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Home theater on a budget

2004.12.02 — Culture | Movies | Television | by Andrew Cole

Completed home theater screen

A nine-foot wide screen makes Harry Potter larger than life. [Tysto photo]

As reported back in August, I have leaped into the world of front projection with both feet, throwing down about $2,700 for a Panasonic high-definition projector and 119" Da-Lite screen. I've finished my dedicated viewing room, and now I'm here to tell you that, if you have the room, you too can have a home theater for about the price of a used car.

CEDIA's home theater awards start with theaters that cost "less than $80,000." There are eight—count 'em: eight—levels of awards, topping out at a whopping "$1 million and up." I don't know who you're competing against at that price, but if you can get an award for it, you might as well. I think if you spend a million bucks on your home theater, the only movies you should watch in it are Heaven's Gate, Titanic, and Waterworld. Enjoy.

I think if you spend a million bucks on your home theater, the only movies you should watch in it are Heaven's Gate, Titanic, and Waterworld. Enjoy.

Thankfully, it doesn't take a king's ransom to create a great home theater experience. First of all, if you think about it, a home theater room doesn't need to be much more than a regular room with some extra wiring and insulation. It's nice if you can splurge on fancy lighting controls, but even those are becoming fairly inexpensive. I'll probably replace my ordinary dimmer switches with remote-controlled ones eventually, but there's no hurry.

You also don't necessarily have to do all the work yourself. I'm a fairly handy guy, but electrical wiring, drywall, and trim work are not on my resume. I pretty much limit myself to painting, decorating, and connecting components.

Unfinished theater screen wall

Drywall complete; painting just started. [Tysto photo]

The room started as an unfinished part of the basement in a house built in 2001. The exterior walls were studded and insulated, but an interior wall was needed to separate it from the utility area where the furnace and other mechanicals reside. That created a space about 19 feet by 15 feet, with a 2-foot cut-in near the door to accommodate the furnace. This made the logical screen wall either the recessed area (which later became shelving units) or the wall next to the door. To allow for more seating (including a platform in back), I chose the wall by the door, a pretty traditional home theater setup.

[B]uilders would rather guess and make changes later... than make a phone call and get it right the first time.

Since I created my theater in my basement, I didn't have the height necessary to create fancy ceiling architecture. So when I took bids for local contractors, the only unusual features were the built-in shelving, a platform for additional seating, a box for the projector, and a hidden door to the utility room that would look like part of the wall. Other things, like fixing a leaky window, running wires for speakers, and putting the lights on separate dimmers, were pretty conventional.

Unfinished projector box and platform

Projector box and platform, ready for carpet. [Tysto photo]

The work was done at reasonable cost, altho the lack of familiarity by the builder with home theaters caused some hiccups. The speaker wires weren't placed exactly where I specified (the center channel speaker was forgotten entirely), the projector box was oversized and about 5 inches off-center (or, one could argue, it was dead center with an extra 5 inches on its right side), and the track lights were mounted too low and too close to the wall they were supposed to illuminate.

Don't take such things for granted even in experienced builders, tho. I find that builders would rather guess and make changes later at your expense than make a phone call and get it right the first time.

I would also recommend a few things that didn't occur to me, even tho I researched the project thoroly and drew out extensive plans.

Decide if you want a textured ceiling (which will hide imperfections and scatter ambient sound) or a flat ceiling (which will take paint better and allow you to mount acoustical panels easily). Mine is flat mainly because I didn't think about it. I'll probably make my own acoustical panels out of foam and fabric.

Nearly complete theater scree wall

Carpet laid; components temporarily hooked up. [Tysto photo]

Have the builder wire for extra speakers. The 5.1 channel sound most popular now may soon give way to 6, 7, or even 8 channel sound. Having the wiring in the walls now is easy and inexpensive. At the very least, wire for a center rear speaker.

Even tho I didn't think of this at the time, my setup will allow me to do it pretty easily because I have access to the ceiling joists from the utility room (where my component stack is wired) and they run across the width of the room.

Consider adding a vent for the projector (if you put it in a hush box) and a wiring tunnel (a big PVC pipe from the projector to your component stack), so you can cool the projector with an added fan and run new cables if necessary. My builder put the wiring tunnel in an awkward place and ended it before it got all the way to the box. Since I can't touch both ends of the tunnel, I have to keep a dummy wire in it to run new cables, and even then it's awkward.

[T]he construction crew drilled straight thru the side walls to create holes for the shelf brackets, making my shelves look like Swiss cheese.

Give yourself good access to your component stack. I'm lucky to have mine in a built in shelving unit that extends into the utility room. Ideally, the back of the stack should open to give you the best access, but sealing it against sound leakage might be tough.

It may be easier to leave the back open (better for cooling the components anyway) and seal the front of the unit against sound with a good glass door. Such solutions can get expensive, tho. My component stack has only a few holes for wires, which I'll seal with clay when I'm sure I've got things where I want them for a while.

Because the wall with the shelving units (a deep one for components and a wide, shallow one for display) adjoins the utility room, it had to be well-insulated. I had the builder put in ordinary pink insulation batting, but I'll probably also cover the units with foam insulation, partly because the construction crew drilled straight thru the side walls to create holes for the shelf brackets, making my shelves look like Swiss cheese. A tube of caulk, which was necessary for the cracks anyway, solved the problem.

Completed shelving unit wall

Completed shelving units; note the hidden door on the right side. [Tysto photo]

The hidden door is also on this wall, and it required special attention. It was hard at first for the builder to imagine a flush door that swings out (into the utility room), but the result looks great. He used a hollow core door, so I'll put foam insulation on the back of that too.

I had three pairs of can lights installed, each on a separate dimmer. The back pair I retro-fitted with eye-ball covers, which I directed at the back wall. These are the lights I keep on during a movie. But they still create a bit of glare over the heads of anyone sitting in the back row. In such a case, I usually use the side lights instead, which are track lights on wires. These are great for lighting, since they're so versatile, but the wires create a noticeable twang when I do the hand-clap test. It's not noticeable during movie-watching, tho, and might be tamed with some acoustical panels on the ceiling. I would recommend ordinary low-voltage track lights, mounted on the ceiling, out of the way of the projector beam.

[Track lights on wires] are great for lighting, since they're so versatile, but the wires create a noticeable twang when I do the hand-clap test.

I chose to have five feet of wall carpet installed on the walls as a sound dampener. This goes right around the room, except on the screen wall. It helps a lot (the theater is noticeably less "live" than the rest of the basement). The carpet and paint, separated by a chair rail, create a nice two-tone effect that breaks up the room.

If you don't want carpet on the walls, consider heavy wallpaper with a dimensional pattern or some other way of breaking up the wall surface, such as false panels created with trim molding frames.

Home theater floor plan

Entrance is at the left, from the game room. [Tysto art]

I would have liked a couple of fake columns (pilasters, actually), but I couldn't decide exactly where they should go, and they would have cost extra, both to build and to carpet around. In retrospect, I could have put them only on the long wall opposite the shelving units, which would have created some visual interest by framing whatever I hang there and would have broken up the sound that otherwise bounces off the broad, flat wall.

A cheap alternative to fake pilasters is fake fake pilasters: just a couple of thicknesses of 1/2" drywall, floor to ceiling. They would only stick out an inch or so, but that's enough to break up the room visually and acoustically. Since it's drywall, it's easily incorporated into the mudding and painting.

A cheap alternative to fake pilasters is fake fake pilasters....

I chose a midnight blue paint for the screen wall and ceiling (black seemed too absolute), a maroon to match the carpet for the bottom part of the walls, a medium gray carpet for the top part to avoid coloring the picture with reflected light. For the floor, I chose a maroon carpet with a black border to give the room a theatrical look.

For the trim molding, I chose metallic gold, which I had seen in a home theater on the Web. Again, since I was going for a fairly dramatic, movie theater look, it fit right in. Muted beiges and taupes would work nicely, too, if you prefer a subtler, more homey look, especially if you intend to use the room for other things, like practicing a musical instrument or watching ordinary TV.

For the floor, I chose a maroon carpet with a black border to give the room a theatrical look.

When the theater was complete and the components were in place, I immediately found myself listening to a lot of Sirius radio on the satellite TV receiver, so I got a 20" (standard def) TV to put in the component stack. That way, I could see what song was playing (or check CNN or whatever) without turning on the video projector. I figure I can get a wireless security camera eventually and route it to this monitor, so I can see when someone is coming to the front door.

Update: I bought a wireless camera, but the damn thing only works within about eight feet of the base unit. It's pathetic.

The furniture is a comfortable-but-aging couch and chair I've had since 1996, so that will get replaced first, probably with black leather.

Update: Turns out that to get seating for 10 or 12 in the room for football playoffs and Super Bowl, I had to add a couch, chair, and loveseat in addition to the couch and chair already in here. It's still a fairly comfortable fit, actually, so they've stayed.

No, I'm not going to get a professional popcorn popper.

To answer the questions that everyone seems to ask:

  1. No, I'm not going to get theater-style chairs with built-in drink holders. Nobody has that in their living room; why do people want it in their theater?
  2. No, I'm not going to get a professional popcorn popper. I don't like popcorn very much, and when I want it, I can make it in the microwave in 2 minutes, with nothing to clean later. (However, I should perhaps come clean at this point and mention that my brother and I built a candy counter two years ago in the other part of the basement, just outside the theater. I looooves the candy.)

I looooves the candy.

The construction on the room cost about $5,500, with an additional $500 or so in materials that I bought (mostly track lights, paint, and cables). The carpet cost about $2,000 total (wall and floor). The black border is lower-quality carpet, which made it quite a bit more economical. The projector and screen cost about $2,700, and the rest of the components are several years old (1998). I'll slowly replace these over the next year or so.

Heck, you can't do things all at once. What would you do later?

Update: I've since replaced the DVD player with a progressive scan model and the sub-woofer with a more robust model. I look forward to putting a new HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player in the mix and really cranking up the visual experience, but that will be a while longer.

 

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