Home Entertainment


Your Room, Your Way

October 3, 2008 By Brent Butterworth

Click the images below for bigger versions:
This 8-seat theater is fronted by big Mahler towers from Vienna Acoustics.
Though located in a basement, it is acoustically isolated from the rest of the house, including the kitchen directly above.
 The theater has its own HVAC, with ductwork and baffles to keep the noise from equipment from seeping in, or the sounds of the theater from seeping out. It was built by Reference Audio/Video of Coralville, IA.
Those huge panels are speakers from Magnepan, powered by tube amps from Audio Research.
 By using acoustically transparent cloth, these cabinets filled with vinyl go from being what could have been an acoustic liability (flat cabinet doors) to an asset (natural diffusion).
 You can see some of the acoustic treatment along the far wall.
The surround speakers are from Vandersteen.
Talon Firebird speakers flank a Talon Thunderbird subwoofer.
These are hooked up to Conrad-Johnson and Jadis tube amplifiers via Kubala-Sosna speaker cables. The acoustic paneling you see here and on the opposite page are from RPG. The bass traps were designed by Rives.
Shelving of CDs and records were custom designed and specifically placed to act as diffusion to break up reflections.

No, home theater design companies don’t just fill your living room full of foam. Here’s how one firm satisfied three very different clients.

When you mention the word “acoustics,” most people envision a recording studio, or maybe a performance space. They start to think about walls of gray foam in strange crisscrossed patterns.

Eccentrically shaped wooden thingamajigs of unfathomable purpose. And puzzling analysis devices connected to countless microphones. To the uninitiated, acoustics sure doesn’t seem to have much to do with the average American living room - but it does.

As soon as you start putting speakers in that living room. Whether you’re in Carnegie Hall or a family den, whether you’re using a half-million dollars worth of gear or a home-theater-in-a-box from Best Buy, the size, shape, construction, and layout of a room has a gigantic effect on the sound that you hear within it.

Unfortunately, these effects are notoriously difficult to understand and even tougher to calculate. That’s why acoustics experts started to become a big part of the home theater business about a decade ago. Most custom electronics installers don’t have the time or resources to become acoustics experts. So for their high-end jobs and most demanding clientele, many installers prefer to bring in outside help.

In the last couple of years, these acousticians have evolved into full-blown theater design firms. You give them the specifications of the space and a general (or very specific) idea of what you’re looking for, and they design the room so you get the best possible sound and picture within the confines of your decor and furnishings preferences. While your installer probably does all the wiring, builds the equipment rack, and programs the remote control, the theater design firm may get involved in choosing the gear, supervising the construction, and calibrating the theater after it’s built. Or they may not.

Indeed, understanding what a theater design firm does can be confusing. In the past, I sometimes didn’t understand it myself, even though I know a lot of people in that business. That’s why I jumped at the chance to see and hear three different rooms created by design firm Rives Audio. All are in the same town—Rives’ home base of Iowa City, Iowa—but all involve radically different gear, different spaces, different looks, different customers, and different priorities.

First stop: A full-blown theater
In at least one way, doing acoustics work in a recording studio or concert hall is easier than doing the work in a home environment. In commercial spaces, the way the acoustic treatment looks usually isn’t all that important—in some cases, the client might even want plainly visible acoustical products in order to give the space a more “serious” look. But at home, the family actually spends a significant chunk of their lives in the space. They probably want to entertain friends there. Getting the acoustics right while keeping all the nuts and bolts hidden can be quite a challenge for the theater designer.

This 8-seat theater is fronted by big Mahler towers from Vienna Acoustics.

The first theater Rives Audio president Richard Bird takes me to is just such a space: an elegant, custom eight-seat theater designed to entertain the homeowners and their guests. The installation firm, Reference Audio/Video, brought Rives in at the start of the design process in order to make the room sound as good as it possibly could.

At a glance, this theater looks no different from many others you might see in Home Entertainment. There are no acoustic treatment devices visible. Yet the room is packed with features and design twists that not only make it sound fantastic, but also prevent the sound from the powerful audio system from leaking into the rest of the house.
Perhaps the most important of these design features is one you can’t possibly uncover unless you bring in a jackhammer. “The kitchen is directly above us,” Bird points out. “It was important that the homeowner be able to play music and movies at whatever volume he likes without worrying about disturbing anyone else.”

Though located in a basement, it is acoustically isolated from the rest of the house, including the kitchen directly above.

Rives’ primary solution was a 4-inch-thick layer of acoustic treatment under the kitchen floor, and a porous plaster ceiling for the kitchen itself to cut down on reverberations. Also, the ceiling of the theater is entirely suspended in order to decouple it from the floor above and stop sound vibrations from passing upward.
Considering the coffered ceiling’s beautiful (and undoubtedly heavy) woodwork, suspending it must have been quite a task. But the results speak for themselves. The homeowner cues up one of the more rambunctious scenes from The Incredibles, while Bird and I go up to the kitchen. Upstairs, just the slightest amount of sound from the theater is audible—you can just make it out if you listen for it.
“We also put in a dedicated HVAC unit for the theater, with baffle boxes in the ductwork to trap the noise coming from the unit,” Bird says. The ceiling itself even includes some diffusers to break up slap echoes between the ceiling and floor, and to give the sound a more spacious, natural feel.

The columns at the sides of the theater have similar features. “We had plenty of space to work with,” Rives reports, “so we didn’t have to do a lot of tricks, we just had to design it right. Because the ceiling height varies, it naturally sounds good and we didn’t have to use as much diffusion as some rooms require.”
Most theaters with this level of aesthetic beauty use speakers hidden behind false walls made from stretched fabric. But this theater’s speakers—large Mahler tower speakers from Vienna Acoustics—are one of its most prominent features. The homeowner—a self-professed electronics geek who began taking apart computers at age 8—picked out the speakers, and Rives designed the room to suit their performance characteristics.


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