Daily Blog – Steve Smallcombe – March 31, 2008: WHAT EXACTLY IS A HOME THEATER?

What is a Home Theater (“HT”)? Does it need to be a dedicated room with theater seating and a front projector? How big a room and what shape? How about acoustic treatments? How important is light control? How much does an HT cost?

These are all questions on my mind as we are planning on building a new home in the near future, and a proper HT there is a given. We just have to make it fit in the floor plan for the new house and the budget.

The questions are also relevant in our current situation where the only available room for an HT is the open floor plan living room. This setup is non-ideal for a “serious” HT in terms of acoustics, wall and ceiling color, and light control.

Nevertheless, I still went with a front projector based-system, as for my money, no other image is as involving or large as one projected unto a front projection screen. I tried the smaller image behind glass approach for a while, but it just didn’t cut it.

Although our current setup is not in a dedicated room and one really has to wait until dark for the best viewing, I think it really is the right answer for me at this time. Perhaps the point is that a front projector in a non-ideal room might still be a better answer for many people in terms of both cost and enjoyment compared to a large plasma or LCD TV, or rear projector for that matter.

Clearly with a front projector one needs to do the best one can with light control, with the critical understanding that the most important light to control is light that strikes the screen directly. Light that you see that does not fall directly on the screen is less important, especially if you have somewhat darker colored walls. I pretty much alway have some light shining on the table near our viewing chairs when viewing TV or movies so we can find our beverage of choice, food, etc.

In our current home, we have installed Hunter Douglas Duette honeycomb blackout screens in all windows and doors in the living room and adjacent dining room. I also installed “dimmers”, or essentially butterfly valves in two Solatubes. Without the dimmers these solar tunnels bring and incredible amount of sunlight, or even moonlight into the room.

During the day, with the shades up and the solatubes dimmers open, one can hardly see the projected image on the screen. It is good enough to view the menu or guide and setup recordings, etc., but not for viewing. Lower the shades and close the dimmer on the solatubes, and the improvement is dramatic and good enough for viewing sports, news, home improvement programs or cartoons, etc. (When is the last time your kids complained about black levels or contrast ratios?) Movies with dark scenes or with spaceships flying across a back starry sky are best saved till after dark. Is this setup ideal for a front projector? No, but it is good enough, especially after the sun starts to go down.

The one other thing worth mentioning with regard to light control and its effect on the image, is the choice of projection screen. One could write a whole blog or two about choosing a projection screen, but briefly, if you don’t have complete light control you may well want to choose a screen with some gain, e.g. 1.3. A screen with a gain of 1.3 makes the image 30 percent brighter by preferentially reflecting light from the projector towards the viewing area while ambient light is not preferentially reflected.

There are different types of gain, reflective and retro-reflective, and one must chose a screen with gain carefully in terms of how the projector is mounted, i.e. ceiling or table, and the width of the desired viewing area. Nevertheless, the right screen, perhaps smaller and with some gain, and coupled with a brighter projector can do a lot in coping with ambient light. That said, less ambient light falling on the screen is always better.

In future blogs I’ll try and address some of the other questions I posed at the beginning of this one, but I’ll close with one comment about cost.

When talking with one contractor about our new home, he said, “This will be a very expensive home to build because of all the expensive requirements you have, such as the home theater”. I said, on the contrary, the HT will be one of the lower cost rooms in the home, e.g. compared to the kitchen. I have all the equipment. (O.K. I probably will buy some new stuff.) I’ll install all the wiring and acoustic treatments myself, just like in our previous home, and as long as we start with a room of the proper dimensions, this is not at all difficult or necessarily expensive.

You can spend lots of money and construct a theme-based HT with theater seating in a dedicated room that looks like an Egyptian tomb or the inside of a space ship, and pay someone to do it all for you, but that is certainly not necessary to get real enjoyment out of a front projector. Building your own HT is fun, does not need to be expensive, and does not necessary need to involve a dedicated room. My previous HT, which I loved, was done in a family room with multipurpose seating, etc., but with good light control and good acoustics. And of course, a front projector.