Lifestyle

The Future of Home Theater: A Manifesto

There’s been a lively exchange in these pages lately about the rise of high-end media rooms and what impact that could have on dedicated home theaters. So I wanted to take a moment to explain this site’s position in this debatenot as an effort to guide, let alone stifle, the discussion but to encourage an even more vigorous debate.

 

There’s a tsunami forming that could have as much impact as the iPod on how people experience entertainmentand we’re not just talking home entertainment here but all forms of entertainment everywhere. And it’s being formed by the largely chance convergence of the widespread acceptance of 4K, increased awareness of beyond-5.1-channel surround sound formats like Atmos, the surging popularity of streaming (fueled in part by the marked decline in quality of Hollywood films), and, maybe more important than any of these, increased bandwidth and its wider distribution.

 

But there’s another big factormaybe the biggest: Gender. Tech used to be an almost exclusively male domain. Those days are gone forever. Everybody not only uses but feels comfortable with smartphones, tablets, and myriad other forms of extremely sophisticated lifestyle tech. And hardly anybody looks under the hood anymoredigital makes that almost irrelevant.

 

But it’s not just a girl/guy thing. Anybody old enough to grasp the concept of a reboot realizes the potential of both contemporary and future tech, and feels comfortable swimming in that stream.

 

That means they want their tech to be a natural, and preferably effortless, extension of how they live their lives. That means the days of the man cavewith its connotations of a forbidding space, unusable by anybody but its overlord—are numbered.

 

But that does not portend the demise of home theater, whose best days probably lie ahead.

the future of home theater

The contemporary dynamic goes something like this: Almost everybody has a media-room system, even if it’s as rudimentary as an Internet-enabled TV. Incredibly sophisticated tech like 4K HDR and Atmos is becoming more and more affordable, and thus more and more pervasive.

 

Almost everybody wants the best home-entertainment experience their budgets can handle—and for an increasing number of people, that means being able to cobble together a system that can rival what they find at the local multiplex. But they also want to integrate that high-end entertainment experience into the flow of their day-to-day family life.

 

Thus the rapid rise of the media room.

 

But almost everybody knows a media room isn’t the ultimate at-home experience. And it’s part of the American DNA to keep pushing for something better (although that part of our heritage has taken a hell of a beating lately).

 

Bottom line: A dedicated theater room will always be the ultimate home-entertainment experience, and no media room will ever be able to make that claim.

 

But, to survive, home theaters can’t continue to be shrines devoted exclusively to moviewatching. (Like the male domination of tech, those days are gone too.) They also have to be the ultimate gaming experience—and live-concert experience and streaming experience, and ultimate form of whatever entertainment any member of the family can find to throw at it.

 

In other words, home theaters have to shed their reputation as tomb-like retreats dominated by all kinds of intimidating technology and learn to embrace all forms of entertainment, and every member of the family.

 

There is no doubt the herd is being culled, quickly, efficiently, and without remorse. Multiplexes and other inferior venues and forms of playback probably don’t stand a chance. But four things will likely survive: Media rooms, event theaters, drive-ins, and home theaters. Why? Because each, in its way, makes the experience of entertainment something special.

 

But of these four, only a dedicated home theater can offer the ultimate experience, because only a dedicated home theater allows you to hold all the distractions of day-to-day life at bay, allowing you to focus all your attention on the optimally reproduced and calibrated picture and sound. Even the most tweaked-out state-of-the-art event theaters can’t match that.

 

And theater rooms will always have the edge over media rooms because everybody yearns to enjoy the best entertainment in the best possible way. And the only thing that can consistently deliver that experience is a home theater.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Media Room or Home Theater? It Depends

media room or home theater

In a post last week called “Media Room or Home Theater?” Theo discussed the inherent limitations of a media room/multi-use space versus a home theater/dedicated movie-watching space, and admitted to struggling with the best way to come up with designs for media rooms. Having installed dozens of media-room systems over the yearsand lived with one in my own home for nearly as longI thought I might offer my take on some of Theo’s comments.

 

I totally agree with him when he says, “A media room is fine for watching something casually on TV.” But let’s be honest: Most viewing these daysregardless of where it’s doneis casual. As I’m writing this, I’m in my media room and the TV is on. So are all the lights in the media/family room and the kitchen behind it. I’m typing on my laptop and listening to Tidal on headphones. My 11 year old is splitting time between finishing up a homework assignment and watching the screen. My wife is in and out of the room folding clothes while checking her phone. None of us are actively watching the TV.

 

Theo felt one of the inherent problems with media rooms is “visual distractions,” and said things like windows, doors, and fireplaces can take you out of the movie. But by far the biggest distraction I see has far more to do with the modern, active lifestyle, not any limitations of the room. And if you told people they could only watch TV if they stopped everything else they were doing and committed all their attention to the screen, many would pass. (One of the major reasons why 3D failed, in my opinion.)

 

But when it comes time for active viewingsay, when we want to watch a movieit’s a completely different story. The lights all go off, the small screens go away, and the big screen rolls down. With the lights off and the projector on, all attention is focused on the screen. Doors, windows, and fireplaces all disappear into the periphery. And I can promise your our media room has no shortage when it comes to delivering screams, cheers, frights, or tears.

media room or home theater

If I was ever lucky enough to have Theo design a dedicated home theater room for me,
his famous Paramount Theatre would be a great place to start.

I couldn’t agree more that “there is no substitute for a dedicated home theater.” And if I had the limitless budget of many of Theo’s clients, and a home design that could support it, there is no question I would have a dedicated room as the ultimate sanctuary for indulging in movie watching. I’d have Theo design me the sickest of spaces, worthy of any A-list Hollywood director’s screening room.

 

But honestly, knowing our family’s lifestyle, I’m sure an isolated roomno matter how amazingwould see far less use than our centrally located media/gathering room.

 

In Part 2, I’ll talk about how home theaters and media rooms have some “flaws” in common, and how Theo’s talent could help make media rooms more palatable for discerning movie lovers with active families.

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Why I Love My Media Room

media room ideas

photos by Jim Raycroft

I had one main criterion while shopping for my home: It had to have a space for a theater room. This was in the early 2000’s. I was installing a lot of dedicated rooms for clients at my custom-install job, and I really wanted a dedicated movie-watching room for myself. I had plans for sound treatments, and ideal room ratios, and solid-core doors with sound-isolating thresholds, and more.

 

But as we started looking at homes, we couldn’t find one that had space for a dedicated room that fit other needsnamely budget and location. The most common “dedicated space” option was a room up over the garage, and we couldn’t find a home we liked.

 

So I changed my thinking a bit.

 

Barring a dedicated space, the potential home definitely had to allow for retrofitting wiring throughout so I could add my own gear as needed. The home we finally settled on had a very open floorplan with a central great room that opens to the kitchen, breakfast nook, and dining room, with a massive attic that would make it easy for me to run wire throughout the house.

 

The first thing I did was set up a surround system. I pulled wiring through the attic to side and rear surround speaker locations and wall-mounted my speakers. An old cabinet held my gear with ample room on top to hold a 61-inch Samsung DLP TV. This setup worked fine and was certainly adequate in every way for media needs, but it wasn’t really
. . . special.

 

I wanted the big-screen experiencesomething beyond what the big DLP TV could provide. But I had to do it without totally compromising the look and functionality of our living room. Getting the room dark enough for “day viewing” a projector would mean heavy shading on lots of windows, something that would make the house so dark no one else would be able to do anything.

 

At that time, flat-panel TVs were starting to offer terrific performance at realistic pricing. (A fortune by today’s standards, but $6,000 for a 60-inch Pioneer Elite was an affordable videophile option!) Also, receivers were starting to include dual video outputs that could either carry a separate, Zone 2 feed or mirror the same feed. That gave me the opportunity to have my cake and eat it too.

media room ideas

What I decided on was a large flat-panel TV mounted tightly to the wall to provide the perfect, ultra-bright image for day viewing, with a motorized projection screen that rolled down in front of the TV when we wanted to watch a movie or a big event like the Super Bowl. When not in use, the screen is concealed behind a valance, out of sight. And if we want to watch the screen before the sun goes down, motorized Lutron shades tied into our automation system can darken the room.

 

Since both displays are driven by the same stack of electronics, I only had to buy one system. That freed up my budget to purchase higher-performing gear than if I was trying to outfit two rooms. That meant better speakers, a better processor, and better amplifiers, so now we enjoy the best sound regardless of what we’re doinglistening to music, watching TV, playing a video game, or enjoying a movie.

 

Because we only use the projector for movies or special events, it remains a special thing, letting us go from the 65-inch 16 x 9 aspect-ratio TV to the 115-inch 2.35:1 screen at the touch of a button. That makes movies far more cinematic and engaging.

 

The other thing I’ve come to appreciate is that because the media room is located in our comfortable, centrally located great room, we use it all the time. With the push of a button on my Control4 remoteor a voice command to Alexa saying, “Start Movie Time”the TV turns off and the screen drops down, the projector turns on, and our room is transformed into a theater. Since nobody has to get up and move to another room, we find ourselves using the system a lot more often. 

 

I’ve made several upgrades since the original install to keep the system on the cutting edge of performance. I replaced the Pioneer Elite with a new Sony 4K TV, the processor has been updated a couple of times to take advantage of HDMI 2.0a and Dolby Atmos, I added four in-ceiling speakers for Atmos, added a second sub, upgraded the anamorphic lens on the projector, and added the Kaleidescape Strato 4K player. The next upgrade will likely be moving to a 4K projector.

 

In my next post, I’ll discuss some other technology advances that make the media room an even more viable concept and worthy of your consideration!

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Media Rooms: Fad or Future?

media rooms

Look at practically any website that concerns itself with home theater and you’ll likely see example after example of dedicated home theaters. These are often beautiful spaces, luxuriously appointed, with fabric-covered walls, intricate woodwork and moldings, and rows of fabulous seats arrayed in tiers facing a giant screenfrankly, the kinds of things that made Theo Kalomirakis the legend he is and earned him the moniker, “The father of home theater.”

 

And as a custom installer, I can tell you these are almost always wonderful projects to work on. This is generally “our room” to maximize performance for one goal: Creating the ultimate movie-watching experience. Speaker locations are optimized, acoustics can be perfected, sound treatments can isolate external distractions, and lighting can be controlled for an ideal presentation.

 

But, despite all that, dedicated high-end rooms seem to be waning in popularity, giving way to something that could clumsily be called a multi-use space, but which we’ll call a media room.

 

Unlike a dedicated roomwhich is usually a separate, totally closed-off space, typically with a single door and no windowsa media room can be located in virtually any room of the house. In fact, media rooms are often in large communal areas like living rooms or family rooms, which actually gives them two advantages. First, every home can have one. Second, in my experience, media rooms get used far more often than dedicated rooms, which require viewers to actively get up and relocate themselves to a different location.

 

And, unlike dedicated home theaters, media rooms aren’t mainly for watching movies. They can be the best way to watch TV, listen to music, play videogames, view digital images, and stream content in a relaxed and comfortable environment. And couches, love seats, and comfy chairsfurniture already located in the roomall provide perfect seating options for your family or a group of friends.

 

At its most basic, a media room consists of a relatively large-screen TVlet’s say at least 55 inchesalong with some kind of improved audio experience, like a soundbar and subwoofer.

But for the true movie or music loveror anyone who takes their entertainment seriouslythis minimal approach won’t suffice, and their media rooms share many components similar to those found in a dedicated space. These include:

 

a much larger 4K Ultra HD display

 

a minimum of 5.1-channel surround audio system, but more likely with the channel count
expanded to allow for immersive audio formats like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X

 

a device that can stream 4K content from Netflix, Amazon, or Vudu

 

and ideally a Kaleidescape Strato player for viewing the highest-quality UHD HDR movie
downloads.

 

And don’t think that having a media room in the middle of the house has to mean having stacks of gear out in the open, or having to live with monolithic speakers, or even having to have your room dominated by a giant screen on the wall. There are a ton of technology options available that can deliver phenomenal experiences with minimal impact on your décor.

 

How do I know? Because I’ve had my own media room for nearly 10 years, and installed dozens for clients.

 

In my next post, I’ll tell you about my no-compromise media room, and the installation decisions I made to make the most out of my space and entertainment system.

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.