Six Important Home Theater Trends
A multiple screen home theater installed by Stereo East.
There's always something new developing for home theater enthusiasts
As audio and video technologies evolve, home design ideas change, people alter their habits to fit their lifestyles, and that thing we call the home theater becomes subject to trends and evolutions. While the traditional dark basement with a 5.1-, 7.2-, or 12.1-channel audio system, big screen, and rows of reclining seats on risers is still considered the classic idea of a home theater, the A/V systems people install in their homes today look very different. This has led many in the professional A/V community to completely abandon the term “home theater” for one of several newer, more flexible terms.
1. Multiple Screens
An increasingly popular trend, according to Joel Silver, president of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF), is the use of dual and multiple screens. Multiple screens can mean two or more flat-panel TVs on the same wall, a flat-panel TV for casual, everyday viewing that gets covered by a larger front-projection screen for movies and major events, or even screens on various walls in a room, which is a popular arrangement in rooms that function as party or entertainment spaces. Why so many screens? Our video choices are now so vast that people often don’t want to be restricted to just one option in a room.
2. The Hybrid Space
Home theater, media room, game room, family center … it doesn’t matter much what you call it, as long as it includes two main components: a sound system and a display device. After those two criteria, what passes for a media room varies greatly.
David Berman, vice president of sales at Stereo East in Frisco, Texas, prefers the term media room over home theater. Instead of the traditional look of a dedicated home theater, he finds that more people are taking a hybrid approach—meaning the incorporation of more traditional furniture (sofa and chaise lounge seating) instead of specialty theater seating,and applying lighter colors to the walls.
Why this shift? Berman says many people want a home theater experience, but they don’t want to limit the room to just one use. In his market, single-family homes usually only have one room to spare, so making it a multipurpose room ensures the systems installed are used more frequently and by more members of the family.
But a multipurpose media room has requirements that a dedicated theater doesn’t. First, it needs access to a wide variety of content. Streaming media devices are supplying a lot of that. While Blu-ray players or high-end movie servers may offer the best-looking pictures for home theaters, Berman sees a lot of Apple TVs and Roku players going into family rooms.
In a dedicated theater, the projector can usually be boxed in or placed in a separate projection room. For the multiuse media space, especially if it’s a retrofit installation, the projector often cannot be easily hidden, so it needs to be as quiet as possible.Also important is light output. Michael Bridwell of Digital Projection Inc. (DPI) says high-lumen projectors are ideal for rooms that aren’t going to be completely dark. If the theater isn’t in a basement, then you probably need to get a bright projector, which mostly rules out LED-based models. Berman concurs and says he always recommends high-output screens in media rooms to maximize the light coming from the projector.
3. Social Networking
The multiple screen trend goes beyond what we think of as traditional TVs. Smartphones and tablets are not only being used to change channels and control the volume of our theaters, they’re also acting as secondary viewing screens. Social media is driving a lot of this, with users tweeting or posting status updates while watching movies or TV shows. Sports likely accounts for much of the live tweeting in the theater, but dedicated TV fans also like to banter about programs.
Panasonic Smart TVs include social networking features Facebook and Twitter.
4. Networking Media
You might not think about the quality of your home network when planning your home theater, but think about where your content is coming from.According to ABI research, 25 percent of homes will have an Internet-connected Blu-ray player by the end of this year. When you add dedicated streaming devices, smart TVs and networked gaming consoles, it’s clear that the Internet is the most important source for most people’s entertainment. It’s also true that streaming content isn’t as high-quality as Blu-ray or CD, but that is bound to improve. All of this means that home networks are getting pushed to their limits, in versatility and reach.
So how important is the home network to a home theater? “It’s crucial,” says David Huse of Theater Advice in Dallas, Texas. Like Berman, he installs a lot of networked sources, such as Apple TV, into theaters and media rooms. “Wireless is not good enough to stream video,” he adds, so putting in Ethernet connections is standard for him, but it’s not just about streaming media. “I’m constantly upgrading people’s networks for automation,” says Huse, who often replaces cheap routers for better quality ones.
5. Floorstanding and Soundbar Speakers
The types of speakers being incorporated into media rooms is changing, too. Berman sees a trend in people using floorstanding and bookshelf speakers rather than in-wall speakers. The media room is still a special destination room, so users want a good experience. In-wall speakers are great if you want to hide all of the equipment, but floorstanding and surface-mounted on-wall speakers produce the clearest audio. Stereo East usually recommends a quality digital-to-audio converter (DAC) with each audio system to improve the fidelity of digital music files.
Paradigm Studio 60 tower speaker
Atlantic Technology’s Peter Tribeman notes a strong move toward soundbars, as well. People may think that soundbars are more about looks than sound, but Tribeman says today’s best soundbars approach the quality of full-range speakers and can be easier to integrate into the home. Entry-level and midrange home theater-in-a-box systems are giving way to soundbar/subwoofer systems because they offer an easy way to fill a room with audio. Built-in audio processing, Bluetooth, wireless subwoofers and one-remote operation are making those systems attractive options for people looking to upgrade from poor-sounding TV speakers.
It may seem dubious to call this a trend, but the fact is, the price of home theater products has dropped significantly while features and performance continue to improve.
Take projectors. Companies like Epson, Mitsubishi, JVC and others offer very good 3D projectors at half the cost of comparable projectors two years ago. On the high-end, companies like DPI and SIM2 offer technologies that eliminate the need for the additional expense of anamorphic lenses for viewing superwide CinemaScope movie formats.
The Epson 5010 projector is a good value for a big screen home theater.
Also a good sign: several home theater dealers now do a large portion of their business installing complete front-projection theater systems for around $10,000. It’s possible to put in a system for even less. The front-projection systems Huse offers, for example, start at about $5,000, which includes a 110-inch screen and the programming of a universal remote control.
Check out the slide show for trend-setting home theater products.
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