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HOW STUFF WORKS / HOME CINEMA

How To Optimise Your Home Theatre

By SmartHouse Staff | Friday | 07/07/2006

We take you through the steps to design and plan for home theatre acoustics.

Sometimes being lazy is a good thing. For instance, you may love going to the movies, but hate the long lines, cramped seats and people chatting away. The good news is that most of us already have enough knowledge to put our own home theatre together. We will take an in-depth look at spaces that work, room layout, choosing equipment, running wire and how to make the room acoustically sound.

PROJECT SNAPSHOT

 

Difficulty Rating: 2/4 Use Both Hands

Estimated time to complete:  One weekend.
Total estimated cost of project: Under $300, but will vary with materials and equipment.

THE PROBLEM

You like movies on the big screen, but don't want to leave the house— or pay someone thousands of dollars to have the experience at home.

PROJECT STEPS

1) Pick a room.
2) Draw up the layout.
3) Choose your equipment.
4) Place the speakers.
5) Install the speakers.
6) Wire everything up 


Click to enlarge
Our Floor Plan

 

THE PLANNING

A theatre can be any size you want it to be. Our room was 3.8 x 4 metres. Door and screen locations are a key consideration. Your room will need at least two walls that are free of windows, closets, doors, or other intrusions such as soffits or chaseways. Just make sure the seats are centred to the screen wall.

Once you have picked the room, draw it on a piece of paper. You don't have to make it an architectural plan, just a sketch. This way you can lay out the room without actually doing any construction.

THE EQUIPMENT

Most receivers will handle at least Dolby Digital 6.1. This means that you will have six speakers around the room: three in the front and three in the rear, with the .1 being the subwoofer (we'll get to that later).

In our case, the room is tighter in the back than in the front. The front left and right speakers will sit on either side of the screen on the floor. The centre speaker in the front will also sit on the floor under the screen, angled up with some styrofoam painted black. The rear speakers will be mounted to the wall on shelf brackets around the room.

In a perfect installation, all of the speakers are the same. No matter what the size, your speakers should be matched to each other; using multiple manufactures is not recommended.

We opted to go with a Dolby Digital 7.1 system. This means that instead of three speakers across the back, we have two side speakers mounted on either side of the seating area and two rear speakers mounted behind the seating. This is the ultimate in surround sound. If it's within your budget, it's worth the difference.

The receiver is the core of your theatre. It not only plays the audio, but is also the main switch hub of the system. Look for a receiver that has many inputs, especially digital ones.

The best receivers today will also switch component video. This means they have two or three component video inputs and will switch between them, depending on the device that's being used. This will always give you the best video quality.

Power ratings or watts per channel are another consideration; 100 watts per channel is enough for most rooms. However if you use a receiver that carries more, make sure your speakers can handle the power, both peak and constant. Ratings will be noted in the specification of the speakers and receiver.

SPEAKER PLACEMENT


Click to enlarge
The speakers in the front can be on the floor or mounted at ear height. Just remember that "ear height" means the height of your ears when you are sitting in your chair, not standing up. The rears can also be floorstanding or can be mounted on or even in the wall. They should be higher than your ear level, with the front of the speaker facing forward; you can mount them in the ceiling as long as they are slightly behind, but over your head. The front speakers should not be mounted in the ceiling, unless you can direct them towards the seating.

The subwoofer can be the easiest and the hardest to place. However, moving the sub even slightly can change the sound of the room dramatically, so try it out in a few places.


Click to enlarge
Once you have placed the speakers, don't be afraid to play with positioning. It's not a requirement that they be perfectly straight. In fact, it might sound better if they are slightly askew from each other.

ACOUSTICAL ADJUSTMENTS

In a professional theatre, it's very common for the walls to be padded. This can be very expensive. There are companies out there that specialise in acoustical treatments for home theatres, but these can be expensive.

An easy and inexpensive way to deaden your room is to hang curtains. In our case we found a great deal on heavy velvet curtains at a local fabric outlet. Each of the curtains is hung on a rod (we used PVC pipe and plastic anchors) that is 45cm down from the ceiling; the curtain extends to the floor. Since we used a dark colour we didn't have to paint the walls. And it makes the room ultra-quiet. The curtains extend all around the room, with the exception of the screen wall.

The floor is equally important. A hardwood or tile floor can wreak havoc with sound. Plan to have at least an area rug, but it's best if it is fully carpeted.

THE WIRING

We had the advantage of a drop ceiling in our room, which made wire installation easy. If you don't have a drop ceiling, use curtains to hide the wires. There is also a stick-on wire conduit that you can buy at your local building supply superstore that is paintable and works really well. You should avoid running the wires under the carpet. This can be dangerous, and degrade the wires quickly. Use the baseboards to hide the wires if you need to run them along the floor. By using common sense and a little hard work, you can pull all of the pieces together to create your own home theater. Stay tuned for when we tackle the video!


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