A couple of months ago I finally opened the doors to my finished basement theater, what my wife calls the Grant Cave owing to the fact that I’m the primary user (and picked out all the horror movie posters).
For people who live in a part of the country where basements are prevalent, below-ground rooms are still the dominant place to put a dedicated home theater. A basement is a perfect location for lots of reasons. The sidewalls aren’t usually shared with other rooms; if there are windows, they’re small ones; they’re generally not an open design, so acoustics are easier to control; and their out-of-the-way nature makes them great places for temporary escape.
That said, basements also include challenges that other rooms don’t have.
The first thing to consider in a basement is moisture. “We look around for spots where there may have been leaks,” says Dave Wexler of The Little Guys in Chicago, IL. He notes that newer homes usually don’t have moisture issues, because new developments manage water better than older ones did.
If you’ve had moisture issues in the past, sump pumps, French drains, dehumidifiers and moisture blocking paints can all be used. A contractor will need to solve any potentially serious problems early on in the project.
Plumbing, exposed conduits, heating and air conditioning ducts all can get in the way of your of your audio and video gear. Often a heating duct crosses a ceiling area in exactly the place you need a projector. A professional integrator will know whether the projector placement can be altered or if the duct needs to be moved.
Ceiling height can be a problem in many basements, especially where ceiling mounted projectors and tiered seating is in the plan. In a low ceilinged basement can make it a challenge to put seats on risers, especially with a third tier, without getting the guests’ heads too close to the ceiling or in the way of the projector’s light.
Depending on what you want for your display, the basement entryway can be a challenge. If your stairs are narrow and have a low ceiling, it might be tough to get an 80- or 90-inch flat panel TV down there. Even harder will be a big—100 inches or larger—rigid projection screen. Rolled up fabric projection screens can easily be carried down any stairs.
What about windows? While basements don’t normally have a lot of windows, if there are any, they need to be able to be covered so no light comes in to wash out the picture.
Insulation is also a concern—both for containing heat (if you live in a cold part of the country like I do) or to keep the audio in. “Given the opportunity, we use Acoustiblok,” says Wexler. Acoustiblok is a viscoelastic polymer material that’s applied to wall studs. It’s excellent for soundproofing, but it can be expensive.
Because a basement will have very different temperature characteristics than the rest of the house, it’s important to make sure it operates as a separate HVAC zone in the house.
Todd Anthony Puma of The Source Home Theater, says lighting is key in any theater, especially a basement. “The placement of lights is critical,” says Puma, so the lighting is directed to where people need it and not onto the screen. “A lot of people want to do recessed lighting, but I recommend sconces. Recessed lighting can rattle [from bass notes] or leak light,” he says. Puma also recommend LED path lighting around seats and stairs to prevent accidents in the dark.
Puma adds that remote controlled lighting makes a huge difference in people’s enjoyment of a theater. First, there’s the WOW factor of watching lights automatically go down while the picture and sound come on, but beyond that, remote controlled lighting allows you to activate different lighting scenes depending on the how the room is being used at the time—a music listening scene may set the sconces to partial illumination, while the movie scene turns them off entirely—and you won’t have to get out of your chair to change them.
Another issue that Wexler sees with basements is fluctuating power. “Voltage stabilization is critical,” he says, and recommends products from companies like Furman and Panamax to maintain a home theater’s performance level. You don’t want to see your picture go dim every time the air conditioning kicks in.
While a traditional rectangular room may be ideal for a dedicated theater, more families are designing their basement spaces as multipurpose rooms—often with open designs that aren’t ideal for theaters. For this reason, Wexler says speaker positioning is sometimes an issue. “We use a lot of in-ceiling speakers for surround or rear channels,” he says, “because sometimes walls aren’t where you’d like them.”
Whatever your basement, there’s a solution that can turn that empty space into an impressive entertainment area. Check out some of our favorite basement home theaters here for great ideas.
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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 audio training from Home Acoustics Alliance and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.