A Guide to Creating the Best Home Theaters, Large and Small (Part 3)

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Part 3: The Room & Miscellanious

So you’ve got a projector or a shiny TV. You’ve got the best sound setup you can afford.  (If you haven’t, check out Part 1 on Projectors & TVs, and Part 2 on Sound systems. What’s left?

The third leg of the Home Theater triumvirate is your space itself. This final section of the guide will delve into how to setup the best viewing space possible, as well as a series of miscellaneous products and advice for turning your TV nook into a true Cinema experience.

Acoustics

Let’s start with the walls themselves. You may not think about it, but the physical space you’re using has a huge impact on the performance of your sound system, and again, sound is half of your movie experience. Many people make the mistake of spending thousands on handcrafted speakers built from the bones of unicorns, and then throw them in a 10×10 drywalled room with bare walls and hardwood floors. The result is crappy sound. Why? Because… acoustics. The science of sound is serious business, but I’ll try and offer the cliff notes version.

Why You Should Treat Your Room

When you’re building or upgrading a home theater, your untreated space will inevitably create issues with sound quality. Room treatment focuses on identifying and addressing these problems.

The most common issues break down into two categories: echoes and resonances. Let’s start with the former.

Every single speaker in your system produces a sound wave, which reflects off of and interacts with the objects in your space. You may think that the sound only travels directly from each speaker to your ears, but in reality, the wave also bounces off of various surfaces around you. As a result, your ears get hit with multiple echoes or reflections from each point where the sound deflected. Unfortunately, these reflections take a longer journey to your noggin than the original sound wave that went straight to you. The result is a muddying of the sound, as your brain merges all the mistimed echoes of the same sound into one.

There’s two types of echoes. “Reflections” are the result of the sound bouncing around the room at angles. The consensus among audio folk is that a small amount of reflections provide some character and depth to the sound, and shouldn’t be eliminated entirely. The truth though, is that most rooms have too many reflections, some of which needs to be toned down.

The second type of echo is “flutter echo.” This is the result of sound bouncing endlessly back and forth between two parallel surfaces (ie, the floor and the ceiling of a typical space). When you clap your hands and hear a ringing decay in the space, that’s flutter echo that needs to be dealt with.

The second category is resonances or “room modes.” The materials in every room absorb different frequencies of sound at different levels. The drywall, your couch, even your projector screen are all part of this complex calculus. The result is, if you look at a graph of how sound travels in your space, you’ll see various peaks and dips in the volume of different frequencies, which can diminish the perceived quality of your sound.

How Do You Fix These Problems?

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Room treatment deserves its own article (and there are MANY) around the interwebs. I’m going to give you a basic rundown of what made the most sense for me after navigating through dozens of threads, many of which offer seriously contradictory advice.

Like many of this site’s adventures, acoustic treatment is a deep rabbit hole. You can easily spend as much money on treatment as you would your sound system itself. It’s not even necessarily a bad idea, but for most people it’s utterly impractical.

Personally, I think everyone should do some treatment, but unless your space is particularly haphazard, start with the basics, and see where it takes you. It’s good to bear in mind as well, that the wrong treatment (or the right treatment over applied), can actually CREATE new acoustic problems by overcorrecting. So don’t over do it.

Start by assessing your space. There’s two options: the “free” approach, and the “lets buy some gadgets” approach (you can guess which road the Gremlin took). The free option is straightforward, but imprecise. Make sure you have total silence, stand near your front speakers, and clap your hands. If you hear ringing, you’ve got work ahead of you. If you don’t, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear, but it means you’ve already got at least some sound absorbing material in the space. Next, you want to look around your room and think carefully about the path sound takes as it moves from your speakers to your ears. What type of flooring do you have? Thick carpet (good) or hardwood (very bad). What do the walls look like on either side of each of your speakers. Are they bare drywall, or covered? Textured or flat paint? If they’re covered, is it with large uneven surfaces like a bookcase filled with books, or is it with a glass picture frame? The former would do some good by “diffusing” or breaking up echoes. The latter would likely reflect as badly or worse than drywall. Looking logically at your room, you can at least decide what basic treatment may be necessary.

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Some ideal DIY Diffusion

In terms of finding reflection points from your speakers, there’s a simple (albeit time consuming) way to figure out what the sound emanating from your speakers is bouncing off of before you get to your ears. The trick is to get a partner, then sit down in your ideal listening/viewing position. Then have your friend walk around the room, holding a flat mirror against the wall. As they slide the mirror along, you look into it, watching for the visual reflections of any speakers. Simply throw up a post-it note in each of these positions (prioritizing those that are closest to the speakers). This gives you a good idea of where you might want to place absorbing treatment.

For a more detailed look at this process, check out this great article at acousticfreq.com.

The more sophisticated way of evaluating your space is with a calibrated usb microphone and some software. The way this works is, you setup the microphone at your listening position, facing directly between your main speakers. You connect it to a PC, and install a fantastic free program called Room EQ Wizard (REW). The software runs a “sweep” of high to low frequency white noise, and records how the volume and echoes in the noise vary across each frequency and speaker. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually just installing a program, plugging in a microphone, and clicking a couple of buttons.

Even if you don’t plan on going crazy with room treatment, the Gremlin highly recommends you get a microphone and measure your space. It’ll save you money down the road by clearly showing you a baseline of your room’s performance and preventing you from buying more expensive speakers, when your room is really what’s limiting the equipment you already have. If you’re interested in treating your space, running REW before and after each treatment is applied will let you know what’s working and what’s not.

The makers of REW recommend the miniDSP UMIK-1 USB microphone, which ships with a special calibration file to ensure proper functionality and volume levels with the software.

It’s what I personally use, and it’s compact, no fuss for installation, and includes a handy stand for positioning during measurement.

For more info on REW, check out their website, which also includes some detailed guides on how to setup measurements, and all the other cool things you can do with their software.

MiniDSP also has some easy guides for mic setup.

Options for room treatment

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Once you’ve figured out the problems in your space, it’s time to go to work. I’ll go from most effective/easiest to most involved/hardest.

Start with the floor. Aside from your ceiling, it’s generally the largest uninterrupted flat surface in your space, and also the easiest to treat. If you’ve got hardwood, you owe it to yourself to throw down some thick carpet. Thickness is important, as a thin material will only absorb a fairly limited frequency of sound. Ideally, put the thickest carpet pad you can accommodate underneath it, as foam padding offers better absorption than most carpets themselves.

Now to the walls. To eliminate echoes and diminish reflections, your goal is to break up sound through adding diffusion, and to absorb excess reflections by adding absorption.

There’s creative ways to do this with items you already own. First, try and remove any objects in your space that could be contributing to your problem. Look to the points of first reflection you’ve identified using the aforementioned mirror trick, and if you can, remove large glass frames, etc. Annoyingly, a very common sound issue is coffee tables, which can create a prominent reflection point right in front of your listening position. Opt for a cushy ottoman instead.

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Once you’ve removed self-imposed problems, try and add household objects with acoustic positive qualities (For those of you adapting a living room, you may find yourself with an acoustic advantage here). A few bookshelves scattered with books on your back wall (opposite your main speakers) are a great way to break up those nasty echoes by scattering them in many different directions. Additional cushioned seating helps. Heck, even a carpeted cat tree might help, for those of you who are feline inclined.

Want to get serious? The best way to increase absorption of echoes is to add panels dedicated to the task. You can purchase acoustic panels from a variety of dedicated sites. GIK Acoustics offers materials, and will even do a consult to help you figure out what you need and where to put it. Auralex is another good source of pre-made devices.

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Examples of Acoustic Paneling

The most cost effective way to add treatment, however, is to build it yourself. The reality is that materials with the ability to absorb a large spectrum of sound frequencies are readily available, and dramatically cheaper to buy raw than in pre-assembled panels. With minimal handyman/woman skills, you can screw together some rectangular wood frames, shove a precut length of foam inside, and wrap the foam in an acoustically transparent fabric.

Another great article on Acousticfreq.com clearly lays out this process.

Once you’ve bought or built your panels, throw one up on each of the first reflection points from your main speakers, and reassess your sound. You’ll also want a few in the back of the room behind your listening position. If you’re unable to treat your floor (or you already have thin carpet), it’s worth hanging some panels from the ceiling as well.

Now, one huge caveat to everything I’ve mentioned so far is bass. Because low frequency sound waves are long (even multiple feet long), managing bass frequences has its own unique set of challenges. First, the aforementioned wall treatments are too thin to absorb or control bass. Bass energy also has a tendency to bounce around for a much longer period of time in a space, resulting in areas of the room where bass reflections can actually cancel themselves out. These issues can manifest as boomy, muddy sounding bass, or in some cases extremely low perceived bass volume.

Unfortunately, these issues are also the hardest to solve. While it’s possible to build your own bass traps, they take a bit more effort to make, and are by necessity somewhat large and ungainly. In a dedicated home theater, placing some of these in the corners of your room is a smart idea, but for many, it’s just not an option.

For most of us, the best way to deal with bass problems is to try and prevent them at the source. Unlike your other speakers, a subwoofer has pretty much no directionality. The human ear can’t actually discern the source direction of most frequencies below 80 Hz or so. Instead, our brains naturally associate these low sounds as coming from the direction of higher frequency sounds emitted by the same event. So you can place a subwoofer in the center of your right wall, and if a big movie explosion happens on the left, it’ll still sound like it’s coming from the left side, because your left side speakers will trick your brain into thinking the bass also came from that side.

Why am I telling you this? Because the nature of bass reproduction means you have the flexibility to put a subwoofer in the spot in your room where it will create the fewest nasty reflections, and result in the tightest sound. To find this spot, you need to do the famed “bass crawl.”

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Pick a movie with a strong detailed bass track (The Dark Knight and it’s sequels have a lot of these). Then, place your subwoofer in your main listening position, and while playing that scene, crawl around with your head low to the ground. When you hear a particular spot where the bass sounds the least boomy, and the most sharp, THAT’s where you should place your subwoofer.

Tips for Building a Theater from Scratch

If you’re lucky enough to have a brand new space for a theater, there’s some specific tips I learned while building my own home cinema.

First off, know that the worst type of space from an acoustic standpoint is a square drywalled room with no windows. The even parallel surfaces wreck havoc with flutter echo and bass distortion. Why bring this up? because if you’re starting with a blank slate, you need to work doubly hard to correct for errors inherent in the room. Custom acoustic treatment is helpful in any space, but it’s imperative in a bare room that’s been built for the sole purpose of theater goodness. If you’re building your own house, AVOID A SQUARE ROOM.

Seating

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I’m not an interior designer, but here’s a few helpful tips for selecting seating:

Make sure that you keep your seating in mind when you select your speaker setup. In a large room, this is less relevant, but if you’ve got a 7.1 speaker setup in a cramped 8 x 10, you better not be putting a large couch in there. Otherwise, while you’re sitting in the sweet spot enjoying your masterful theater design, your friends and family will be getting dizzy from all the surround effects blasting in their ear from the surround speakers that are inches to their left and right. Big couch in a small space is your priority? Consider paring down to a 5.1 setup, and put the speakers behind the couch instead.

What I’m getting at here is, it’s critical to have a little space between your speakers and your seating (couple of feet at a minimum) and you’re better off with a smaller couch in a small space than something that doesn’t provide for a good listening experience for all your guests.

If you’ve got a narrow, long room, consider getting two smaller couches and raking your seating (a fancy way of saying, make the second row of seating higher than the first). You can inexpensively do this by building a platform out of plywood, then painting it and setting your rear sofa on top.

If you’re planning on putting in recliners, the Gremlin strongly suggests the type that are electrically controlled with a motor. The reason is, you don’t want too deep a recline for watching movie. Most purely mechanical recliners don’t let you recline halfway, and the fully reclined position results in your head being at an awkward angle for viewing the screen. Electrically controlled recliners let you lock the recline in at whatever angle you desire. A first world problem to be sure, but we’re talking about putting a movie theater in your house here…

Sound Isolation

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If you have the ability to build or renovate an entire room, it’s smart to take the opportunity to give the walls some sound isolation, so that when you’re cranking the volume of The Matrix at 2:00AM, your neighbors (or your family) don’t call the cops.

The best way to create sound isolation is to add acoustic insulation to your walls. If you’ve got the budget, rip open your studs and fill the cavities with fiberglass insulation rated for soundproofing. Try to seal small gaps in the wall (like around electrical outlets, etc) with acoustic caulk. Then, when you drywall, use a double layer of drywall to help deaden mid and upper frequencies.

Like with room treatment, bass is a separate and much more difficult thing to silence. You’ve got two options. If money is no object, the best thing to do is to build the room on a floating floor, with mechanical sound isolators “decoupling” the false floor from the subfloor below. For more info on sound isolating construction techniques, check out this Sound & Vision article.

For the rest of us, there’s little things you can do to minimize bass creeping out of your space. The simplest thing is to try and place your subwoofer in the part of the room that’s as far as possible from people in your house you might pester (ie opposite the wall that meets up with a bedroom or an exterior). That’s not always best for sound quality, however.

What I recommend is to use sound isolating feet on your subwoofer. You simply unscrew the factory feet on your sub, and replace them with specialized rubber dampening feet. These limit the amount of bass reverberating through your floor, while still allowing you to hear a quality subwoofer sound.

I use these feet from SVS.

Another trick is to complement your subwoofer with a bass shaker in your sofa or seating position. This is a small speaker especially designed to shake furniture, allowing you to turn down the subwoofer volume but still feel the explosions in your movie. It sounds like a carnival ride, but a properly installed and configured bass shaker can give you the immersive booming shake of a commercial movie theater without waking the kids. Check back for a full article on bass shakers sometime soon.

Completing the Setup

Beyond acoustics, or building your own space, there’s a variety of smaller considerations to take your budding cinema experience to Elite Gremlin status.

Sources

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Among the most important aspects of your movie and TV area is your choice of sources. The picture, sound quality and convenience of your experience are fundamentally tied to what devices and formats you use for content. You can spend a lotto ticket on a projector and speakers, but if you’re watching via an old DVD in an Xbox, you’re causing an angel in videophile heaven to spontaneously combust.

Now, the Gremlin is pragmatic (NOT). We’re living in an age where streaming boxes and services are everywhere. Many people choose not to purchase their own content anymore, and with that come some sacrifices. So this is by no means a must, but if you want the best experience, heed these suggestions.

First, if you can, buy blu-rays. If you’ve gone 4K, buy UHD blu-ray (and a 4K compatable bluray player). Why not just use Netflix? In a word… compression. Raw video files are massive, and large chunks of the world still lack super high speed internet connections (even the Gremlin is capped at a paltry 100 mbit down). To pipe this data to your TV, Netflix and other streaming providers use heavy data compression to strip out as many extraneous pixels as possible (it basically leaves instructions in the frames on how a single pixel can be used to estimate the colors of the pixels around it). These shortcuts can result in anything from a general softening of the image, to artifacts and banding in high contrast scenes, to the most obnoxious “buffering syndrome” when Netflix detects an internet slowdown and decides to send your picture quality back in time to 1995. Streaming providers also typically use simplified Dolby Plus surround mixes for audio, resulting in sound that’s far less than the best you can get.

Those of you living in Gremlinville may be saying “but physical media is so 2004…” And you’d be right. If you’re willing to spend some cash  (and some time) you can setup the most elite source system available in your theater.

The Gremlin will be spinning this into its own article soon, but in the meantime, here’s the idea. It’s called local media streaming. Basically, you get a bunch of big hard drives, stick ’em in a server, and backup all of your legally purchased Blurays onto it, in full quality. Then, you use a hardwired ethernet network to connect the server to a media streaming box dedicated to your theater (A Raspberry Pi 3 is great option that can be setup for under $100). You use some free software called Kodi (for Raspberry Pi’s I actually recommend Libreelec). It’s an involved and complex process, but you end up with a customized video interface with the best possible picture and sound quality available at the click of a remote. Speaking of which…

The Remote

If you’ve followed the Gremlin this far, you probably have a nice projector, a receiver, and a bunch of video sources. Save yourself the headache of scrounging through the remote drawer, and get a universal remote. Modern models have a bunch of advantages, namely the ability to set “scenes” that will allow you to fine tune your equipment settings for different activities (ie if you want to use a fast refresh rate for playing video games, or a different brightness setting for movies at night vs during the day). They also can be easily configured to work with smart home technology like smart light switches, so you can get the epic ambiance effect of your lights gently dimming as your projector fires up, and gently rising again as you power down.

A simple (non smart home compatible) remote:

Logitech Harmony 650

The Logitech Harmony 650 is the kingpin of old school smart remotes. Benefitting from Logitech’s massive library of compatible devices, the 650 can control pretty much any IR device on the planet. It’s ergonomics are some of the best available in any remote, and it’s an inexpensive way to make your TV setup WAY more convenient.

A budget smart home remote:

Logitech Harmony Companion

The Companion offers all the core features of Logitech’s top of the line remotes at a compelling price. Full control of bluetooth devices? Check (if you’re not sure if you’re existing device is IR or bluetooth, cover the front of the remote with your hand and try to use it. If it still works it’s bluetooth). Compatibility will a variety of smart lighting systems? Yup. Dedicated buttons for turning on the aforementioned smart switches? For sure. It’s not much to look at, and the lack of backlighting is a deal breaker for some, but if you’re on a budget and still want the ability to automate your room or ensure compatibility with the rapidly growing stable of non-IR controlled devices, it’s a great option.

A no compromise smart remote:

Logitech Harmony Ultimate

While the Harmony Elite is technically Logitech’s top of the line remote, it’s predecessor, the Ultimate is (as of this writing) almost half the price, while still offering all the same features. The main change between the two models was a shift in the button placement on the remotes, which, while nice, isn’t worth spending an extra $100 plus dollars for. What do you get on the Ultimate? All the features of the Companion, plus sharp backlighting, and most importantly of all, a touch screen. This may seem counterintuitive on a remote, but having an interactive screen allows you to create custom buttons and macros for controlling oddball devices (I get a lot of use out of it with my custom Kodi box). It also allows you to troubleshoot any issues that may arise (ie if you haven’t quite programmed things right, and your receiver is being set to the wrong input). I swear by the Ultimate in my own setup, and it’s the centerpiece of my theater related home automation.

So you’ve gone to all the trouble of setting up the perfect TV and sound system. You’ve got your comfy chair and your customized remote and lighting system. What’s left?

Calibration

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The final piece of the puzzle can be awkward and mundane, but trolling through the settings menus of your various boxes is ESSENTIAL to getting the most out of your system. Professional cinemas, and $200k home theaters will hire a professional to come in with specialized equipment to fine tune your systems picture and sound settings, but you can replicate most of this yourself with some inexpensive tools.

Start by setting up picture quality settings.

For any TV, the Gremlin disables the following:

-Any smart apps if necessary (use Netflix on a dedicated device like an Apple TV, not the sluggish interface on your TV).

-The 240 Hz fast refresh rate, often masquerading as “Smooth Motion.” This setting tries to smooth out fast motion on screen by increasing the picture refresh rate. The result is great for things like sporting events that are shot using high refresh rate cameras, but for most Movies and TV (mostly shot at 24 FPS), it introduces the dreaded “soap opera effect” which makes the motion on screen look artificial, like it was shot on a crappy video camera. It may take you a few minutes to get used to the change, but most people prefer the natural unaltered look of a film screened in its native frame/refresh rate.

-TV external speakers. If you’ve got an external sound system (you do… right?) make sure your TV’s build in speaker system is disabled. Otherwise you’ll have a crappy echo in your sound.

-LED indicator lights. A lot of equipment these days include options to turn status LEDs off while your equipment is on. This means when you’re watching TV in a dark room, you don’t have a dozen annoying white LED lights blinking at you right below the screen.

Next, you’ll need to calibrate the color, brightness and contrast settings for your projector or TV.

To do so, you need a set of calibration graphs to display, in order to adjust these settings to optimal levels. Getting these settings right is essential to making your picture as vivid, sharp and realistic as possible. To do this, you need graphs that’ve been preset in the proper color space and in a video format. For those who haven’t calibrated before, it’s easiest to purchase a disc walkthrough with the graphs included.

The traditional option which everyone’s used in the past is the Disney World of Wonder Disc.

This bluray has detailed sections for every relevant setting on your TV, and also walks you through calibrating your receiver. It’s unfortunately gone out of print now, so the price is a bit high.

A good alternative is the Spears & Munsil Benchmark & Calibration disc

This set is used by a ton of professional video reviewers for calibrating test sets. The disc is a little less intuitive for tech novices, but it offers a comprehensive set of patterns, and if you get lost, there’s a dozen more in-depth articles than mine that’ll walk you through each step of calibration, so long as you’ve got one of these discs handy as a visual reference.

Rule of thumb when running through these settings is that they all interact with each other. So set your brightness, then your contrast, then go toggle back and forth until both charts look correct. Then do your color setting and recheck everything.

Audio calibration

This is arguably the most important step. Lots of TVs now come somewhat well calibrated out of the box, but your sound system needs to be configured to your unique space, and it won’t sound right until you do.

Start by measuring the physical distances from each of your speakers to your listening sweet spot, then entering these distances into your receiver’s setup screens.

Then, use a calibration disc or online tool to verify that the phase of each speaker is correct (if it’s not, it usually means you’ve reversed the red and black speaker connections on one side).

Finally, you need to set the volume levels of each speaker and your subwoofer. To do this accurately, you want to buy a sound pressure level (SPL) meter, as our brains are very imprecise when it comes to measuring volume levels.

I use the Galaxy Audio CM130, a quality meter that’s a good bang for the buck as far as calibrating sound systems.

To use it, set it to slow C weighting, then hold it upright in your sweet spot. Your receiver will usually play white noise for you as you move through each speaker channel’s volume selection. Simply pick a number on the meter, and move speaker by speaker, adjusting so that each channel hits that same volume level on the meter.

The subwoofer volume doesn’t always come out accurate from this method (and frankly, the best sub volume varies a bit by taste). Try it at the level of the meter and feel free to tweak it up or down as it suits you.

Popcorn

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Don’t make fun. All cinephiles know that no film is complete without popcorn. Or maybe I’m just compulsive. Either way, the Gremlin has carefully studied the art of the popped kernel of the years, and humbly suggests the following method:

-Use a machine with an even stirring mechanism like the Cuisinart CPM-700.

-Use two tablespoons of avocado oil per six tablespoons of kernels (organic kernels FTW).

-Salt to taste. Olive oil from a spritzer makes for the perfect butter alternative.

If you prefer to ignore my hippie dippie California healthy recipe, pick up a box of Flavacol and mix it in with the raw kernels before you cook. Tastes identical to proper theater popcorn.

That’s it! You’ve exhausted the options for making the best imaginable home theater experience (just kidding. The Gremlin always has more options).

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If this guide was helpful, feel free to share it around or leave a comment below.

 

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