In a time where home theater equipment is just a few Amazon clicks away, why do you need an expert? There’s a pride in building your own basement home theater and there’s a world of blogs out there to answer almost all of your questions. Determining the function of certain audio cables and the placement of 5.1 speakers sits amongst the bevy of tech information on the web. But, as we learned from the home theater experts, there’s more than video and audio equipment when it comes to a home theater, and that information can’t be learned off a blog.
The professionals have seen people think the home theater would be a DIY venture. “It’s funny because five years ago when we heard about smart TVs and all that stuff, one of my customers said, ‘Oh, it looks like you’re going to be out of a job’,” said Mark Prancuk of Sight & Sound Showroom. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, why is that?’ He said, ‘All the smart TVs and all the smart appliances coming down the road. What’s going to happen is, I am going to go to BestBuy, buy a smart TV, bring it home, plug it in, and it will automatically connect to my internet and everything and it’ll just start doing everything, and I won’t need you’”. As he knew the whole time, it wasn’t that easy. “I am getting a lot of customers who have already purchased a new TV, hung it and plugged in the HDMI cable from their receiver and then wonder why their Netflix that’s built right into the TV doesn’t have sound.”
While a solid amount of their jobs are tech support, the professionals offer so much more if you bring them on earlier in the design process. Getting the right kind of advice can not only get the most money out of your equipment in the end, but also avoid repair or updating costs.
It’s a point that Dennis Erskine of The Erskine Group agrees with. “For one reason or another, over time we have been educated to believe that a better speaker will make the room sound better or that a better amplifier or better cables or better decoder is going to improve sound quality. And that’s not entirely true.” In Erskine’s eyes, it’s the basic physics dictated by a room that is most important for a home theater.
“The biggest single impact on the quality of a home theater system’s sound is the room. It’s not the electronics, and it’s not the speaker. And it’s the third biggest impact on the quality of the picture”, he explained further. “We have to be able to understand the dialogue. We’ve got to hear the whispers. We’ve got to understand what they’re saying. And we also have to hear the subtle sounds — the leaves rustling in the background or the squeaky tennis shoes as the killer sneaks up on the back side of victim. And in the vast majority of residential rooms, you don’t hear that.” Tracing this inadequacy in most setups leads back to poor room design.
It’s just like when you play a violin — you’re not going to fill the cavity with cement because you’re not going to get the resonance.
“Softer sound is recorded on a soundtrack at -22 dB and the average background noise in an incredibly quiet house is -33 to -35 dB. So how do you solve that problem? Turn up the volume. But from -22 to -35 dB, that’s a factor of eight. That’s eight times louder. Now, when we’re talking about a whisper, and when we take it eight times louder, that’s a big deal. But the volume control will go across the entire spectrum. It’s not selective. And so what happens is normal sounds — normal dialogue — people are no longer talking to you. They are yelling at you, and then when the train wreck occurs, that’s 105dB: That’s jacked up eight times louder as well so the theaters are being blown out.”
Fixing acoustical issues like this involves going back to fundamentals, says Theo Kalomirakis. “If the room is small and the budget is not big, you learn the basic principles, such as putting absorption up to the first speakers. If there is a reflective surface right in front of them, the sound will return back to you as echo. So you try to absorb the sound, but as you go back into the room, you put reflection in. So you have a balance of different treatments to keep the room alive and the dialogue intelligible.”
Years of experience also serve as a valuable teacher for sound beyond which speaker set to purchase. For example, if you want to build rows of seating, you’ll probably want a platform. For a first-timer, what the platform is made out of may be overlooked. “You need platforms in order to be able to see ahead of you, and people usually pour cement on the platforms. I found out if you use cement, you kill the bass response of the room… It’s just like when you play a violin — you’re not going to fill the cavity with cement because you’re not going to get the resonance”, Kalomirakis clarified.
Once the room’s acoustic issues are addressed, just buying the best-looking audio equipment isn’t so easy. It’s about each product working together, as Erskine argues: “We have to realize that this isn’t 1960. In today’s age receivers from name-brand manufacturers Anker, Marantz, Emmett, Pioneer, Sony — are all bloody good. Clearly the marketing departments play a specification war, but minor difference in wattage output is not going to significantly change the sound quality. If you take an 8 ohm speaker, you’ve got a Brand-X receiver, it’s pumping out 110 watts per channel, and if you’re sitting eight feet from that speaker, giving it 110 watts is a huge problem. You will never again listen to music in your life. It will be so loud you will suffer from permanent hearing loss.”
Mark Prancuk echoed the importance of system balance in creating the best possible setup. “One of the services that I provide for [clients] is that I sell them a system that matches the amplifier, speakers and speaker placement for them. It’s really important because a lot of speakers have different efficiency ratings, different power handling. So when you match something — a speaker and an amplifier — and they works well together, the ability of the sound is increased dramatically. It goes from just hearing it to finding the sweet spot.”
An expert’s attention to detail goes well beyond sound too. Rising room temperatures are one of the top complaints Erskine troubleshoots from dedicated home theater owners. “How many people are you going to put in this room?” is a question he always asks first. “If I hear, ‘I am going to put eight people here’ — well, eight people is 4,000 BTUs an hour. So can you get 4,000 BTUs an hour of cooling into this room with the door closed? Well, the answer is usually no. You’ll have the capacity to be able to do that and in some cases you do, but it’s not going to be easy unless you go in and run some ductwork.”
You might opt for the largest screen on your own as well, but even that selection might not be best. Tom Manna works with the clients to determine to determine the best pieces for a space. “When you start getting into the higher-priced systems and wanting to invest, only somebody with the knowledge about these types of rooms can really develop the right plan for the individual, and there’s a lot of physics that go into this.” Many times, steering buyers away from their exact wants and desires is the right thing to do. “You can’t go into a room and say ‘I want an 110-inch screen or whatever-sized screen. I want a big screen, and I am going to use this projector.’ You can’t do that because you have to calculate the throw distance for the projector — where you are going to actually mount — how far away you’re going to mount the projector from the screen and make sure all the physics are going to work.”
If it sounds complex, that’s because it is. After hours of conversation, we walked away with a new appreciation for home theater craftsmen and wondered how many of the DIY set were sitting at home, feeling smug about a system whose potential was barely tapped. There is so much to consider with the space itself rather than just what goes inside. Kalomirakis has built theaters for the world’s global elite for decades, but his mantra has never changed. “My belief is that unless home theater releases itself from the tyranny of being just a bunch of equipment that you put in the room, it will never be as successful as it can be.”