Home theaters can mean big profits. Here's how to design and build them.

By Lisa Montgomery

Home theater is one hot ticket. In 1999, 20 percent of homes had some type of home theater, according to Parks Associates, a market research firm in Dallas. The reasons for this popularity are obvious: The experience produced by today's big screens and surround-sound systems, most designed exclusively for home use, can rival that of commercial movie theaters. Homeowners get all the audio/visual excitement of the movies, but the seats are more comfortable, and the refreshments are free.

Movie soundtracks assume a long, rectangular theater, so they sound most realistic in this type of space. Photo: Courtesy Cedia

Planning the room

Unless you're building very high-end homes, the space and budget may not allow a dedicated home theater. Fortunately, nearly any room (den, family room, bedroom) can serve the purpose. And doubling up doesn't mean compromising the audio/video gear's performance or the room's architectural appeal, if you plan it carefully.

Two potential problems are windows and fireplaces. A fireplace may have to be shifted to a corner to make room for a big screen. And because natural light washes out pictures on a video screen, your customers will need some way to darken the room easily. Window coverings for large, odd-shaped windows are expensive, so stick with standard-sized windows if you can.

While nearly any space can double as a home theater, proper planning will keep it from looking like an afterthought.

If you're building a dedicated home theater room, make it rectangular rather than square, as close as possible to a 10-to-7 ratio (20 by 14 feet, for example). Movie soundtracks sound richer and more realistic in a rectangular room than in a square one. If possible, put the room in an out-of-the-way place. Professional home theater installers prefer the basement: It's isolated from the rest of the house, there are few if any windows, and there's usually enough space to scale the size of the room to the video display.

The optimal room size is determined by the size of the screen: The room should be big enough to accommodate seating distance of between two and two-and-a-half times the width of the screen. If the screen is 28 inches wide, the couch should be positioned between 56 and 70 inches away, while a 120-inch screen will require a room that's large enough to push the couch back at least 20 feet.

Soundproofing and access

Theater rooms should also be acoustically isolated from the rest of the home. A simple soundproofing tactic is to install two layers of drywall. A better, but more expensive, alternative is to stagger the studs of any walls the theater shares with other rooms, which will reduce sound transmission by preventing the studs of the two walls from touching. It's also a good idea to pack the walls and ceiling with insulation and to install acoustical wall covering material to help contain the movie sound. Carpeting also helps.

A home theater is a great place for built-ins. A custom cabinet or niche tends to look more elegant than a store-bought entertainment center.

Regardless of where you put the theater, leave access to the backs of the equipment. Should the homeowner decide to add a new piece of equipment, such as a DVD player, you want your customer to be able to connect it to the system easily. Placing equipment on racks that pull out from the wall is one option. Another is to build a narrow passage behind the equipment. If there's a stairwell or unused closet in the vicinity, consider placing the equipment on the common wall and using that space for equipment access.

Housing the equipment

While furniture stores carry a variety of entertainment centers, a custom cabinet can be sized so that every piece of equipment fits inside perfectly. To save money, ask the cabinetmaker to leave the inside of the cabinet unfinished. After the equipment is installed, you'll never see the inside anyway.

Another option is to build a niche for the theater equipment. A standard TV needs at least 35 inches of depth, while source equipment such as VCRs and DVD players need at least 21 inches. Of course, the size of the components will dictate the bay's actual dimensions. If you're not sure what kinds of gear the homeowner will install, make it at least 21 inches wide, 21 inches deep, and 48 inches high. This should provide enough space for an ample stack of equipment.

The best spot for a piece of source equipment, like a VCR, is at the front of the room, at least 24 inches to the left or right of the screen. Positioned here, it can easily pick up commands from an infrared remote, and the audio/video installer only needs to pull relatively short runs of cabling.

An alternative is to put source equipment in an unused hallway closet. This keeps everything except the screen completely out of sight and offers easy access to the equipment. Because infrared signals from a handheld remote control cannot travel through walls, you'll need to add an infrared eye to the home theater system. An eye, no bigger than a dime, captures the signal from the remote control and transmits it over low-voltage cabling to the equipment inside the closet.

Lisa Montgomery is a writer based in Mattawan, Mich., who specializes in home technology.

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