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Convert an extra room into a home theater … and it won't cost you thousands

Dec, 2003, by Mac Wentz

The very best home theaters are in rooms designed and built just for that purpose. But bringing home theater to your house doesn't have to call for major remodeling or a huge expense. You can adapt a family room, an extra bedroom or just about any other room for a perfectly fine home theater system that your family will love. The key is to know the factors that make a room more or less suitable. This article will help you choose a room and furnish it for optimal sound and viewing. We won't, however, cover home theater technology or equipment. Visit an electronics store for a review of the many choices that will best fit your room.

What's so great about home theater?

A bigger screen is nice, but it's the sound that really makes home theater shine. Unlike a standard TV, which provides sound through a built-in speaker or two, a home theater system has several speakers (usually six) placed around the room. The system divides the soundtrack and sends different sounds to different speakers. So when James Bond is flirting with his latest girlfriend, the voices seem to come straight from the screen. When the bad guys open fire from the right, you hear it from the right. When a helicopter zooms over, you might duck as the roar seems to pass right over you and the subwoofer shakes the room. And this isn't just for 007 wannabes. A simple conversation in a restaurant is more realistic as you hear the clink of silverware and the sound of waiters rushing all around you.

Choose a room for optimal sound

Don't dismiss home theater if you don't have a perfect room. Simple alterations help make up for shortcomings, and almost any room can become a good home theater. For the best sound and viewing, however, choose a room with these characteristics:

An enclosed room. Four walls and a door form the best home theater room. An enclosed room lets you nudge up the volume without disturbing others and limits the area that has to be filled with sound, so you'll get a more powerful effect from your system. Blocking out light and getting speakers in the right place is easier 100 (Figure A, p. 82).


A rectangular room shape. Shape influences how sound bounces around the room. Perfectly square rooms or rooms that are twice as long as they are wide can create muddy sound patterns. The perfect room is about 1-1/2 times as long as it is wide, with the screen and front speakers placed against one of the short walls.

Large enough for the audience and the screen. If your home theater only has to accommodate a few people, you can use a very small room--I've seen them as small as 8 x 10 ft. But you don't want a large screen in a small room. Sit too close to a large screen and you'll see the individual dots that make up the picture. Ideally, the eye-to-screen distance is about three times the screen size (measured diagonally). So a 36-in. screen looks just right from about 9 ft. away. When shopping for a TV, bring a tape measure so you can judge picture quality from the seating distance in your home.

Centered seating space. You don't just need seating space; you need it in front of the screen. An onscreen image appears sharpest when viewed straight on. The farther you move off center, the dimmer it gets. Most screens present a good picture within an arc of 60 to 90 degrees.

Furnish the room for sound and screen

As with any other room, style and comfort will drive your furnishing decisions. But also keep light and sound in mind. For a vibrant picture, you want very little light in the room. For better acoustics, choose soft furnishings that absorb sound, not hard surfaces that reflect it (Figure A).

Cover hard floors. Wall-to-wall carpeting is ideal, but a large rug over wood or tile flooring is almost as good.

Decorate walls with sound absorbers. Heavy fabric wallpaper is an acoustical improvement over bare walls, and cloth wall hangings--such as decorative quilts--are even better. Pictures or paintings help, but not if they're covered with glass or plastic. A bookshelf against a wall is also an effective sound absorber.

Block out light. Heavy curtains that completely cover windows are best (for both light and sound). Window coverings that fit inside window openings, such as blinds or shutters, block light pretty well but sometimes allow shafts of light to pass around them. Whatever light does enter the room will be less distracting if you choose darker colors for walls, carpet and other furnishings.

Reduce light reflections. You already know how annoying strong reflections off a TV screen are. But you've probably learned to ignore the subtle reflections that cloud your TV screen. For picture clarity (and less eyestrain), avoid reflective surfaces, especially glass: mirrors, picture glass, table tops or cabinet doors. Even paint sheen has a noticeable effect. Choose flat or eggshell instead of satin or gloss.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Home Service Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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