Home Entertainment


Home Theaters vs. Media Rooms

October 5, 2007 By Kim Wilson

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When someone says "home theater," you imagine a windowless room clad in red velvet, right? With theater-style seating? Framed movie posters? Maybe even a popcorn machine? For years, this paradigm has dominated—but it faces a new challenger.

Many custom electronics installers have shifted their focus away from dedicated home theaters designed to look like miniature versions of commercial theaters. Instead, they've begun building media rooms—spaces designed to accommodate everyday family activity while providing a wide variety of electronic entertainment options.

In media rooms, chairs are mostly out, and couches are in. Red velvet has vanished, replaced with leather, wood, designer fabrics, and other contemporary cladding. Open floor plans with unimpeded access to other rooms have superseded solid walls. And to the shock and dismay of video purists, most of these spaces even have windows.

This is not to say home theater's on the way out, only that you now have many more options that are worth considering thanks to new technologies and creative custom installers. Let's take a walk through a dedicated home theater first, and then a media room—so we can find out which of these concepts will work best for you.

Home Theaters
Jaron Argiz and Tom DeStio of Harvey Electronics in New York City describe a dedicated home theater as a "box inside a box." Ideally, it's a room isolated both visually and acoustically from the rest of the house, through the use of sophisticated construction techniques and soundproofing materials. These spaces take an average of three months from design to completion. They also require collaboration with a whole host of professionals, possibly including architects, electricians, low-voltage and lighting experts, interior designers, building contractors and, of course, the custom installer (sometimes referred to as a systems integrator).

In many respects, dedicated home theaters are built to the exacting standards of professional cinemas, demanding precise calculations for the correct placement of speakers, acoustic treatment, video projector, screen, and theater seating for optimum picture and sound. The cost of dedicated home theaters begins at about $50,000, with the average running between $100,000 and $150,000. And as you can probably surmise from reading Home Entertainment, some dedicated home theaters are built with budgets exceeding a million dollars.

Typically, the centerpiece of a dedicated home theater is a large fixed projection screen, usually measuring 80 inches or more across. A video projector, hanging from the ceiling or hidden in a soffit, provides the picture. Electronics are tucked away in a cabinet, and often housed in a separate equipment room. Front left, center, and right speakers typically hide behind the screen—in which case the screen is perforated or woven to allow sound to pass through. Some installers, like Tim Duffy of Simply Home Entertainment in Beverly Hills, Calif., prefer to use professional speakers and amplifiers. He recommends the use of pro speakers with horns, rather than conventional tweeters, for the most effective sound coverage, especially in larger theaters.

The first dedicated home theaters used rows of fold-down theater seats—and some still do—but most now feature plush recliners. Lighting schemes are often elaborate, with theater-style sconces, cable lighting under steps, and fiber-optic star scenes that simulate the nighttime sky.

Often, heavy doors prevent sound leakage from the theater and also isolate its occupants from any distractions coming from the rest of the home. The isolation of the dedicated home theater often makes watching TV or movies a rather formal affair, where family and friends assemble, start the program, and watch it all the way through.

Media Rooms
In contrast, media rooms are often an intersection of daily family life, much like the kitchen. In fact, media rooms often converge with kitchens—and with dining rooms and living rooms—in an open floor plan. In fact, the media room may well coexist with a living room or den. There may be windows, a fireplace, and a sliding glass door leading outside. The atmosphere is casual, and the furnishings are usually similar to what you would find in a living room or den: a couch or two, a recliner or chaise lounge, and a coffee table.

The audio/video equipment may be visible, perhaps housed in a purpose-built cabinet that accommodates all of the electronics and a TV set. In many media rooms, though, the custom installer works directly with the interior designer to stealthily hide the A/V gear in utility closets or cabinets. They often use in-wall speakers, painted or wallpapered over to blend into the surroundings, or they install conventional box-type speakers directly inside millwork so they disappear into the cabinetry and only a decorative grille cloth is visible.

Mark Gleicher, of custom-installation firm Modern Home Systems in San Diego, Calif., reports that many of the media rooms his company creates feature dual screens. A flat-panel plasma or LCD TV, usually 50 to 55 inches, is used for daytime viewing and general family entertainment; these TVs are usually bright enough to view even with sunlight streaming in through a nearby window. For movie watching, sports, and other special events, a projection screen rolls down from inside the ceiling, and a projector (often concealed in a soffit or rear wall) provides the big picture. Installers often use motorized blackout shades that drop down to cover the windows and prevent the picture on the screen from washing out. Room lighting is also dimmed or extinguished so as not to interfere with the picture.

However, new technologies make it possible to use front projection systems even for casual daytime viewing. Screens from such companies as DNP, Planar, and Screen Innovations are designed to provide a good picture even when ambient light is high. And today's video projectors produce dramatically brighter pictures than their predecessors.

A media room presents technical challenges not only for video, but also for audio. Sound from the media room leaks into other rooms—and, of course, it leaks in from other rooms. Light from windows and other rooms may wash out the picture on a projection screen. And while the decor in a dedicated theater is typically designed around the A/V components, the reverse is usually true in a media room. Some acoustical treatment devices can be concealed and incorporated into the decor—and at least one acoustic treatment company, NoiseOut Essentials, specializes in such camouflage—but most media rooms have no acoustical treatment. Installers can tame some of these problems through careful selection of speakers, crafty room design, and the use of audio equalizers to tailor the sound to the surroundings. Also, the small equipment cabinets often used in media rooms sometimes present ventilation problems for hot-running amplifiers—a problem that can usually be fixed easily, but that can result in catastrophic system failure if not addressed.

Media rooms typically take four to six weeks to complete. Although they can easily run into six figures, the cost of entry can be as little as $25,000.

The Trend
I had a preconception that there was an industry trend moving toward multipurpose media spaces. However, after speaking with several installers across the country I discovered that much depends on the culture of the region, the client's budget, and even the installer's personal philosophy.

In Los Angeles, the entertainment capital, dedicated theaters are still very much in vogue according to Simply Home Entertainment's Tim Duffy, who says that 70 percent of his company's installations are dedicated rooms. Move to the other coast, though, and limited space in city high-rises lends itself more to the media room. Victor Rivera of Custom Integration Systems of New York City says he rarely has the occasion to build a dedicated home theater in the city, but he often outfits his clients' spacious vacation homes in Florida or the Hamptons with dedicated theaters. Where budget and space allow, we see the best of both worlds: a dedicated room for serious movie viewing and a media room for general entertaining.

Anson Fogel of Electronic Systems Consultants in Aspen, Colo., says his firm builds plenty of dedicated spaces but encourages its clients to opt for only the media room. Fogel's reasoning is that the technical advantages of a secluded room no longer exist. He's found that once the novelty wears off, rooms separated from the hub of family activity often go unused.

Of course there are instances where a dedicated room is the only option that makes sense, such as if the client wants absolute state-of-the-art reproduction of audio and video, or a special theme that would not fit into the look of the rest of the home. Also, dedicated theaters generally offer more area for larger screens and greater seating capacity.

It seems both concepts—dedicated home theater or multipurpose media room—have their fans, and both will be popular for a long time to come. The best news is that whichever one you choose, today's technologies make it possible to have a satisfying, perhaps even incredible, home entertainment experience.


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