The Importance of Professional Design and

The Importance of Professional Design and
 The Importance of Professional Design and Planning for Home Theaters The room you build
will have a far greater impact on sound and video quality
than any other single component
you can buy or install.
Dennis W. Erskine
April 1999
copyright@1999, 2003 & 2010 by Dennis W. Erskine. All rights reserved.
Home Theaters – Professional Design and Planning
You are about to embark on a new adventure and
enjoy the excitement provided by a cinema in your
home. This investment in family entertainment
should result in many hours of enjoyment with your
family, friends and close associates. Much like any
other major investment in your home, such as
adding a swimming pool, you want to extract the
maximum value such an addition can supply.
Much like a swimming pool or tennis court, a home
cinema is a significant investment that can return
the same level of enjoyment. Unlike swimming
pools, however, those who sell and install home
theaters are not required to be licensed, accredited,
trained or credentialed professionals. Yet, many
home theaters can require an investment equal to or
larger than a swimming pool!
It will come as a surprise to many that a home
cinema is a bigger, more complex engineering
challenge than that swimming pool. Everything that
goes into that room will have an impact on both
sound and video quality. Everything … from the
colors of finishes, right down to the location and
type of air conditioning registers. Surprised? Don’t
feel alone.
When you install a swimming pool your contractor
must deal with many engineering aspects of the
installation from material choices, soil stability,
plumbing, drainage, filtering, heating and others. A
home theater requires similar attention to detail.
This includes room size, room ratios, throw
distance, screen brightness, projector location,
finishes, lighting, seating, HVAC capacity, and
even the method of framing and applying drywall.
All of these items can affect usability, image quality
and acoustics.
It is not uncommon to see photographs of home
theaters that look attractive with the lights on. But
when the lights go down and the movie begins the
illusion ends. In many cases the cost difference
between a nice home theater and a truly outstanding
theater is insignificant in the overall scheme of
There is one more analogy that should be made
before we go on and that analogy is to chocolate.
Recall your first experience with chocolate. It was
great! It tasted good, it gave pleasure and you
enjoyed the experience. As you went through life,
you continued to enjoy chocolate and couldn’t
imagine how it could possibly get better. Then one
day someone attempted to explain how much better
it could be. You just didn’t get it. Eventually, you
spent the extra 50 cents and tried a piece of
imported Belgium chocolate. After that everything
that had preceded the experience was not as good as
you thought. While someone may have attempted
to explain the difference, they couldn’t – it was
something you had to experience to understand.
The same holds true with home cinemas. Until you
experience a properly designed, calibrated and set
up theater, you cannot possibly contemplate the
improvement in the experience.
I recall a home owner who was showing off his new
“store bought” home theater. He and his family
enjoyed it. It was great. After a few moments in the
room, I took the liberty of moving the center
channel speaker a couple of inches forward. He was
shocked. Dialog he thought you weren’t supposed
to understand became clear, crisp and
So what’s the purpose of this document? Plainly it
is to encourage you to proceed with the adventure;
but, the in the process, to engage experienced,
credentialed professional advice throughout the
entire project. We are enthusiastic evangelists of
home cinemas. At the end of the day, we are less
interested in who gets your business than we are in
the final result. We want the project done right.
We don’t want the owner to be happy, we want the
owner to be enthusiastically overwhelmed with the
experience. At the same time, we want throw
caution into the formula. Just because the pictures
of previous work looks nice and just because
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Home Theaters – Professional Design and Planning
someone calls themselves a “Home Theater
Designer” doesn’t mean they are.
In the following paragraphs, we want to talk about
some of the many issues and myths that need to be
considered in your project. We want to convince
you this is more than five speakers and a TV set.
We want to provide you with information that may
assist you in finding the appropriate professional,
explain how this professional would work with your
architect and/or interior designer, and, finally,
provide you with some examples of the level of
detail you should be getting from your home theater
contractor. In the end, if that level of attention to
detail is not present, look elsewhere.
The Room as a Component
We treat the room as the basic, if not primary,
component of your system. Traditionally, speakers,
electronics, screens and projectors are looked upon
as the components in your ‘system’. When
purchasing individual components, considerable
research, listening, shopping, and viewing occurs
before a purchase decision is reached. Comparisons
made, opinions sought.
We view the room, the room design if you will, as
not only the single most important component of
your system, but also the most ignored and
overlooked. It, more than any other item you can
purchase, will have the largest single effect on
sound and video quality. 80% of the sound you
hear, is not coming from your “awesome” speakers
… it’s coming from the walls, floor and ceiling!
Spending considerable sums on cables, upgraded
amplifiers, and new electronics will have a less
marked affect on sound quality than spending the
same amount on proper room design.
Sound & Acoustics
There are a couple key issues we’re concerned
about with room acoustics: (1) sound transmission
in and out of the room; and (2) sound reproduction
quality in the room.
Sound Transmission. From the homeowner’s
perspective, the desire is to eliminate the
transmission of sound from the theater venue into
the remainder of the residence. From the theater
designer’s perspective, the focus is preventing
sounds outside the theater from entering the room.
Neither of these objectives is mutually exclusive.
The reality of the situation, however, is you cannot
completely eliminate sound transmission without
extraordinary efforts and, in most cases, significant
costs. So it becomes a balancing act. Another
point, which needs to be made, is those things that
affect sound transmission have little effect on room
acoustics and vice versa. Just because you have
succeeded in isolating the room, does not mean you
have good acoustics in the room.
None-the-less, considerable strides can be made in
room isolation if the theater designer becomes
involved in the project before framing is started –
most certainly before sheet rock or dry wall is
Common means to reduce sound
transmission included staggered framing, double
sheet rock, mechanical isolation and damping
materials. But these techniques alone will not
totally solve the matter, and, indeed, could all be for
naught if there is no attention to the details. Details
such as caulking, sealing electrical outlets and
attention to things such as the HVAC system. As a
general concept, if the room is tight, you can solve
the problems of sound flanking, but this is not the
total solution.
Some designers will suggest the use of a product
called resilient channel. While this can provide a
means of sound isolation, if used under the wrong
circumstance, it will also kill bass response in the
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Home Theaters – Professional Design and Planning
room. The use of resilient channel may help
smooth out bass response; but there’s no way to
accurately predict its impact…and that impact can
be positive or negative. More problematic is it’s
affect on the room cannot be predicted (including
the wall’s resonance frequency) and, if one guesses
wrong, the only solution is to rebuild the wall. A
poor choice at best. Even with the sheet rock, the
devil is in the details. Sheet rock must be “screwed
and glued” to framing members. Why? Rattles! In
the end, there are far, far better ways to smooth out
bass response in a predictable manner with
materials and constructs that will already be in your
well engineered room.
Why are we concerned about noise from outside the
theater? It has to do with the “noise floor”.
Imagine our swimming pool. If the pool is empty,
you can be at the lowest level of the pool and still
have plenty of air. As the pool begins to fill, you
must position yourself higher and higher in the
pool. In a theater, as noise begins to ‘fill’ the room,
you must turn up the volume more and more in
order to hear the dialog. Further, low level sounds
from outside the room can drown out, or hide, low
volume sounds from the film, create a loss of
audible clues and make the dialog difficult to
of 33dB to 35dB. In order to hear the entire
dynamics of the sound track, you have to overcome
the noise floor, so you turn up the volume. Surprise
… dB’s aren’t linear! Going from 22dB to 25dB is a
doubling of “loudness”. It also requires a doubling
of amplifier output. From 25dB to 28dB, another
doubling. From 28dB to 31dB, another doubling.
On average, you have an 8 times increase in
amplifier output and sound level to overcome the
ambient noise in a typical residential room. At the
quietest level of sound track that is an non-issue;
but; normal voices are also now 8 times louder, the
loud sound effects are also 8 times louder. Actually,
they likely are not simply because neither your
speakers or amplifiers can handle that load.
We want to make your rooms very quiet. We want
them quiet so you can enjoy a movie without
constantly fiddling with the volume control or being
blown out of the room because it is just to loud for
See if you’ve ever found yourself in this situation.
When someone in the movie begins to whisper, you
turn up the volume to hear what is being said.
Later, when the train wrecks, tornado hits, or the TRex runs, you’re running to turn the volume down.
Been there? Done that? That’s a result of bad
sound isolation, bad acoustics or both. In a properly
calibrated theater, you should never need to “touch
the dial”.
Room Acoustics. Here is where the real challenge
begins. You can put some incredibly expensive,
high-end speakers in any given room and they’ll
sound horrible.
Conversely, you can install
moderate priced speakers in a properly treated
room, and have them sound delightful. The single
most important component in the sound
reproduction chain is the room itself! It is not the
speakers, the amplifier, sound processor, or $10,000
exotic speaker cables that make the difference. It’s
the room. Sadly, it is not uncommon to see
someone put $16,000 speakers in a room and fail to
spend $3,000 to treat the room acoustics. Ever
heard this line: “If you upgrade to these really
awesome speakers, your room will sound better?”
Nonsense! By far the majority of sound you hear in
your room doesn’t come directly from speakers. It
comes from the room. Bad room, bad sound, and
new speakers or equipment won’t fix that.
The softest sound recorded in a movie or music
sound track is 22dB. The average ambient noise
floor in a quiet residential home will be in the area
The acoustic needs of a home cinema are
significantly different than the needs of a two
speaker stereo system. Indeed, the acoustic needs
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Home Theaters – Professional Design and Planning
for any multi-channel playback (music or cinema)
are significantly different than the requirements for
two channel systems. The reverberation time
(called RT60) must be significantly less. Further,
where you want reverberation and no not want
reverberation is also different.
The primary objective in a home cinema is to
reproduce the sound of the movie as the director
wanted the sound heard by the audience. When the
movie was made, and the sound mix completed, it
was assembled based upon the acoustics typical of a
large room or theater – one much larger than the
typical home theater venue. The smaller the room,
the greater the impact of the room on sound quality.
More than 90% of all movies are mixed within one
of 12 standard, identical sounding, sound stages.
The affect of room modes can be controlled. In
order to do so, attention must be made to frequency
absorption, reverberation (remember RT60?),
dispersion, diffusion, speaker placement and seating
placement. And, yes, you will require some form of
equalization. The moment you hear “equalization is
not needed”, it’s time to find a different designer.
And, no, you cannot, absolutely cannot, equalize a
room by ear.
But there is need for caution here. You cannot
approach your room design and seating placements
from a room mode spreadsheet. These spreadsheets
are interesting tools but present several serious
problems. First, a “good” seating position and a
“bad” seating position can be separated by as little
as 6”…not really practical in real life. Second, the
spreadsheets can determine where a room mode will
occur, but cannot speak to its amplitude. You may
be attempting to solve an inaudible problem! Third,
the spreadsheets assume a perfectly rectangular
room with 100% reflective boundaries. Clearly, not
Our rooms have soffits, bulkheads,
prosceniums, columns, raised platforms and stages.
Fourth, it is our belief these programs focus undue
attention on one of many, many factors affecting
acoustic performance. Concerns including speaker
boundary interference response (SBIR) and right tricorner effects can be far more damaging to your
room’s acoustics. There are six areas that must be
achieved with room acoustics: (1) dialog clarity;
(2) front sound stage focus at all angles; (3) diffuse
surround sound field; (4) smooth and wide
frequency response; (5) wide dynamic range; and
(6) no bad seats.
Proper treatment of the room for acoustics does not
mean the interior designer and theater designer will
be at odds. It may mean compromise but you also
don’t need to have tall round columns of bass traps
in the corners, funny looking beanbags in the
corners and strange things hanging from your
ceiling either.
In a real life example of compromise, George Lucas
(yes, that George Lucas) wanted wood paneling
below the chair rail in one of his screening rooms.
These nice looking, very reflective surfaces would
be exactly where you do not want reflective
surfaces. With a ranch full of acoustic experts,
George not his wood panels, and the acoustics of
the room were preserved. It was a compromise, but
everyone was happy. If you were to look closely at
the way the panels were installed, you’d see where
the acoustic engineers had their way.
THX™ or not THX™?
Before we answer that question, we must
understand what THX is and what THX is not. The
short answer? THX is tantamount to the Good
Housekeeping Seal of Approval and Consumer’s
Reports Check Rated products. It is indeed much
more than that, but there’s a quick, simple start.
THX is not a surround format, it is not an amplifier,
or a product you can purchase. It is a set of
requirements, designed to assure the consumer the
product they’re buying is suitable to the purpose
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The THX saga commenced when George Lucas
tasked his engineers to establish a series of
standards that would assure the movie going public
that they would hear, feel and see a movie exactly
as the director desired. Thus, a director could feel
confident the effect he wished to convey was indeed
conveyed from theater to theater.
Later in the evolutionary process, the challenge
became how to convey that same experience in the
smaller room’s characteristic of a home theater.
After considerable research, trial and error, a series
of standards were developed for speakers,
amplifiers, sound processors, and related equipment
to achieve that goal. Lucas engineers didn’t only
focus on the minimal performance requirements,
but as well on the ergonomics of certain
components. In the case of receivers, surround
processors, and pre-amplifiers, these specifications
translated into a requirement to provide the ability
to properly adjust equipment for phase, seating
location, speaker size, and the like.
In the case of speakers, the THX specifications not
only require proper frequency response and the
capability to accurately reproduce the sound track
(at appropriate volumes), but also addressed vertical
dispersion (horizontal and vertical for professional
speakers), lobbing, tonal quality between speakers
and off axis response.
Now this does not mean that non-THX equipment is
of lesser quality or capability. There indeed are
some wonderful speakers and electronics that are
not THX on the market. But here’s what it does
mean. In short, it means the designer knows in
advance exactly how speakers will perform and that
the electronics contain the means to tailor the
system to the environment.
That facilitates
placement and design. Without it, the design
becomes more difficult to implement.
Should a non-THX speaker system be used, it
means the designer must know exactly, on all
planes, how a speaker will perform in order to
properly place that speaker in the room. And, if
you, the customer are not an expert in electronics
and speaker design, it is your assurance the
equipment will reproduce the sound track
By the way, speakers don’t have a clue that the
sound is coming from a movie or a symphony.
THX speakers are to accurately reproduce the sound
and that holds true for music as well as film. So
why the debate? It gets back to the room. The
acoustic requirements of a room are entirely
different for multi-channel sound (music and film)
than for two channel stereo reproduction.
Speaker Placement
We agree that speakers are not like children – they
should be heard and not seen. That is not always
possible but it is certainly a design goal. But
beyond that, and even armed with THX speakers,
the placement of the speakers is critical to the
attainment of accurate sound reproduction. They
cannot be too close together or too far apart.
Depending upon the speaker, one must be
concerned with boundary effects, cabinet resonance
(when built into a cabinet or theater proscenium),
and side wall reflections. The most difficult
speakers to place: the center channel and subwoofer(s).
The sub-woofer is most affected by room modal
response. Conversely, room modal response is most
affected by the positioning of the subwoofer(s).
When your designer is involved at the start of the
project, the proper placement of the sub-woofer(s)
can be accurately calculated. The bigger the room
the bigger the sub-woofer required. Once you get
into multiple sub-woofers, the design becomes a
greater challenge. On the other hand, for an
experienced acoustics engineer, the use of multiple
subwoofers is a significant tool available to smooth
out room base response.
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Home Theaters – Professional Design and Planning
Now back to the center channel. The minute your
designer places the center channel speaker below
the screen, find another designer. That’s not where
it belongs. This is not a joke, we’re not kidding. If
that’s where your professional thinks the center
channel belongs, you’re dealing with someone more
interested in selling you “stuff”, not in sound
quality. The absolute best location for the center
channel speaker is behind the screen! When the lips
move, that’s exactly where the sound comes from.
Now your brain does an excellent job in processing
sounds to make you “think” sound is coming from a
place it is not; but, that is fatiguing and subtracts
from your enjoyment of what should be a relaxing
While behind the screen is an ideal location for the
center channel, there are indeed cases where that is
not physically possible. Where’s the second best
location? Above the screen.
All speakers should be in direct line of sight from
every seat. If they are not, you are not getting the
direct sound from the speakers. If you are not
getting the direct sound, you are losing spatial cues
and dialog intelligibility. Equally important is the
difference in distance from each speaker to each
seating location (first time you’ve heard that?). The
logarithmic nature of sound pressure decay over
distance basically says you can have very
significant seat to seat differences in sound pressure
level. Something a true professional designer will
approach in the design process. Hopefully, by now
you’re getting the idea this is all a matter of physics.
The problem with achieving correct speaker
placement is not placing the speakers during the
initial design phase. The problems occur when the
designer becomes involved in the process at too late
a stage. If the walls are up, the wire run, the
cabinets are in place and the designer comes on the
scene, the only recourse is to tear down walls,
cabinets and other structure members. If you’re
spending $30,000 or $100,000 on your theater, you
want it to sound like a million bucks, not like
$5,000. The only choice is to tear away.
Lights, Projectors & Screens
Room Lighting. As in any special purpose room,
attention should be paid to the lighting design. In
the case of the home cinema, control of the lights
becomes equally important. After all, you want the
lights to dim when the movie starts without getting
out of your chair. The most commonly used
lighting control device used in home theater
applications is Lutron’s Grafik Eye. This device
provides the various lighting ‘scenes’ needed in a
theater and can be easily integrated with theater
control systems from Crestron, AMX and others.
Where the theater designer needs to be involved is
in the decision process of which lights should
remain on, or dimmed, during the movie
presentation. One common mistake is the use of
tube lights in lighting coves and stairs. Why? Well,
these lights emit a very yellow light. The side
effect is often green flesh tones on the screen.
The lighting color is very important. In a properly
calibrated theater, you’ve spent $500 to $1000 to
have a trained Imaging Sciences Foundation (ISF)
member carefully color calibrate your projector. (If
you were present when this was done, you’ll recall
the calibration was done with all the lights off in
room.) The front projection screen reflects all light,
not just the light from the projector. So, if lights are
on in the room, the color of those lights will affect
the color fidelity of the picture on the screen and
reduce the picture’s contrast ratio.
In most theaters, some lights remain on during the
movie presentation. Here again, you must be
careful. Incandescent bulbs change color as they
dim. One solution to this problem is to use D65
fluorescent lights. D65 tubes are 6500K in color.
Yes, you can dim fluorescent lights when dimming
ballasts are installed. Another choice is side
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Home Theaters – Professional Design and Planning
emitting fiber optic lights. If you must use
incandescent fixtures, your designer can install
theatrical filters to correct the color.
The intensity of the lights left on during the
presentation also have an effect on picture quality.
When you are in your theater, turn off all the lights,
close the doors, curtains, drapes, what have you.
What you see is the blackest black you can achieve
on the screen. Now raise some of the lights to a low
level. This is now the blackest black you can
There’s one other aspect to room lights, more
particularly the lighting fixtures themselves, which
is often overlooked until too late. Rattles! Many
lighting fixtures and sconces have parts that fit
together rather loosely. If care is not exercised in
the selection of the lighting fixtures, you could be
introducing very distracting rattles into the room.
Remember the sound isolation discussion?
Basically, you’re building an aquarium … a sealed
room. So now, after all that work and effort, you’re
going to poke holes in the walls and ceilings for
lighting fixtures? If you poke a hole in the side of
your aquarium, the water is on its way out. There’s
a right way and many wrong ways to installed
lighting fixtures, sconces, and electrical outlets to
code, without adverse impact on your sound
isolation efforts.
Care should be exercised in the selection of wall
finishes and colors. White walls have no place in a
home theater! White will reflect light from the
projector and will make it almost impossible to
properly calibrate your picture. As the scene in a
movie gets lighter, more light is reflected off the
white walls on to the screen, washing out the
Shiny reflective surfaces are also
problematic. Not only do they have an unfortunate
affect on room acoustics, I, for one, want to see
only one copy of my movie. I don’t want to see it
reflected off the surface of the bookcase or in the
glass frames over my collection of movie posters.
The point, really, is that care must be taken in the
lighting design of the room. The type of care you
need, is the type that can only come from an
individual trained and experienced in theater
Room Finishes. We’ve already discussed wall
treatments for acoustics; but, the colors used in your
room can have adverse effects on picture quality.
When you turn off all the lights and fire up the
projector, you can see the walls, floor and the
ceiling. You can see these items because the light
being reflected from the screen is illuminating the
room. The light from the screen (and the projector)
is bouncing off room surfaces and being reflected to
your eyes. More to the point, this reflected light is
also being bounced back to the screen! The
reflected light is decreasing the contrast ratio on the
screen and washing out the picture.
In this scenario, can you also see that the walls are
red (or blue, or yellow)? If you can see those
colors, so can your screen! This reflected light is
not only reducing picture contrast, it’s also affecting
color balance.
None of us are particularly attracted to a solid black
or gray room. On the other hand, care must be
taken in the selection of colors, fabrics and room
finishes so you don’t diminish the value of all
you’ve spent on electronics, screens and projectors.
Screens. There are several manufactures and
sources of screens. These include DaLite, Draper
and Stewart. There are also a lot of screens on the
market whose heritage is unknown. Screen quality
has a direct and marked effect upon the resultant
picture quality. When you start cutting the budget,
the screen isn’t necessarily the place to begin.
Using a $300 OEM, brand X screen for a $40,000
projector, is rather like putting $10 tires on a
$60,000 Mercedes-Benz. Why spend all that
money on the quality ride, performance and
reliability of the Mercedes just to ruin the ride,
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performance, and perhaps reliability using cheap
Each screen material has its own attributes with
respect to gain, reflectance and color shift. A
competent and experienced professional can match
the screen to the requirements of the room, its use
and the projector.
Screen size is also a vexing problem. We all are
tempted to buy the largest screen that will possibly
fit on the wall. What is the ideal screen size?
Several studies have been conducted on this issue.
The studies have attempted to get the viewer close
enough to the screen that part of the action takes
place in the viewer’s peripheral vision – adding to
the sense of involvement in the film. At the same
time, as you get closer to the screen you can see
more of the defects in the picture. Defects such as
line structure and film grain.
For film, the
consensus is a subtended angle in the area of 40
degrees. In other words, the angle created between
your seating position and each edge of the screen
would be 40 degrees. For a 92” wide screen, this
would put your seating position at about 10-1/2 feet.
For a line tripled and quadrupled picture, this would
be about right. For a standard NTSC television
picture, that’s way too close. You couldn’t see the
picture for the line structure. In today’s world of
high definition source material, and high resolution
projectors, we can sit closer to the screen and obtain
a more immersive experience. None-the-less, too
close is still unpleasant.
As screen size increases, the amount of light
necessary to properly “light” the screen also
increases…and increases dramatically. This comes
from two areas. First, as the total square inches of
screen area increases, the total light output
necessary to light the screen increases. That’s
pretty intuitive. But that’s not the end of the issue.
The second comes from the throw distance of the
projector. Most projectors must be located a fixed
distance from the screen. This distance is a function
of screen size. Thus, as the size of the screen
increases, the projector must be moved further from
the screen in order to project the picture on the
entire screen. At some point, even with a high
quality zoom lens, the projector may not work in
your room.
The relationship between screen size and the budget
is a close one indeed. It can be real tempting to
satisfy a customer’s desire for a larger screen letting
the result on picture quality be damned.
Projectors. Projectors come in all sizes and flavors
running from just a few thousand dollars to well
over $100,000.00. There are “three gun”, or CRT
projectors, LED projectors, DLP projectors and
even “light canons”. What is appropriate in your
application is entirely dependent upon screen size,
ambient light conditions, and desired picture
quality. There’s no rule of thumb here except to say
there is a direct relationship between cost and
potential picture quality.
Why potential quality? Simply put, it’s very easy to
make a $50,000 projector produce a $10,000
picture. It takes 4 to 8 hours of work by a skilled
and experienced technician to make a $50,000
projector produce a $50,000 picture. You don’t
want the Chevy mechanic working on your Ferrari,
do you?
There are several manufacturers of projectors
suitable for home cinema use. The leaders in this
area include Runco, Digital Projection Systems,
JVC, SIM2 and others. Be careful about what you
hear on the street. While some manufacturers
purchase their chassis from other suppliers, the
resultant product isn’t the same.
Today, the price of a projector is a very good
indicator of its quality and suitability. If the
specifications between two projectors look the
same, yet one is $3000 less than the other, there
really is, somewhere, $3000 difference in the
projector. It could be in the electronics, the
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convergence mechanisms, or even in the quality of
the optics.
certification process for “Home Theater Designer”.
Seek out individuals with this certification.
Don’t be fooled by price or swayed by a sales pitch.
You want quality and quality is something you must
pay for – it’s never given away.
Home Acoustics Alliance. HAA is the ISF of
audio. This organization provides training in small
room acoustics and proper acoustic calibration for
home theaters.
What to look for in a Designer
Other professional memberships or certifications
which are appropriate include the Society of Motion
Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), The
Cinema Audio Society (CAS), Acoustical Society
of America (ASA), and the Institute of Electronics
and Electrical Engineers (IEEE).
There are no answers here because there are not pat,
formula answers in cinema design. But there are
things to look for in selecting someone to design
and install your home theater.
THX. You may not want a THX cinema, but you
do want a THX Level II certified individual. Even
if you don’t believe in THX, an individual with
THX certification has an understanding of theater
and room acoustics, understands the acoustic
challenges and, perhaps, how to avoid them. But,
more to the point, the individual cares enough about
his craft to have taken the time, effort and money to
acquire professional training.
ISF. An individual certified by the Imaging
Sciences Foundation has taken course and practical
work to fully understand projector and television
calibration and set up. They understand the issues
of “beam spot size”, color temperature, contrast,
geometry and all those other issues which go into
getting a $50,000 picture from a $50,000 projector.
But again, ISF certification is a measure of the
individual’s desire to fully understand his craft.
You have to seriously question one’s commitment
to craft if they claim years and years of experience
and no professional training.
CEDIA. The Custom Electronic Design and
Installation Association recognizes organizations
who have subscribed to a code of ethics, maintained
professional standing in the industry, and have
requisite experience and insurance to delivery
quality results.
In addition, we’ve been
participating with CEDIA in the development of a
As important as the above, are the work products
the designer will provide. If the designer simply
points to where speakers should go, gives you a list
of components and then returns to install the
equipment, you don’t have a designer, you have an
equipment salesman. The professional designer
will insist upon being a part of the project team
from concept through completion. The work
product would include floor plans, framing plans,
HVAC requirements, electrical requirements,
acoustical analysis and design, and direct
involvement in design decisions as to fabrics,
colors, finishes and lighting.
The Budget
Whether or not your intended budget is very large,
or just modest, that budget is to be respected. A
professional designer is well positioned to map your
objectives against your budget and provide
guidance where the objectives and budget don’t
align. One of the real secrets of proper budgeting
has little to do with budget amount. It’s all in
budget allocation. You want to spend your first
dollars on those things which are either very
expensive or impossible to change later and your
last dollars on items easily upgraded later. Speakers,
surround processors and projectors can easily be
upgraded. Rebuilding your room is not an
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Home Theaters – Professional Design and Planning
inexpensive prospect. On the bright side, it is the
room that will make the biggest single contribution
to sound quality, picture quality and your long term
enjoyment of the space.
The Point Of It All
This is not your father’s stereo system. It’s a
complex organism, if you will, requiring the
integration of acoustics, design, electronic systems
and visual effects. It is you who is making a
significant investment into an entertainment venue
that can provide years of immense satisfaction.
Building a home cinema is not a simple process and
you shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it so.
Building that Mercedes was not a simple process
either; but, you left the design and engineering up to
the professionals at the factory…not to the salesman
at the dealership. As complex and complicated as it
may be, working closely with a professional will
enhance the results, protect your investment and
greatly simplify the entire process. More than
anything, a proper home cinema is an engineered
space. What makes it work, or not work, is all
physics. It is not philosophy, magic pixie dust, nor
outrageously expensive electronics.
And, a final word about price. We all want a
bargain and you can always find someone to sell
something cheaper. But, if it’s the same product
from a different dealer you must remember the
dealers all pay the same price. So if they reduce
their price something’s got to give somewhere else.
That somewhere else is always quality and service.
Finally, enjoy your home theater!
About the Author:
Mr. Erskine is a member of the Society of Motion Picture and
Television Engineers, THX Level II Certified, Imaging
Sciences Foundation Trained, a member of the Audio
Engineering Society, and the Institute of Electronics and
Electrical Engineers (Consumer Electronics and Computer
Societies). Mr. Erskine is a Subject Matter Expert for CEDIA
in their certification process for Home Theater Designers. He
is an instructor for the Home Acoustics Alliance training
dealers and enthusiasts in small room acoustics. He has been
credited with the development of several new technologies. He
can be reached by email at
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