Home theater equipment is one of the hottest-selling
categories of consumer electronics. Most homeowners buy
separate electronic components and wire them to freestanding
speakers and a big TV. But when the budget allows, it's
preferable to build this equipment into the house. Not only
does a built-in system perform better, but the equipment is
As a general contractor, you're unlikely to install theaters
yourself. But if a client wants one, you'll have to coordinate
the work of the trades that are involved. My company designs
and installs home theaters; in my experience, the quality of
the finished product is strongly affected by the GC's ability
to manage the job.
Home Theater Defined
A home theater is designed to replicate the experience of
watching movies in a commercial theater. It consists of a
viewing screen, multiple speakers, and source equipment such as
DVD players, amplifiers, and high-definition satellite
receivers. However, a theater is more than a collection of
electronic components; it's a system that starts with the room
High-end projects may include rooms specifically designed for
viewing movies. Clients with less space and lower budgets are
more likely to integrate the equipment into multi-use areas
such as family rooms. Regardless of the budget, the rooms will
contain similar components and the same design principles will
Sound isolation is an important part of any theater. Outside
noise distracts the viewers, while escaping sound may disturb
the neighbors or other people in the house.
The simplest way to sound-isolate the room is to insulate the
stud bays (see Figure 1).
Figure 1.Soundproofing is important in the walls
of a home theater. Here, a partition wall has been insulated to
limit the amount of sound that reaches the adjoining
It's fast and cheap but only somewhat effective. A better way
is to double-frame and insulate the walls using extra-wide
plates and offsetting studs so the inside drywall is fastened
to different studs than the outside drywall. Sound transmission
can be further dampened by separating the wall and ceiling
planes from adjoining surfaces by holding the drywall back from
the inside corners and caulking rather than taping those
Another way to isolate surfaces, including floors, is to
install them over gaskets, isolation channels, or sound control
membranes. Walls can also be isolated by installing sound
absorption material like Acoustiblok (Tampa, Fla.,
813/980-1400, www.acoustiblok.com), a heavy, flexible
material that comes in 1/8-inch-thick sheets. Installed behind
the drywall, it blocks 26 decibels of sound, which means there
will be almost no sound transmission. Special care must be
taken to maintain tight seams and close fits at penetrations
for lights and ductwork. The installed price for this product
is about $15 per square foot, so we use it only as a last
Excellent sound quality distinguishes a home theater from a
room with an oversized TV. Though you can spend hundreds of
thousands of dollars to acoustically engineer a room, we mainly
deal with acoustic issues by using sound-absorbing materials
and by varying the size and shape of the room.
One basic rule is to avoid putting theaters in square rooms,
which tend to suffer from dead spots, reverberation, and other
audio problems. These are less likely to occur in a rectangular
room and least likely in a room that's irregularly shaped. The
sound is better if large flat surfaces are broken up with
architectural elements such as soffits, pilasters, and niches
Figure 2.Pilasters, soffits, and ceiling trims not
only look good, but also enhance audio reproduction in a
theater by breaking up large flat surfaces.
Ceilings should be between 8 feet and 14 feet high. Rooms any
taller will suffer from a "church" or "hall" effect. If the
ceiling is over 14 feet, it's important to outfit the room with
sound-absorbing materials such as heavy drapes and upholstered
The room will sound better if you minimize the number of hard,
reflective surfaces. Carpet is by far the best flooring
material to use in a theater. Wood is a distant second, and
tile comes in last. If clients don't want carpet, they should
be prepared to put down a lot of rugs. Ideally, walls should be
covered with soft, nonreflective material. The walls of
high-end theaters are frequently upholstered (Figure 3). A less
expensive option is to use heavy drapes or wallpaper made of
Figure 3.Theaters should contain a lot of
sound-absorbing material such as carpeting, stuffed furniture,
and heavy drapes. Upholstered panels have been added to the
walls and door of this high-end dedicated theater.
The first thing our installers do is run audio-and-visual
(A/V) cable around the room. It's important to coordinate this
work with the electrician's because electrical wiring generates
an electromagnetic field that can degrade the performance of
the theater. Try to keep A/V cables at least 24 inches away
from parallel electrical wires. If the wiring is closer, the
theater may suffer from picture ghosting and audio distortion.
If you're forced to cross an electrical wire, it will cause
less interference if you do it at a 90-degree angle (Figure
Figure 4.Ideally, A/V cable would never come
within 24 inches of electrical wire. If they have to run
parallel, keep these wires apart. If a cable has to cross an
electrical wire, do it at a 90-degree angle as
You need to get it right the first time because wiring
problems may not show up until the house is finished and
everything is plugged in. At that point, it's hard to diagnose
the cause without tearing open walls. For that reason, we
prefer to run A/V cable after the electrical wiring is in
Figure 5.The electrician ran this Romex when no
one was looking. It shouldn't be in with the A/V cables and
will cause interference if it's not removed and brought in
separately from below.
A/V wiring should be rated for in-wall applications and
matched to the components being used. If the run is longer than
100 feet, you may need to use a larger conductor. Some
entry-level speakers won't accept anything heavier than
16-gauge wire. Using something thicker may force your client to
spend more for the speakers.
Surround sound is one of the distinguishing characteristics of
a home theater. It's much more realistic than sound that comes
from a single source. The current theater standard is to use
six speakers: three in front, two in back, and a subwoofer
Figure 6.Most theaters have 5:1 audio systems:
three speakers in front, two in back, and a subwoofer in the
corner. The front speakers are usually hidden behind fabric
grilles, and the rear speakers are mounted in the wall or
The location of the speakers determines how the theater will
sound. The three front speakers should be in the same wall as
the screen and pointed directly at the viewers. One speaker
should be centered on the screen. The left and right speakers
should be in the same plane as the center speaker and far
enough away that they form about a 45-degree angle with the
center-most viewer. Rear speakers belong at the back of the
room, pointing down from the ceiling or in from the side walls.
The subwoofer is specifically designed to be placed in a
It's important to determine speaker locations in advance so
that carpenters can provide open bays and mechanical
contractors can keep their equipment out of the way (Figure
Figure 7.A lot of things get built into the walls
and ceiling of a theater, and you need to know where they are
in advance. This mounting bracket for a ceiling speaker will be
impossible to move once the drywall is up.
Most clients don't want to see speakers, so we hide them in
the walls and ceiling. Some speakers mount flush to the
drywall, so all that's visible is a metal grille (Figure
Figure 8.The rear speakers work equally well in
the wall or ceiling. Everyone on site will have an opinion
about where they look best, but check with the theater designer
to find out where they'll sound best.
We typically use these speakers at the back of the room, where
they'll be less noticeable. Most architects prefer to put
ceiling speakers in line with recessed lights. This location
may look better, but it probably won't produce the best
A common technique for concealing speakers is to put
freestanding speakers in framed wall niches covered with
sound-permeable fabric. The viewing screens for front
projection systems are usually made from this kind of fabric,
so it's easy to hide the front speakers behind them (Figure 9).
Subwoofers can be tucked into a corner, concealed behind fabric
in a wall niche, or placed in the floor and covered with a
Figure 9.The front speakers in this theater
project audio straight out through a sound-permeable viewing
screen. In this photo, the screen has been retracted into the
ceiling. The door and air intakes pass into the rack room
behind the wall.
We've occasionally used special flat panel speakers made by
Sound Advance Systems (Santa Ana, Calif., 800/592-4644,
www.soundadvance.com). The panel is
installed flush to the drywall, skimmed with joint compound,
and painted to match the wall. It's completely invisible and
works fine as long as the skim coat is less than 1/8 inch
Home theaters use rear-projection, plasma, or front-projection
screens. Most family room theaters contain rear-projection TVs
because they're an economical way to get a big picture. Screens
are measured diagonally; rear-projection units are typically
between 45 and 80 inches.
Plasma screens are thin and hang from the wall. They're very
expensive on a per-inch basis and measure between 32 and 70
inches across. I tend to use plasma screens when there isn't
room for anything else.
Front-projection systems provide the biggest screens, up to
100, 120, or 133 inches across. The projector is mounted in the
ceiling or back wall and projects the picture onto a blank
screen at the front of the room (Figure 10).
Figure 10.Projectors are noisy, so they're
typically placed in soundproof enclosures. This unit projects
through a piece of glass and can be serviced through the access
panel below. The box is mechanically vented through the soffit
to prevent the projector from overheating.
Rear-projection TVs are relatively economical, but you need to
factor in the cost of what goes with them. For example, most
people will want to house the unit in a cabinet. It might
actually be cheaper to use a costlier plasma screen if it
allows you to omit the cabinets and the 2-foot strip of space
Plasma screens weigh 90 to 180 pounds, so the framing must be
blocked accordingly. Also, be aware that plasma screens stand
several inches off the wall. One of our clients objected to
seeing this gap from the side and asked us to fit a trim piece
around the perimeter. If we had known about the issue in
advance, we'd have asked the contractor to frame a niche for
the screen. That would have provided a clean flush-mount
installation with minimal added cost.
Entry-level projectors and most mid-level projectors have
noninterchangeable lenses. This means that they must be mounted
a specific distance from the screen — 11 to 15 feet
for a 100-inch screen and 15 to 20 feet for a 133-inch screen.
This might determine the size of the room and whether the
projector goes into the ceiling or wall. The projector should
be mounted at the same elevation as the top of the screen
unless it has a "keystone correction" feature, which allows you
to adjust the image for distortion if the projector is mounted
at an angle to the screen.
Room size and layout. There
is an ideal relationship between the location of the seating
and the size of the screen. However, the relationship is
different for different types of screen. Consult with a theater
designer before you start framing, because the configuration of
the room will have an effect on the kind of screen the client
Home theaters are often part of an A/V system that's linked to
other rooms in the house. As a result, a large number of
electronic components may need to be housed. We run all the A/V
wiring to a single closet or rack room and put the components
there (Figure 11).
Figure 11.The theater in this house is part of a
larger home automation system. All the electronic components
are housed at a remote location in a closet or rack
The DVD player is the only component that has to be inside the
theater. We put it behind cabinet doors so the viewer won't be
distracted by the panel lights. Closing the doors disables the
remote, but for a few hundred dollars you can install an
infrared repeater that relays the signals to the DVD
Video game consoles can be hidden in the same cabinet as the
DVD player. To avoid stringing wires across the room, we put
A/V jacks in the wall or floor next to the couch. That way the
kids can plug in their game controllers wherever they're
Because projector fans make noise, they're typically installed
in sealed enclosures with glass windows in front. Heat is
exhausted by connecting the enclosure to a duct with an inline
fan. The supply can come from an adjacent room, and the exhaust
can go to the rack room or some other nearby area. The rack
room will get very warm, so it should be mechanically vented to
the exterior or to a nearby room. All the trades need to know
in advance where these ventilation ducts will be located.
Ideally, a dedicated theater room would be on a separate hvac
system. If it's not, the hvac ducts can act as an escape path
for sound and create an amplified booming effect throughout the
Dedicated theaters often have individual theater-style seats.
Viewers often find them more comfortable than a couch, but at
$800 to $5,000 each, they're a bit pricey for most people. We
use platform seating when there will be more than one row
across. Each level should be at least 7 inches, and preferably
14 inches, higher than the level below. The platform should
also provide a 2-foot walk space in front of the seat.
Family Room Theaters
People without the space or budget for a dedicated theater can
often afford to put a theater in the family room (Figure 12).
Clients will get more for their money if they consult with a
theater designer before finalizing the plans for this room.
Decisions about layout and finish materials will have a big
effect on the performance of the room.
Figure 12.A family room theater is a step up from a
theater in a box because all the elements are built in. In this
theater, the front speakers and screen are fully housed in a
cabinet. The woofer is at bottom right and the rear speakers
are built into the wall.
The most important decision is where to put the screen. In
many family rooms, the TV is in the corner with a slider on one
side and a fireplace on the other. In a theater, that's the
last place you want to put the screen. The sound is better when
you can put some space between the left and right front
speakers, and that's not possible when the screen is in the
corner (Figure 13).
Figure 13.It's a poor idea to locate the screen in
a corner because there's no logical place to put the speakers.
Putting the fireplace in the corner and using smaller windows
allow you to put the speakers where they belong.
Door and window placement has a big effect on family room
theaters. Light may reflect off the screen if the unit is next
to or across from a window. The viewer can close the drapes but
may not want to during the day. A possible solution is to shift
the location of the windows or use narrower units. The lack of
windows is one reason a basement is a good location for a home
theater. The built-in soundproofing provided by the foundation
mass is another advantage.
Doors and windows also affect where you can put speakers.
Sometimes the only place to put the speakers is high in the
wall, but headers may prevent you from doing that.
Many family rooms have a fireplace in the middle of the wall.
But you'd be better off putting the fireplace in the corner and
the screen on the middle of the wall. After all, most people
spend more time watching TV than watching fires. If the
fireplace has to be in the middle, consider pulling the screen
as close to it as possible and putting it on a pivot so you can
see it from the middle of the room. Another possibility is to
mount a plasma screen over the fireplace, but be sure it's
within 50 inches of the floor to be at a comfortable viewing
Recessed lighting can be used in theaters, but the fixtures
should be placed so that light doesn't wash across the screen.
Also, avoid putting cans directly in front of the projector
because this may wash out the image.
Home theaters aren't cheap. Our company prepackages a variety
of systems that can run as high as $175,000 if you include the
millwork. One of our standard packages costs $90,000, while
another goes for $25,000. We have also installed a number of
systems for a Southern California developer who offers them as
a $10,000 upgrade to his tract homes.
Steve Ehrsamis the president and founder of Audio
Arts in Saratoga, Calif. He builds and consults on theaters all
over the United States (www.askaudioarts.com).