There is a huge amount of information out there on what speakers, wires, Blu-ray players, receiver, televisions, remotes, etc. are best for home theater. However, it is important to remember the HOME in home theater and address many of the non-equipment factors in setting up a system. By making some considerations of the physical space and setup of the system, people can bring their movie experience from good to great, or even sublime.
Tools of the Trade
Before getting started, it is a good idea to gather a few simple tools of the trade. First, a tape measure to help establish screen and speaker positions. A good wire stripper is a nice thing to have when cutting speaker wires to length. Grab some cable labels; these can be as simple as masking tape or as fancy as special sticker sets for a label printer. It is a bit dorky, but a head-mounted flashlight can be a life saver when diving into the dark depths behind equipment racks. For the best possible sound level adjustments, grab an SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter.
Finally, if you have the patience and passion for pursuing the perfect video and audio setup, you should grab a home theater setup DVD or Blu-Ray disc. The industry reference for years has been Digital Video Essentials by Joe Kane but recently Disney has introduced their Disney WOW: Worlds of Wonder setup disc which has been lauded for its more accessible design. Be cautioned that a thorough system calibration can take 2 hours or more for the novice so carve out some alone time for this and don’t attempt a ‘quick’ calibration right before family movie night.
A good home theater should have a screen size that is appropriate for the room. A monster 80-inch screen in a small den will overpower the room while a small 32-inch screen in a large open living room will make people feel like they are watching a movie on their smartphone.
There is a simple formula to help select the right screen size. The distance from the television to the viewer should be 1 ½ to 3 times the screen size. For example, if there is 12 feet (144 inches) between the back couch cushion to the wall, then the ideal screen size is between 144/1.5 to 144/3, or 96 to 48 inches. Within this range, bigger is better. In addition, if the room is narrow but deep, avoid a screen that is wider than half the overall width of the wall on which it is mounted i.e. don’t put a five foot wide TV on a wall that is only eight feet wide.
To figure the optimal screen height, measure the height from the ground to the viewer’s eyes when they sit down in the home theater room. The middle of the TV screen should be at the same height. However, it is a good idea to get a TV mount that allows the ability to angle the screen down and place the screen a little bit higher. Reason being is that most people slouch or recline when watching TV so their heads are already tilted back a little and also a slight tilt down reduces glare from light sources in the room. Try not to exceed a 10-inch downward tilt.
No One Puts HDTV in the Corner
If at all possible, try and avoid configuring a home theater with a television placed in the corner. Ironically, in the era of big fat tube TV’s which were deep and tapered; the corner placement was a great way to save space. But now that home entertainment systems involve multiple speakers and TV’s are thinner than most hardcover novels, it just makes everything more complicated.
When most people complain about glare they erroneously start looking at expensive and usually inadequate accessories for the TV, like screens or shields. It is usually much easier and always more effective to modify the lighting in the room. The ideal setup is to be able to turn off all lights in the room except for some low-power/dimmable wall sconces mounted behind or to the side of the screen that project their light towards the ceiling. Glare becomes impossible yet the room is not completely dark which is necessary to avoid eye fatigue and unwanted headaches. Also, a darker room will allow people to lower the overall screen temperature which will allow more accurate color reproduction.
If the ideal isn’t possible, then the next step is to copy the pros and get some dimmer switches. Notice that movie theaters usually do not turn off the lights but instead dim them. A simple rotary dimmer costs less than $10 from the local hardware store and is simple enough for most DIY folks to install themselves. Worst case, call the friend with the toolbox and bribe them with pizza and movie.
For lamps not connected to a light switch, there are inline power cord dimmers. For roughly $50, you can upgrade to a fancy remote control dimmer switch and then pull the Joe Cool move of adding the dimmer function to your universal remote.
Ray Bans for the Room
If the problem is glare from outside light sources, then it is time for another trip to the hardware store for some light blocking window shades. The simple roller type shades will do and there are some pleated or accordion type shades that claim sun blocking protection. Do not go for venetians unless you want a film noir effect for all your movies; by design they always leave little cracks and holes for light to peak through. If there are gaps between the shades and the window frame that let in too much light, a shortcut to purchasing new shades is to get some L-shaped corner molding and mount it around the inside of the window frame which would block the light gaps.
Keep an eye out for Part Two of this three-part home theater how-to series, where we will focus on speaker placement for home theaters. Followed by Part Three where we will cover all you need to know about cable management.