When Design Dictates Theater Installation and Acoustics
Achieving audio perfection in a room with a set-in-stone design can be tough—but not impossible, as shown in this Manhattan townhouse.
FINALIST: Best Integrated Home $50K and Over
July 30, 2010 by Lisa Montgomery

Although the owner of this media room is a self-professed audio- and video-phile, he was adamant that the design of his theater was not to be a theme home theater, but rather keep with the intended design of the architect, Peter Marino Architect, New York, N.Y. Standard home theater accouterments like decorative acoustical panels on the walls and specialty cinema-style seats were out of the question.

In this project, the architect was given carte blanche, and some of his design choices, although elegant, would make the audio/video plan slightly more difficult to implement. White paint, hardwood floors, plus an unforgiving shell of brick and concrete would make it tough to incorporate speakers and acoustical materials into the Manhattan townhouse. “He made it very clear that none of the design could be altered to accommodate the necessary A/V components,” says 20-year tech veteran Eric Schmidt, vice president of sales at Audio Command Systems (ACS), Westbury, N.Y.

(Click here to view additional photos in and out of the room.)

Given all the hard surfaces in the space, improving its acoustic characteristics was a top priority for ACS. Both the architect and the homeowner made it clear that no acoustical treatments were to be visible, which meant every stitch of absorptive and reflective material had to be squeezed in behind the walls, ceilings and floors. Fortunately, the 330-square-foot area was being gutted for renovation, so reaching into studs was no problem. However, choosing components that could disappear into the design and make a real difference in the audio quality was the real challenge. Professional acoustician Dr. Bonnie Schnitta of acoustical consulting and engineering firm SoundSense, East Hampton, N.Y., was brought in by ACS to handle that part of the job.

Using a variety of mathematical tools and sophisticated modeling software, Schnitta determined what types of materials to use, where to install them and, interestingly, how to alter the thickness of the plywood wall paneling so that it, too, could provide acoustical benefits.

“The standard way of acoustically treating the walls and ceiling is by placing absorbers and bass traps behind it or on top of it,” says Schnitta. On top of the wall was out, and unfortunately with only 4 inches of space or less between the concrete shell and the new wall, the space behind the wall could not accommodate all of the standard preferred treatments. Here’s where Schnitta’s expertise came in handy. Through a series of mathematic and scientific calculations, she engineered the walls to act as the required combination of reflectors, absorbers, and bass traps. “The thickness of the plywood combined with the amount of air space behind it can equal the effect of bass trap,” she explains. Once the new, acoustically designed plywood wall was up, white acoustical fabric was stretch over it, a setup that would defeat some of the unwanted audio reflections (caused when signals bounce off hard surfaces) and match the room design. Combined with a sheet of loaded vinyl (called NoiseOut2) rolled over the ceiling joists, the treatments created a room where the audio system could perform at its peak—and no sound would be able to exit or enter the room, either.

To put mediocre speakers into the space could have derailed all the careful analysis and work that went into the project. “We needed to make sure that the speakers would fit the design and the acoustical needs of the space,” says Schmidt. The best way to ensure that, he continues, would be to have the speakers custom made. ACS’s choice: California Audio Technology, Sacramento, Calif. Based on the room requirements, the speaker manufacturer crafted three speakers that could fit into the shallow depth of the back wall. The front right speaker was made to mirror the angle of the front wall. Four subwoofers were designed, as well, to provide the audiophile owner with all the heavy bass he was after, but with special components to prevent the room from shaking and rumbling like a locomotive.

The end result is a finely tuned room that sounds just as great when the audio is off as when it’s on. “A quiet room sounds wonderful,” says Schmidt “You don’t have to be an audiophile to appreciate it,” adds Schnitta. “An acoustically treated room just feels good.”



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Lisa Montgomery - Contributing Writer
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

Systems Design and Installation
Audio Command Systems
Westbury, N.Y.

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