Home Theater for Small Rooms
Adding home theater to a small space requires clever solutions and compromise.
Got space, but not a lot? Think flat-panel TVs that can hang on a wall, in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, and electronic components tucked away in a nearby closet.
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April 04, 2007 by EH Staff

It’s a common dilemma: You want a cool home theater system, but you only have a room with small dimensions. It seems either too narrow or too shallow. But still, you’re mesmerized by that 100-inch screen at the nearby electronics boutique. Well, the first rule of home theater physics is that you can’t fit 10 pounds of surround sound into a 5-pound room. Or can you?

Problem #1:  Where Can It Go?
Oh yeah, and you’ll need a surround-sound receiver, maybe some amplifiers, a DVD player, perhaps a satellite or cable receiver, maybe even a media server and a DVR (digital video recorder)—you have a place to store all this, don’t you?

You could always leave all that audio and video gear right out in the open. But maybe that’s not such a good idea. “I don’t think I’ve ever installed a system for someone who wanted to look at the equipment,” says Kirk Attoian of Redondo Beach CA–based Interior Technologies, which installs home entertainment systems into a lot of space-challenged beach homes. “The biggest issue is; How do we hide these things?” he says.

Get creative - “We have plasma screens built into cabinets so they look flush mounted,” says Attoian. “Some people have plasma monitors in frames with paintings or other artwork that scrolls over it to hide them. We’ve had ceilings faux painted so you can’t pick out the ceiling speaker. And flat-panel TVs can pop out of cabinetry.”

Be size savvy - In smaller spaces, consider in-wall or in-ceiling speakers if it’s possible to wire for them—or look to hide smaller bookshelf-size speakers in cabinets or credenzas. The electronics gear, too, can be concealed in a cabinet, in a nearby closet or behind a wall. You and your custom electronics installer can come up with many creative solutions.

Problem #2: How Big a Big-Screen?
One of the most problematic factors with putting a home theater in a small room is having that really big big-screen TV you’ve been drooling over. There are ways to hide projection screens and TVs so they can drop out of the ceiling or be placed within a cabinet molding, but the bigger issue is; Will it be too big for the room? In other words, can you sit in the room and take in the whole picture?

Re-envision your television - Here’s a simple way to determine just how big a big-screen you can have in your room.

STEP 1: Get the 100-inch screen out of your mind. Unless you’re planning on building the room around the screen, you probably can’t accommodate this. Don’t try to shoehorn a home theater system into a space-challenged room: You should let the room dimensions determine just how big a screen you can have.

STEP 2: Where will the sofa or seats be located? The optimal seating position usually is about halfway to two-thirds of the way toward the back of the room. Measure the distance from the seating to the wall where you want your video display, in inches. Divide by two. That should be the approximate width of your viewing screen. (So if you plan to sit 100 inches or about 8 feet from the screen, the screen should be 50 inches wide. The general rule is that a seating distance should be two times the screen width, though you can sit closer for higher-resolution HDTV.) Keep in mind that nearly all video displays are measured diagonally, so a 50-inch plasma screen isn’t really that wide.

Consider your preference - Also consider where you like to sit at the theater. Do you go forward, toward the back or in the middle? If you like sitting close, you may want a slightly larger screen. If you like sitting in the back, think about a smaller screen. If you like sitting forward, and others in your family like to sit in the back, compromise.

Problem #3: The Sound Will Stink!
First of all, sound does not actually emit an odor,  so you’re in luck there! The other good news is that a small room doesn’t need gobs of 100-watt-per-channel sound to blow you away. You can be thrilled by much less, like 50 or 60 watts per channel. And this can save you money on a receiver or amplifier.

It’s all about placement - One of the keys to good sound in a small room is speaker placement. Do not locate the front left and right speakers next to the side walls. This will cause unnecessary sound reflections. Move them in from the walls as much a possible, while still flanking the screen. Also, try to place the front speakers at the ear level of viewers when seated. This will improve your sound quality immensely. (Surround speakers should be a foot or more above ear level.) If you’re using in-wall or in-ceiling speakers, think about getting ones with enclosures, or back boxes, that contain the entire speaker driver. This will keep more sound in the room and less sound from bleeding out the back of the speakers and into adjacent rooms.

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