There might be nothing to anything I have to say here. It’s all based on anecdote and speculation. The data might not ultimately bear me out. But, based on what I’ve heard from some of the top designers, it would seem that home theaters—or home cinemas or private cinemas or private theaters or whatever you want to call them—are going through something that could very well be considered a renaissance.
Since this is more a rumination than a report, and since nobody has a better view of this particular part of the home-entertainment world than Theo Kalomirakis, I’m going to use his experiences of the past few years as my leaping-off point, and as representative of what I’ve been hearing from other, similar corners.
As the ’08 Recession took hold, Theo saw requests for luxury theaters decline dramatically, a trend that persisted for the next few years before settling into a kind of steady state. It was such a tremendous change from home theater’s Golden Age in
the ‘90s that he began to wonder if dedicated theater rooms were going to fall completely out of favor, to be replaced by multi-use interlopers like media rooms and great rooms.
Then came the pandemic, which bore curveballs for pretty much every aspect of society, of course, but held some huge surprises in reserve for luxury home entertainment. As the enormity of the crisis sank in and it became clear things would stay dire for the foreseeable future, most people assumed we would all be hunkered down for the duration, personally, socially, economically, and culturally. But a few months in, I started hearing the same refrain from top-tier designers and integrators: Business was booming.
Forced to focus on a single residence, unable to enjoy entertainment anywhere but at home, and with some unexpected time available to contemplate their domestic priorities, many of their affluent clients were suddenly feeling the need for a movie-watching space that was not only completely up to date but also provided a refuge from both the increased activity in the rest of the home and from the outside world. A media room or great room, no matter
how lavish, just wasn’t going to cut it. The desire for versatility had been trumped by the need for both escape and focus. An open-plan room meant to serve a variety of masters just can’t address those fundamental needs, no matter how well designed and constructed.
Based on the number of commissions the best of the best have been receiving recently, the evidence is mounting that home theaters are entering some kind of second golden age. But these new rooms aren’t just retreads of their movie-palace forebears but tend to embrace a more contemporary aesthetic, are much higher performance, and tend to be more accommodating to uses beyond movie-watching but without in any way compromising that defining experience.
As encouraging as all this is, my guess—and it’s just a guess—is that this phenomena will continue to play out almost exclusively at the very top of the market. Better and bigger (and cheaper) video displays and far better soundbars and streaming sources have made it easier for most people to settle for good enough in spaces that would need some serious work before they could even begin to approach great. For the broader market, where expediency rules, media rooms tend to make more sense. And, to be honest, the experience most of these people are having just isn’t that bad compared to what they were getting for the same money just five to seven years ago.
Maybe there isn’t a new golden age emerging. Maybe this is just a blip, an anomaly that ultimately signifies nothing. But it doesn’t feel that way; it feels like the core idea of a dedicated theater room still has legs and has returned to run another day by deriving strength from some completely unexpected places. If that’s true, it’s cause for celebration because it’s a chance to reinforce the singular importance of movies at a time when they’re in very real danger of becoming just another form of entertainment.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.