommend investing in a projector and screen. (Or, at a minimum, an 85-inch or larger flat-panel TV.) When it comes to projection screens, larger sizes often cost just slightly more than the smaller ones. Of course, factors like wall construction (A-frame) or ceiling height can sometimes dictate the physical size of the screen, but if those limitations don’t exist, always consider going larger.

There are several guidelines for seating distance and screen size. The Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), for example, recommends that commercial cinemas not exceed a 30 degree subtended viewing angle. For an even more engaging visual experience, THX recommends a maximum 36 degree subtended viewing angle. Following these guidelines, you could sit either 13.6 feet (SMPTE) or 11.2 feet (THX) from a 100-inch diagonal, 16:9 aspect ratio screen. (A useful calculator can be found here.) And with the higher pixel density that 4K projection provides, a person with 20/20 vision could sit as close as seven feet from the same-size screen.

Let There Be Light
I once worked on a theater where the builder didn’t spec a single light for the room. When I asked about the situation, he replied, “Well, you always say you want the room to be dark, so we gave you a dark room.” The preferred lighting level for movies — especially with a projection system — is dark-as-possible, which greatly improves both the actual and perceived contrast levels. Otherwise, you’ll need light in the room to safely enter and exit, and you should also take into account more social viewing occasions like sporting events. Ideally, your viewing room should have multiple, independently dimmable lighting zones.

If you do want some lighting on while viewing a movie, it should be directed away from the screen. Sconces are great for washing sidewalls with light. Overhead spots serve to illuminate seating areas. Rope lighting provides a low level of ambient light so people can safely move around during a movie. And then there’s smart, app-based lighting. Such systems, which have recently become inexpensive and DIY-retrofittable, may be the biggest, “Wow! That’s cool!” upgrade you can make. In the next issue, I’ll tackle distracting items cluttering the room, poorly placed speakers, and gear that’s either too old or complicated to operate.

barfle's picture

One thing I’ve always understood is that once in a while, you have to clean and tidy every room in your house, especially one where you might have snacks and drinks consumed. If you can’t make the room bright enough to allow those mundane but necessary chores, I don’t really want to experience your theater.