Any room can function as an entertainment area as long as it has a decent-size TV and a few speakers. But a home theater is something else altogether. It’s a space designed exclusively for viewing movies in a setting that can embody all the drama and attitude of a real commercial cinema. A home theater is typically set apart from the rest of the house; has no windows; and includes specialty home theater seating, wall treatments and other elements that give it a style all its own. It also usually features some fairly sophisticated electronics to create larger-than-life images and big, booming sound. But a video screen and speakers are just the beginning. Here are the five most important technologies you should incorporate into your home theater.
A video projector is the heart of a home theater. It takes the movie images from your DVDs and beams them onto a huge screen at the front of the room. A video projector can employ one of a number of different technologies to create bright, vivid pictures. No one technology is necessarily better than another. Performance hinges on the room setting and your viewing habits more than the internal engine of a projector. A DLP (digital light processing) projector, for example, is known for producing superbright pictures, which means it’s an ideal machine for watching movies with the lights on. The images created by a CRT projector, by comparison, look best when the room is completely dark, but those images are arguably more lifelike than those produced by any other type of projector. An LCD projector, meanwhile, is small and lightweight, making it a good choice for a cramped room. Price is another consideration. DLP and LCD projectors are fairly affordable, while CRT projectors are much more expensive.
Last but not least, you’ll need to decide where to put the device. There are many options: You could have your home systems installer hang the projector from the ceiling, build it into the back wall so that most of the machine is hidden or integrate it into a piece of furniture that sits on the floor.
Of course, your projector will need something to beam its images onto, and that means a gigantic screen. Unlike TVs, which have circuitry built into them, a projection screen is an enormous sheet of material that’s been specially fabricated to display images cast by a video projector. Stand-alone video screens are available in a range of sizes, from around 80 inches to 130 inches wide. The right size depends on the dimensions of the room, your budget and your viewing preferences. For instance, if the width of the room is less than 12 feet, you may not be able to fit in a 120-inch-wide screen. Something else to think about is how you’d like to display the screen. You can affix it to the wall so that it’s always out in the open or attach it to a mechanism that rolls up into the ceiling. The latter will require some structural modifications to the ceiling, so naturally you can expect to pay more for this type of installation.
You’ll also need to decide what types of video you’ll be watching on the big-screen. If you expect to view mainly DVDs and high-def programming, you’ll need a screen with a wide shape, preferably one with an aspect ratio of 1.78. Other aspect ratios include 1.85, which is sized for letterboxed video; 2.35, for films shot in CinemaScope; and 1.33, for traditional TV programs. By adding a masking system to the screen, the shape of the screen can be altered to suit the type of video you’re watching.
7.1 Surround-Sound System
A stunning picture deserves awesome audio, so spring for a 7.1 surround-sound system. The core of a 7.1 system is an audio/video receiver, which decodes movie soundtracks into separate channels of audio. These channels are directed to seven speakers and a subwoofer to completely envelope the room in sound. In addition to 7.1 decoding capability, a home theater receiver should have inputs for a DVD player, VCR, high-definition satellite or cable box and outputs for at least one subwoofer, the video projector and other gear.
Some audio/video receivers have amplifiers built in. There’s nothing wrong with that setup. But if you’re the type of person who really likes to crank up the sound, consider investing in a separate amplifier (or amplifiers).
Hiding speakers in the ceiling and walls is a great idea in most rooms, but in a home theater, you may want to keep the speakers away from those surfaces. Freestanding speakers, also called floorstanding, cabinet-style or box speakers, stand on the floor and are housed in their own cabinets or box enclosures. Because this type of speaker is specifically tuned to its enclosure, it is able to produce sound better than other types of speakers. The drawback to freestanding speakers is the space they take up. However, that doesn’t mean your theater will end up looking like a high-tech campground. You can hide the front speakers by placing them behind the video screen. Make sure the screen is microperforated so that the sound can travel through the material. Another option is having your home systems installer build the speakers into the design of the room. For example, they can be contained inside architectural details such as columns and prosceniums, or they can be placed behind walls that have been covered with acoustical fabric.
When the lights start to dim at a movie theater, that’s your cue that the show is about to start. You can evoke that same sense of anticipation and drama in your own theater by having a lighting system installed. In addition to lowering the lights, a lighting control system can add visual interest to the room by illuminating portions of the ceiling and walls during intermission and after the show. While the movie is rolling, the system could keep a few step lights on so that latecomers can easily find a seat. Anything is possible with a lighting control system, so let your imagination run wild. Turn your ceiling into a galaxy of stars, run rope lights around the perimeter of the ceiling or use pin lights to illuminate snack trays.
You can get really creative with a lighting control system, but unless the system is easy to use, all that creativity will be wasted. Be sure to ask your home systems installer for a remote control that can set the scenes while you’re sitting in your favorite chair. You’ll also want to have a keypad mounted at the entrance of the home theater so that you can cue a scene as you walk into the room.
By Lisa Montgomery, senior editor for Electronic House magazine. To see more articles from the editors of Electronic House magazine about the connected home visit www.electronichouse.com.