Planning for a Small Home Theater

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Photo by Shayne Hensley

Top questions to ask when planning your spare room overhaul


Aug. 07, 2012 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

For many people, the fun of planning a home theater comes in the early stages when dreams are big, budgets are unknown, and plans are extravagant. Eventually, however, reality sets in that not everyone can have six home theaters in their residence. It’s at that time the true planning begins. 

Spacious home theaters are fun to look at, but the average homeowner doesn’t have the luxury of a 1,000 square foot space to plan for. The size of a room is the biggest factor in determining what type of equipment you need. Buy an underpowered projector, and your image will be washed out and dim. Hang a screen too big, and your HD picture might not be all you wanted it to be. 

Using more real-world dimensions of 10x15 feet (150 square feet), what are the questions you should ask when you start planning your own high definition escape? Here’s five to get you going:

1. Seating distance  One of the first things you should look at is your seating distance. If you’re starting from scratch and have limitless room size, you might start with how big you want your screen to be. In this case, since we have a smaller, fixed-size room, starting with seating distance makes sense. To find your seating distance, THX recommends dividing your screen size by .84. However, if you want to start with your seating distance, simply multiply by .84. For example, for a 10-foot seating distance (120 inches) THX would recommend a 100-inch screen (120 x .84 = 100.8). 

2. Number of Speakers The number of speakers you plan to use will directly impact your wiring choices. As more and more Blu-ray titles opt for 7.1 soundtracks, any new build should at least wire for 7.1 channels, even if you only plan to start at 5.1. Those retrofitting existing rooms should factor budget and ease of running new wires into their decision. Also be sure to check a speaker’s power handling (measured in RMS) to ensure you don’t buy speakers too weak for your receiver. At the least, you should look for 50 watts RMS.
 
3. Receiver  Today’s receivers have lots of options, but when trying to fill an entire room with sound, one of the most important specs is power. Most receivers measure their power in watts per channel, but this is often a floating measurement. Often it will be listed with only one channel driven, and only at 1kHz. That number is meaningless for home theater uses, since you’ll always be using five or seven channels plus an LFE. Ask questions about the unit’s power supply, as this will help determine if the receiver can actually drive the amount of power you’d like. 

4. Display type With Sharp’s new 90-inch LCD available for around $10,000, and 80-inch sets available for around $5,000, there’s finally a choice of display type when it comes to smaller theaters. One of the biggest factors when choosing a display type is ambient light. If our 150 sq. ft. theater has scads of windows, an LCD monitor might be a better choice to ensure a bright screen image. If the room is windowless, a projector might be the better alternative, especially from a budget standpoint. As projector prices continue to fall, you can easily get a 100-inch screen size for less than $3,000. 

5. Projector  If you go the projector route, there’s many options to consider: DLP, LCD, LCOS, lumens, lens shift, 3D, 4k, anamorphic, and contrast ratio to name a few. Pay special attention to these items:

  a. Lens Shift - For ease of installation, projectors with some form of lens shift are a must. This will allow for greater flexibility in where you hang your projector. Those with vertical and horizontal shift offer the most control.

  b. Auto-iris - Most projectors now have some form of auto iris, which dynamically adjusts the pictures brightness to enable deeper blacks and brighter lights. In a room with total light control, this is less important. If you’re building one of the now popular “flex rooms” a high-performing auto iris is essential. Be cautious, poorly made auto irises can result in a noisy projector. 

  c. ANSI lumens - This number details a projector’s brightness. The more lumens, the brighter the projector can be. Room lighting is a crucial factor in determining projector brightness. Remember, too bright and black levels could appear washed out. Many projectors hover around 2,000 lumens, but some dedicated home theater units dip below 1,500 which could cause problems in an extremely bright room. See our piece on Projector Tips for Multipurpose Rooms for more info on bright rooms. 

A job as big as a home theater requires much more planning than can be provided in one article. However, starting with these five critical areas will help jump-start your planning and help you achieve the theater of your dreams. 

Check out this awesome 11 x 17 home theater.

Here’s another small home theater with a 92-inch screen in an 8-foot wide room.

Ready to get started? Here are 12 questions you should ask your home theater integrator.

Need to learn more about projection screen? Read this article on screen gain.



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