How To
How to Keep Sound Out of Cathedral Ceilings
Vaulting architecture is great for aesthetics but bad for acoustics. Use these tips to make home theater work with high ceilings.
Cathedral Ceilings
When there’s no other place to put your speakers than into the cathedral ceiling, make sure the units have pivoting or tilting drivers so that the sound can be aimed at the listening area.
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March 15, 2007 by EH Staff

High, sloping ceilings look great in family rooms, loft spaces above garages—or anywhere you can have them. They can really open up a room and make it appear much more spacious. And the wide-open, soaring spaces are a delight—that is, unless you want to enjoy the very best sound from a home entertainment system in that room. Then there can be issues.

Problem #1: Controlling the Sound
A major problem with cathedral ceilings is the sound reflection that can result. Depending on the pitch and height of the ceiling, the sound from speakers can reflect this way and that, causing reverberation or even an echo.

A cathedral ceiling just isn’t ideal for sound, but in the cases of small to mid-size rooms, it may not be that big of an issue. However, cathedral ceilings tend to make an average-size room much bigger, so just having a cathedral ceiling could cause a problem.

Set it up right - Try to lay out your home theater so the ridge of the ceiling runs from front (the screen wall) to back, not from side wall to side wall. Though according to acoustician Steve Haas of SH! Acoustics in Milford, CT, both configurations can present issues. If the ridge runs from the front to the back, and if your speakers direct the sound upward, it can an affect the imaging, which is your sense of where the sound is emanating from. As Haas explains, the left front speaker can actually bounce the sound off the left sloping wall so that it’s heard on the right side of the room—and that’s not good for localizing a sound to your video screen.

If the ridge runs side to side so the ceiling slopes in the front and back of the rooms, some negative effects can be more pronounced. In this case, the sound can reflect off the sloping ceiling in the back and concentrate there. So it’s probably best to have the ridge run from front to back.

Speakers for ears - Place the front speakers at ear level for those seated and the surround speakers a foot or more above ear level on the sides of the sitting area, if possible. Also try not to place the surround speakers in the sloped ceiling. In-wall, floorstanding or wall-mounted speakers are much better alternatives. If you must place the speakers in the sloped ceiling, get those with pivoting or tilting drivers so they can be pointed at a certain area. That way, their sound reflections can be better controlled.

Call in the experts - If you have a cathedral ceiling in a bigger room, look to your systems designer and possibly an acoustics professional to measure the room’s sonic qualities and determine how the sound will reflect. He or she can suggest proper acoustic treatments at ideal locations to eliminate any echoing or other negative effects.

“Cathedral ceiling effects can be solved in two ways: electronically or architecturally,” says Haas. Electronic digital signal processing can make a room sound bigger or smaller, for example. “Also, you can [architecturally] treat a cathedral ceiling in the same way you treat a flat ceiling, with a combination of absorption and something to break up and diffuse the sound,” Haas says. Acoustic panels covered with fabric can absorb sound, and an uneven surface or a diffusive panel will help scatter the sound throughout the room.

Problem #2: Not Enough Sound
A bigger issue in some large rooms such as those with high ceilings is filling the cavernous space with sound. Sometimes this is the biggest problem in a peaked space, especially if it is large.

Get the right gear for the job - Consult with your systems professional or an acoustician to determine if you need a more powerful home theater system to fill this room. Unless you own a church, you shouldn’t have to go hog wild. Remember, says Haas, “This can be a conversational space as well [as an entertainment space], and a room can be too live [or reflective] or too dead [with too much sound absorption] for a conversation.”

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