Small Room–Big Sound
Generally, when you think of a media room or home theater, it conjures up images of a fairly large space. Lots of seating, huge screen, drapes, columns, etc. And I would say most of the media/theater rooms I have worked in over the years are in the 18 x 25-foot ballpark, usually with 10-foot ceilings. Sometimes the areas are much bigger.
But do you need a large room to enjoy a luxury experience?
A few months ago, I reviewed a dARTS (Digital Audio Reference Theater System) audio system. Generally, I review gear in my living room, which is a fairly large space that opens up to both a kitchen and a nook area. With the room’s layout, I sit about 13 feet from my front channels and screen, and about 15 feet from my side surround and rear surround speakers.
dARTS 535 Series digital surround theater system
But, due to the style and design of the system I was reviewing, installing it in my living room wasn’t practical. Instead, I installed the 5.2.2-channel speakers in a new bedroom we had built onto our home a couple of years ago. The room measures roughly 13 x 15 feet and has 9-foot ceilings—in other words, a bedroom size you would find in just about any home.
When I first started listening to the system, I was amazed at how much more detailed things sounded. Not that dialogue was suddenly clearer or that music notes were sharper, but how I was just constantly more aware of and noticing those distinct little sounds and Foley effects that are often buried in the background of a movie’s soundtrack. Small creaks and subtle ambient cues like leaves rustling, footsteps walking around in the distance, rain pattering outside. Watching It on this system—a movie with an absolutely fantastic and immersive Dolby Atmos mix—was absolutely terrifying, especially the scenes within the sewer and in the house on Neibolt Street.
And due to how the overhead speakers were installed (using a portable lighting rig re-purposed as an in-ceiling speaker holder to avoid cutting 10-inch holes in my new ceiling), they were 8 feet off the floor, or about 4 feet above my seated listening height. Compared with the “reference” system in my living room—which has vaulted ceilings spanning up to about 15 feet at the peak, with the four height speakers about 10 feet above my seated position—this produced overhead audio that was far more noticeable and localizable. When something was meant to sound as if it was happening above you, it happened right above you. Being in the center of this 5.2.2 speaker sphere produced incredible audio pans—front to back, side to side, top to bottom, sound just traveled with perfect tracking all around and over me.
Because there is less air to “energize” in a small room, you can use smaller speakers and still hit high sound-pressure levels, which helps from both a design and budget standpoint. Instead of one or two massive subwoofers, four small subs will deliver greater and smoother bass throughout. And because you’re physically closer to the speakers, you can generally listen at lower volume levels and still get a reference experience. I wasn’t blasting the system to feel bass impact waves or to be aware of the overhead and surround channels. In fact, I often listened at 10 to 15 dB lower than usual.
The smaller space also meant there were far fewer sonic distractions from other parts of the house—you know, the background-of-life sounds that every home has. Those hums, clicks, whirs, and other environmental noises all must be overcome in order to hear the soft sounds within a film or audio recording. Lower the background noise, and the sounds you want to hear are much easier to pick out.
In a way, this intimate, small-room experience was like listening to a pair of really nice headphones . . . but better! For one, I could share it with others. Two, headphones can’t deliver the same full-body bass impact of a great subwoofer. And three,
where headphones struggle to produce and place actual surround sound, this system did that in spades.
And guess what else? Because I was sitting much closer to my display, the 60-inch screen seemed far more cinematic.
To be fair, some credit certainly needs to go to the fantastic sounding dARTS audio system and Marantz AV8802A processor (shown above). This combination would retail for just north of $20,000, and dARTS’ unique implementation of Audyssey room correction is a fair measure of the system performance’s “secret sauce.” Had I just tossed some entry-level gear together, the experience surely wouldn’t have been as impressive. (You can read my review here.)
Not only does every home have a small space or two that could be the perfect media room candidate, it might just turn out to deliver the best experience in the house. (For more on making the most out of a small space, read the “So You Think Your Room’s Bad” posts from Mike Gaughn & Dennis Burger.)
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.