Is There An Easy Home Theater System?

Buying an “Easy Home Theater System” isn’t something you plan to do when you walk into the big box stores is it?  Usually the word “easy” isn’t anywhere near the words “home theater system”.  So after building systems from $2500 to over $1 Million, I decided it was time to share a simple system that I built that sounds and looks great.

The purists out there might choke on a few of the things I have to say, but there is solid science and some simple budgeting here to create a rock solid easy home theater system.  Maybe I’ll expand this into the “Easy Guide to Home Theater” if there is enough interest.

With the introduction of Dolby’s Atmos© system, the bar for the top end of home theater was raised and so was the bar for movie theaters.  Adding speakers in the ceiling above created challenges for everyone in the food chain from the post production audio engineer to the acoustics designers for the listening space.  Speaker placement, room size and other variables became more important.  More speakers means more chances of introducing an unwanted echo, room reverb or standing wave.

What is a standing wave you ask?  Sound has a wavelength based on frequency, for example a 60 Hz (hertz)sound has a wavelength of 3 feet.  So if you put a subwoofer 3 feet from the wall in a 9 foot long or 12 foot long room, the wave will bounce off the opposing wall and either amplify or cancel part of the wave coming towards it.  If you stand in different places in your room and the bass gets weaker or stronger, you have a standing wave.

Placing a sub in the corner can really make this noticeable.  The places where the wave is larger or smaller are the rooms “modes”.  The processor in the receiver will try and move those modes away from where you sit.  Move your seat and you have to “re-tune” the room.

A simple rule is that your subwoofer should be 1/3 of the way down a wall to minimize wave problems.  Once your room is done, you might try moving the subwoofer a little each way to see how the room responds.  Every room will be different and many receivers can move the waves making it even more challenging to create the perfect sound.  I once “fixed” a very high end music listening room simply by moving the speakers.

At the level one THX home theater program they introduced a concept of “Bolt’s Amoeba”.  This is a mathematical formula that can help you create an easy home theater.  Assuming you are designing the room from scratch, an ideal room would have a ratio of 16x9x21.  We don’t always get that opportunity, so I started working on other ways to work with the physics of sound.

The best room I have ever listened to is still a THX 7.1 system.  It was close to 16x9x21, and had one row of seats.  If a second row were added another row of speakers would need to be added.  This creates  some huge acoustical challenges. The 7.1 system uses “dipole” speakers which need to be aimed the right way and be placed in the proper position to work properly.  This isn’t and easy home theater system.

I have listened to some of the Dolby Atmos© systems, and yes they are impressive if the material is recorded for it.  Most DVD’s and BluRay discs are recorded in 5.1, and processing in the receiver is used to turn it into 7.1, 9.1 or even larger systems.  The expense alone of the receiver and additional speakers kicks this out of the easy home theater system land.

Someday, Atmos© may become the standard, but most post production facilities still use the simple 5.1 system.  Why?  Well simply put the math still works.  The engineer can create a 360 degree sound field with a 5.1 system without any additional processing.  Using some acoustic tricks and the echo on the ceiling, the engineer can create a sound image that rises and falls a little as well.  The way our brain works, the engineers can make the sound feel like it is going over our heads quite easily.  Yes there is psychology to sound.

Creating sound that feels like it is going underneath you is a nearly impossible trick because the carpeting on the floor and the seats break up the echo.  The ceiling is normally a pretty constant factor in a room so most processors can create some type of sound image above the eye line and speaker line. Dolby just took it to the next level by adding more speakers up there.

So what did I build, and what do I think makes for a “Easy Home Theater System”?  My home has a 3.1 system in the family room and a 5.1 in the screening room.  This means there are 5 speakers and 1 subwoofer in the studio and three speakers and one subwoofer in the family room.  Due to an issue with the back wall distance and stud spacing, I chose to install “aimable” ceiling speakers and point them at the back wall to create a larger sound field.  It isn’t perfect, but is it really good and is an “Easy Home Theater System”.

To start any room design, the first question is the size, seating placement and distance from the screen.  I still like the THX rule of a sitting distance that is based on a 40 degree viewing angle.  For the 100″ screen we installed I need to be sitting 120″ from the screen.  So take your sitting distance and divide by 1.2 or if you have a larger room, and already own the screen then sit 1.2 times the diagonal away from the screen.  This is for 16:9.  If you go to a full cinema width 21:9 screen it works out a bit differently.

Additionally I think the speakers belong behind the screen just like in a movie theater.  For under $500, the Elite Aeon fit the bill perfectly.  For my room I was sitting 140″ from the screen so a 100″ screen was just about right.

For speakers, any THX certified or Dolby Atmos© certified speaker will work well.  The differences between brands of home theater speakers are subtle and truth be told the installation can make a huge difference with any of them.  For my screening room,  I chose the Atlantic Technology IWTS-155LCR, for the front and the Atlantic Technology 155SR for the rear.

The brand I am probably the biggest fan of is Velodyne. I added a 15″ Velodyne subwoofer to the little two seat room which is way overkill. I should have only put in an 8″ or 12″.  When listening at full volume to music or movies the sub sounds great.  At lower levels though it is so big it doesn’t even kick on.

Unfortunately the 155SR required 14.25″ minimum stud spacing, and like many imperfect jobs, the stud bays where I planned to install the speakers were just 14″ across.  You can’t just turn these 90 degrees so I chose to ceiling mount and aim the tweeters at the back wall.  I was a bit worried about the sound image but I didn’t have much of a choice.  The key to this type of installation is to make sure the switch is in “bipole”, not “dipole”.

Also the 155SR is not designed to be ceiling mounted, it is quite heavy.  I used 1/4×2″x24″ poplar hobby boards from Home Depot to reinforce all of the sheetrock around all of the speakers.  This makes them just a little “dry” because the sheetrock will not move as much as it did in the design studio.

Two other installation techniques I like to use are acoustic insulation in the walls and loaded dampening at each end of the speaker.  Dynamat 10×10 stick on pads work perfectly.  I usually put one at each end of the speaker in the wall.  This add mass to the wall and changes the sound a little.  This tends to “warm” the room back up and make up for the wood making the wall stiffer.

For the acoustic insulation, the best I have ever used is Quiet Fiber by Acoustiblok.  You can see both Roxul and Quietfiber being used on CoolToys.  If you are installing your Easy Home Theater System in an existing room, Roxul is easier to cut and stuff into the walls above and below the speaker.  For new installations, Quiet fiber can be ordered with a black felt backing making it super quick and easy to install.

For the receiver, I normally pick Denon.  For this project it is the Denon AVR-S510BT.  A simple 5.1 receiver that is 4K ready and under $350.  Easy Home Theater Systems can’t be expensive because going broke is never easy.

When I started my Home Audio Business in 1995, Denon was the first company to let me sell their product.  Many times letting me sell one or two lines above what I was trained on.  Denon receivers have never let me down.  One failed but it was my fault for shorting out a main speaker wire while the amp was powered up.  Not one customer ever had a Denon failure.  Any THX or Dolby ready receiver will work well.  Ideally get a receiver that has a microphone to auto tune the room after you have finished your home theater system.

So now you have speakers, a receiver and a screen.  What’s missing is the projector.  Any inexpensive 1080P projector will be fine for now.  The key is the “throw”.  You need to know how far the projector is going to be from the screen before you pick a projector.  The first one I selected was an Optoma because it was 6db quieter than other projectors in its price range.  Another company that has been good to me, but it turned out that there is a +-3% disclaimer and I over thought the measurement.  Eventually the Optoma traded it for a Viewsonic that had a shorter throw lens that was still under $550.

The 1080P projector made it into the project hoping that the 4K models will come down in price next year.  One big surprise was the Apple TV 4k.  I moved my regular Apple TV to the recording studio so we could use Airplay in there.  When I plugged in the new Apple TV 4k, the picture was noticeable better.

My favorite toy was added to the mix, the Request F3 Movie Server.  As cool as streaming video is, I like owning the DVD’s and loading them into my own server.  Just recently one company I bought movies from changed to another company and I didn’t move my account in time.  Online movies lost.  Lose your account, forget about the account and the movies could be gone.

The best part of the Request is stumbling upon some great old movie that I forgot I bought.  The Request used to have Hulu and some other services built in, but Hulu quit playing so now it is just a movie and music server.  The Request Server still gets the CoolToys stamp of approval.  The Request isn’t officially part of the Easy Home Theater System because it is a little pricey, but still worth every penny.

The last piece is the remote.  The Logitech Harmony Elite was selected because it is sitting in the que for review on CoolToys.  It also lets you program voice control with Alexa.

If you don’t want to cut holes in the wall, there are several on wall THX rated speakers that also fit into the Easy Home Theater System.  So here is the finished project.

Receiver – Denon AVR-S510BT

Speakers – Atlantic Technologies IWTS-155LCR and IW-155SR

Subwoofer – Velodyne 15″

Screen – Elite Screens Aeon 100″

Projector – Viewsonic PRO7827

Apple TV4k

Request F3 Server and Media Player (Not part of the Easy Home Theater Budget but highly recommended)

Pulaski Theater Seats.

Elite Aeon Screen - Part of the Easy Home Theater System
Look Ma, No Speakers in the Easy Home Theater

Editors Note: the Pulaski Theater seats were returned and a new style from Ashley Home Furniture was purchased for the same price.

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