DIY Dream Theater Come True

The best DIY projects take time.


One of the toughest parts of the project, the owner of this theater says, was installing the fiber-optic star ceiling and the acoustical wall panels. His favorite new upgrade: the Aerial Acoustics speakers, including the CC5 center channel for $4,500

We’ve all done it: strolled through a car lot looking at luxury rides we’ll never afford, or visited million-dollar show homes for a glimpse of how the better half lives. For Jim Hollingsworth of The Woodlands, Texas, a home theater was his pie-in-the-sky ambition—and one that had occupied his thoughts for well over a decade.

He can blame his obsession on Audio Concepts. A friend took him to the high-end Houston-based A/V boutique in 2001 to find a new big-screen TV. It was there, in a dark, private demo room, that Hollingsworth experienced home cinema for the first time. He recalls: “The owner of the shop dimmed the lights and played Gladiator with Russell Crowe slaying the tiger in the Colosseum on a 65-inch TV. It was great … then he hit a button and down came a 100-inch screen and he asked me, ‘Do you want a TV or do you want a home theater?’ It was like asking a computer nerd, do you want dial-up or DSL? I was hooked, and all I could think about was how to get this kind of system into my house.”

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Soon after, Hollingsworth contacted a contractor to discuss tearing off the roof of his master bedroom to build out a new space for a dedicated theater. Then 9/11 happened, the economy bottomed out, and Hollingsworth had to put his home theater plans on hold.

Fast-forward to 2009. Hollingsworth and his wife, Stacie, built a new house—and of course, included a room for a home theater. The 23-by-18-foot space sat vacant for about a year, though, as the couple put funds together for equipment and finished decorating the rest of their house. That gave Hollingsworth time to explore all of his options and to decide that it was wiser to buy a piece at a time than to throw something together quickly and cheaply.

After scouring product reviews, he settled on a Panasonic AE4000U projector ($2,000), a 150-inch Carada screen ($1,200), and swapped an old B&K Reference 50 preamp for an Anthem D2V ($7,500). An Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player ($500) took the place of an old bargain player. All of the equipment Hollingsworth installed himself, having run the low-voltage cabling while the room was being built.

It was a good start, but left plenty of room for improvement. “When you have champagne taste and a beer budget, you have to have some patience and buy a little at a time and be willing to do some of the work yourself,” he says.

One of the biggest and most challenging upgrades to the room was the addition of a fiber-optic star ceiling. The couple purchased a kit for $2,500 from Fiber Optic Systems Inc. (FOSI), and spent more than 200 hours putting the ceiling together. This involved drilling 989 tiny holes into MDF board and running strands of fiber-optic cabling from an illuminator box to each opening. Each fiber would appear as a single star comprising the Milky Way, constellations, shooting stars and a comet within the northern sky. After each fiber was in place, the holes were caulked and the paneling was mounted to the ceiling. “It was by far the most labor intensive task of the whole project, but it’s one of our favorite parts of the room,” says Hollingsworth.

It was also good practice for the DIYers’ next job—insetting acoustical paneling into the walls. Rather than buy pricey prefabricated panels, the couple purchased Owens Corning OC703 compressed fiberglass for $700 from Home Depot and wrapped them in fabric themselves. In all, they covered 26 panels of various sizes with material purchased from a local fabric store for around $350. Hollingsworth figures he saved thousands of dollars by building the wall panels and star ceiling himself.

Of course, no theater is worth a nickel if you can’t control it. Hollingsworth purchased a URC 980 remote and hired a pro to program it so that one command could set the lights (controlled by a Lutron Grafik Eye system) and A/V gear for a movie. He also added a small TV to the equipment room for scheduling programs to record to the DVR and for adjusting the preamplifier settings. “It’s a lot quicker and simpler to view DVR and preamp menus on the little TV than to have to turn on the projector to do so,” explains Hollingsworth.

Although the room is complete, Hollingsworth is far from calling it quits. This winter he replaced two of four B&K amplifiers with three MC601 monoblock amplifiers from McIntosh, which drive the front three speakers.A McIntosh MC452 handles the surround speakers, which were also recently upgraded to models from Aerial Acoustics, including the 20T V2, CC5, SR3 and SW12. “What a difference these new speakers and amps have made,” Hollingsworth says. “They have taken my home theater to another level, which has been my goal from the start.” There will likely be other new levels of performance incorporated into the theater as time goes on. Hollingsworth’s dream has evolved into a full-fledged hobby.


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