It’s the seating, says John Dahl, director of education for THX. “Most people do it backwards. They go to a store and buy an AV receiver [or something] first,” he says, which is putting the egg before the chicken (not taking discussions of evolution theory into account, of course).
I spent three days in January with Dahl, learning a lot about THX, theater design, acoustics and setup in THX’s Home Theater Professional Level 1 and 2 classes. I came away from those days with a ton of practical home theater knowledge, which Dahl and THX have been amassing and preaching for more than 20 years. One of the most important lessons was that the room (and by association, the seating) should always be the first thing anyone considers when planning a home theater.
Dahl leading a THX class at the Consumer Electronics Show
Yes, great gear is, well, great, but performance of that gear depends significantly on the environment it’s going to be operating in. That’s why THX suggests you start with key issues, such as seating. Once you establish where you want to sit, how many seats you plan (or need) to have, then you can figure out what size display will work for your given seating distance and location. Walking into a dealer and asking for the biggest TV and loudest amplifier in the shop sounds like fun, but it’s not always going to get you the best results.
Understanding your room before you’ve made your gear wishlist will also influence your choice of speakers and other equipment. Will any seats need to be close to surround speakers? If so, then bipole speakers will work better than direct radiating, because bipoles create a more diffuse sound. What about bass? Your room’s dimensions will create areas of resonances, called room modes, which accentuate or attenuate bass response. These are issues that can be dealt with before any holes are drilled or components plugged in.
All this, of course, is just the start. The final goal, as Dahl emphasized, is to recreate as close as is reasonably possible, the theater experience as it was created in the studio. While there is no such thing as a THX-certified home theater, having your theater planned and executed by someone who understands the objectives is going to result in a space that will outperform a room that was gear focused, rather than experience focused—equipment and room need to work together. “We’re saving the world from bad sound and video,” says Dahl.
A THX graphic demonstrating 7.1 surround setup
It may take longer and require more planning and thinking to design a theater this way, but it’s also a kind of insurance that when you invite friends over to share popcorn and the latest Batman movie, everyone in the room will be blown away. Work like this is not for the DIY set. It takes a professional who understands the parameters, internalizes the goals and knows how to use the tools, to produce a top-performing theater space. A professional also knows where to compromise and where to adjust to fit the homeowners’ or interior designer’s needs. “It doesn’t do anyone any service if we insist that there’s only one way. There’s a goal, but there are options too,” Dahl adds. “If you’re a good installer you have lots of options in your pocket.”
If you want a THX-train home theater professional to design your space, you can find them here.
Below is a video THX produced to demonstrate some of the issues associated with setting up a home theater in a less-than-ideal room.
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.
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