Just because you live in an apartment or condominium doesn’t mean you can’t have a boffo home theater system. You probably just can’t have a large dedicated home theater, unless you want to dedicate your entire living space to one function and quite possibly make enemies of your neighbors. But you can still have a killer surround-sound system, with a decent-size video screen. Of course, there are several issues involved with having even that.
Problem #1: Where to Put All the Stuff
Space is almost always an issue in an apartment or a condominium, so you’ll probably have to make the best of it. You can pretty much forget about that 60-inch rear-projection CRT (cathode ray tube) TV that weighs 400 pounds and takes up as much floor space as a Manhattan studio. And those 7-foot-tall speakers with hundreds of individual drivers? We’d probably nix those, too. But there are still plenty of attractive options.
Find a way to fit it - Think flat-panel plasma or LCD TVs that can hang on the wall or sit atop credenzalike or open-shelf entertainment stands. Think small speakers like bookshelf-size models that can fit in the stand as well. If you can cut into the wall, consider in-wall or in-ceiling speakers.
Be ready to consolidate - Choose an audio/video or surround-sound receiver that has built-in amplifiers for each speaker channel, and you’ll save room compared with a system that uses a surround-sound controller and separate amplifiers. A receiver, DVD player, cable or satellite tuner, and DVR can make a solid system and take up only three to four places in a cabinet or stand. Look for a TV tuner with a DVR built in, or buy a TV with a CableCARD slot so you won’t need a cable tuner. If you want a media server with a hard drive for your music, digital photos and such but don’t think you have the room, consider using a Media Center PC as your media server, DVD player and TV tuner and as your computer, too. And systems from several companies offer all the functions of a home theater system built into one sleek box.
Problem #2: You Can’t Cut into the Walls
This is a frequent problem in apartments and condominiums, largely because of lease and rental agreements. (And other times because of cement or stone walls.) These restrictions eliminate great space savers such as in-wall and in-ceiling speakers and even force you to reconsider placing that gorgeous flat-panel TV on the wall, because where are you going to run the wires?
Get a home for your gear - An entertainment stand with shelving for your components and a mount for a flat-panel TV is a great alternative. You can have nearly all of your home theater system in something the size of a credenza—or smaller. Most of these systems have wiring channels to conceal the cabling from view.
Explore the nooks and crannies - What to do about surround-sound speakers? If you can, mount small ones on the wall or place them on corner or side tables so the wires won’t be as visible. If you can’t wire through a wall, speaker cables can be run fairly inconspicuously around the perimeter of a room or under a carpet. However, a more elegant solution is using wireless surround-sound speakers that receive the audio signals from your system over the airwaves.
Go with a phantom solution - Some systems preclude the need for surround-sound speakers altogether. These systems create “phantom” surround speakers by using the front speakers to mimic the sound of the surrounds and disperse that audio throughout the room. It sounds like surround sound, but it’s only coming from three speakers or an all-in-one unit. This is a great solution for apartments and condominiums.
Problem #3: Open Spaces
Many apartments and condos have family rooms that open to a kitchen, making the creation of a home theater system tricky. Especially troublesome can be the placement of the surround speakers. Oftentimes they can’t be located to the sides of the sitting area.
In ceilings and phantoms work here, too - In-ceiling speakers are good options for surround speakers, but it you can’t do that, think about phantom speakers (as described earlier). If the kitchen is in the back of the room, you might place the surround speakers over a counter area. Often these speakers can also be used to listen to background music. Using surround speakers in this location, though, can be troublesome for anyone sitting there who may suddenly hear bees buzz or crickets chirp directly overhead.
Problem #4: Blast Thy Neighbor?
You’ve selected the home theater system. You know where it’s going to go. You can actually have it installed and not trip over it in your apartment or condominium. You can’t wait to crank it up and … oh yeah, hear someone knocking on your door and yelling at you to turn it down.
Try to block as much of the sound from bleeding into your neighbor’s spaces as possible. This can be done a number of different ways.
A room within a room - An ideal way to isolate sound is to build a room within a room, using layers of walls and isolating the floors from the walls with dampening clips and rubber insulation. However, this kind of construction usually isn’t feasible in an apartment or condo—if allowed at all—so you’ll probably have to seek other solutions.
Block it out - Sound-blocking material is a thick film that can contain much of the sound. Consider placing this on the back of heavy drapes that hang in front of a wall or windows. Drape systems can be highly effective at blocking offending noise and darkening a room for a great home theater experience. And they can be motorized to close when you need them, so you don’t have to live in a drapery palace.
Be a softie - Also use a lot of soft furnishings such as fabric sofas, chairs, pillows, thick carpets and the like to absorb extra sound. Then, invite your neighbors for a show, and the next time your system is a tad loud, they might understand.
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