home theater design Tag

Home Theater’s Second Golden Age

Home Theater's Second Golden Age

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

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Working With the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Our second profile of the elite group of professionals who define luxury home entertainment features Gideon Perry, president of the L.A.-based Fantastic Theaters. Offering design, engineering, and construction services under one roof, his company is (to use his own words) “the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution.”

 

In the conversation that follows, Gideon stresses the need for architects, designers, and clients to bring the trades involved in the actual construction of entertainment spaces into the planning process as early as possible so the complex needs of these rooms can be anticipated. He also discusses the dramatic changes in luxury entertainment over the past 20 years, from increased awareness of the importance of good acoustics to the emergence of video walls as a front-projection alternative to the desire for more flexible home theater spaces. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

You provide a lot of different services but do have a typical approach to a job, or is it more about the being nimble enough to customize your process to each project?

I love car analogies. If you think of a Rolls Royce, every car is hand-built yet there’s an underlying core approach in place. We have a process we stick to pretty rigidly regardless of whether we’re doing something that’s small-scope or big-scope, small-budget or big-budget.

 

And it starts with our client questionnaire, because whether we’re doing the design or someone else is doing it and we’re just doing the build, it’s difficult to meet or exceed the client’s expectations if you don’t know what they are. Many people don’t realize what’s possible with a home cinema, so we have to gauge where the client’s at before we know what level we’re going to build to.

 

What are you typically approached for?

The one thing we don’t do is integration. We do have a handful of really good integration companies we work with, so if there is a desire for a project to be truly turnkey, we have those abilities. The design, engineering, and construction—we do all of that in-house. We have a unique facility with C&C machining capabilities, and a door factory, and a lot of different things that help us to achieve those goals. 

 

Our scope depends on who approaches us, whether it’s the client direct, a client rep, money manager, builder, designer, or whoever. Integration firms will often get the jobs and then reach out to us to help out. We work with a lot of design firms, so if

they come up with the theater design and the acoustic engineering and all that, we just build according to those plans.

 

But it’s about 50/50 as far as what our scope ends up being, whether we’re doing design, engineer, and build, or just build. We rarely do the design and someone else builds it. We also offer consulting services, so we have projects abroad in different states and countries where we will coach them along the process to make sure they’re doing it right. It’s kind of an insurance policy for the engineering you’ve paid for.

 

Is there an umbrella description for what you offer?

In the industry, we have to be the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution. Many other companies do just design, and there are obviously a lot of integrators, acousticians, and engineers out there. But there isn’t one company that does it all in-house.

 

So, at your level, you would consider yourself unique?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t know of anyone else that is as inclusive as we are.

 

The fact that we do GC work gives us a unique perspective. A lot of people who design theaters have never built anything. Just like an architect, they draw this beautiful thing and apply all the local codes and all this stuff, but when the builder goes to build it, there are many changes that need to be made. For us, having worked for practically 

every theater designer in the industry, we have broad experience with what the principles are and what they’re going for, which allows us to know where we can take liberties to accommodate the field conditions.

 

Was construction your entry point to the industry?

Yes. I worked in a high-end custom cabinetry shop, and then I was an electrician, four-year journeyman, and then I got into GC work, building houses and doing remodels. And that’s when I discovered Theo Kalomirakis and home cinema at a very high level with dedicated rooms.

 

You worked on the Paradiso and were in there early on, right? 

Yeah. We were there from start to finish. What made the Paradiso unique was that there were so many different aspects. It wasn’t just a cinema—there was an arcade and a nightclub—all these different things. That was a first for us, to be that involved in the whole house—the acoustics in the arcade and creating all the soffit shapes in the bar. We were doing things that a typical builder would do.

 

How do you compare your approach to that of other people offering similar services at this level?

The biggest thing for us is the room itself, so that starts early on with architects and designers to make sure the footprint is correct, that the HVAC has not been overlooked, and we’re looking at very low noise-floors, which requires a lot of space to get the volume you want at a very low velocity. 

 

Treating the process as a whole instead of as individual bits and pieces is also unique. But that’s not anyone else’s fault. Just to take the AV guys, oftentimes they don’t come into a project until the shell is built, so there’s very little they can do to fix it or create a high-level room. At that point, it’s basically pick some gear, throw a little bit of acoustics on the wall, and call it a day.

Creating the structure (and concealing the speakers and other electronics) for
the legendary Paradiso theater (photo of completed theater by Randall Michelson) 

They may not have any authority at that point because there’s probably already an interior designer who’s taken over or the architect or whoever.

 

Our approach is different because we’re at the ground level, sitting down with architects before the plans are finished, going through the math and science of it in the very beginning. Nobody wants to talk about fluid dynamics and things like that, but when the room doesn’t function for its dedicated purpose, now you want to go back and talk about that. It’s kind of pennies on the dollar if you get in early enough to dig down dirt or whatever you need to to create the size, whereas once concrete’s poured it gets expensive to try to get the room to the correct size.

 

Has that changed over time? Do you now find yourself consistently getting in early enough or is there still a lot of regrouping that has to go on?

There’s still a lot of regrouping. When I first started, we probably got 90% of our projects from integrators, and now it’s probably 20%. We’ve done a good job of getting to architects and other designers early but we have a long way to go and we can’t do it alone. That’s why I want to bring awareness to the industry, so we can all work together. It benefits everybody. You end up with a far superior product. And it doesn’t have to be for that much bigger of a budget. It’s just planning and the sequence of events.

 

Now that high-end entertainment is spreading into more rooms and the demand to have entertainment-related infrastructure throughout the house is increasing, are you being called in earlier to talk about how entertainment relates to the entire home as opposed to that one dedicated room?

We are. The issue in the LA market is that there is a tremendous number of spec homes being built, and they’re just checking boxes of what the house needs to have—a cinema, a wine cellar, a sport court, or whatever—and then selling it. What’s happening is we’re then getting calls from the new owners to come back and make the house livable, because it’s all hard surfaces—glass and stone and tile—and everything is so reverberant and echoey, it’s just a nightmare.

 

And we’re seeing awareness of the quality of life in other rooms. Wellness is a big deal, and just by default we basically already build everything to wellness standards, as far as the noise level in the room, the air changes, using green materials, lighting—things like that.

 

People now look at even something like a big grand foyer in the house and all of a sudden they care about the acoustics, when it used to be you would walk in and it would just be this massive wall of marble or a staircase or whatever. Now we can

Installing acoustically transparent fabric
in the foyer of the Paradiso

incorporate acoustical plaster or different things that don’t change the aesthetic whatsoever but add tremendous value to the quality of life.

 

How aware are architects, developers, and clients of the level of experience that’s possible in an entertainment space?

There are very few who are that privy to what’s out there. If you look at cars, especially in LA, you’ll see Lamborghinis and Ferraris driving all over the place. So they buy what are basically race cars and they’re just going to get coffee or meet someone for lunch, right? Very few of those people have a racetrack in their backyard.

 

So that’s what we’re doing. You can have the theater to just impress your friends or you can really be a connoisseur and appreciate the immersive experience you can have. And we’ve seen it bring families closer together. We have a client that got married in their cinema. Especially now with videoconferencing, there are so many different ways the 

rooms can be used. People have band practice in there or whatever. So when you build it with the right foundation, the room can be used for so many different things.

 

There used to be a purist notion that home theaters could only be for movie watching, but the technology and construction have evolved to the point where they can now be multi-use spaces with few compromises. When you’re talking to a client, how do you educate them on what their options are?

It starts with the client questionnaire. Just by asking the right questions, you can find out what they know. Nobody wants to come across as uneducated, so you present it in a way to bring awareness of the options and the level that they can have. Most people think a commercial theater like an AMC or Dolby Cinema is the benchmark. They don’t realize we can blow that out of the water in their own home, no problem. 

 

But when you get into the private level of home cinema, you can really experience things the way the director intended. We have had directors sit in our rooms and say, “I didn’t even realize that was in the mix.” You can hear levels you can’t otherwise experience. So we want people to know that that’s possible. And it’s possible on a variety of different budgets and room sizes. You don’t have to put an IMAX in your house to have that experience. We can take a spare bedroom of your house and a make a three-seat cinema that just blows you away, and you’re completely immersed and lost for a few hours.

 

Are people skeptical when you tell them that?

More so at the beginning. One of the hardest things used to be convincing people to spend “X” amount of dollars behind drywall. The HVAC systems we design can be a couple hundred thousand dollars. Nobody wants to think about allocating that much budget to air. But if you want a good experience, it’s important not to feel fatigue, not to feel distracted—there are so many different elements that back up why we do what we do.

 

People are always skeptical, but we’ve found ways to relate it to them in real-world experiences and analogies. We can do virtual walk-throughs, so we can design the room and have them walk around and see it before we even think about building 

it. People convince themselves once they experience it.

 

Design-wise, what kinds of rooms do people tend to be looking for?

It’s geared less toward movie palaces and more toward the modern look at the moment—which is very difficult, because they want either just drapes or everything just hard surfaces, so finding that balance is tricky. A lot of people want rooms lighter now, which poses some imaging issues. You’ve got a big reflector in the front of the room, so if the 

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

room is too light and scenes change, it lights up the room. And that can really mess with the human psyche as to what you’re supposed to be seeing, triggering a fight-or-flight response that takes you out of the moment. You don’t have to have a black room, but those are some of the challenges we’re facing.

 

Is that a reaction to the man cave? They don’t want a room that looks like it’s a retreat but want something that’s more a part of the flow of the house instead.

I think so. As theaters have become a bigger focal point of the home and not just a man cave in the corner, they want it to be a little more beautiful, more for entertainment, an extension of the home. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, if you weren’t building a room that was extremely dark, you were messing up big-time. But now people realize it doesn’t have to be black. We still care about how bright the room is, but there are other things you can do. We can create sort of a chasm in the front that really lets you be immersed in the screen, and then we can kind of liven up the rest of the room. We can also have some fun with the rear wall and the ceiling and things like that. Things have progressed for sure.

 

People used to spend a fortune on a home theater but because only one family member knew how to operate it, the room often fell into disuse.

We have seen that scenario many times, and it’s usually because the interface is clumsy. We want our rooms to be the most used rooms in the house. We have clients that get their morning coffee and go sit in their cinema to watch the news. It’s not mainly about the cinema experience—it’s just the most comfortable room to be in and it obviously has a nice, large screen. But we can put all the work we want into it, if it’s not easy to use, it will not get used. As much money as you have, there’s nothing more embarrassing than not knowing how to turn something on. We can make sure the room performs well but if the client can’t turn it on, they’ll never know.

 

What else do you think people need to know about what you do and what needs to happen at this level in general?

Starting early is the biggest thing for sure, so what we actually end up building is specialized. The key thing is to get a good theater designer—and not just an interior designer. The aesthetics are important for sure, but if the room doesn’t perform to a high level, it’s a big wasted piece of real estate.

 

If I could just say one sentence to educate clients, architects, whoever, it would be to engage a theater designer. If we can design this from the beginning, you can basically have whatever you want. You’re doing it to get the shell, because while the electronics and technology are constantly evolving, and there’s always a new version of something, the math and science don’t change. You can change out the aesthetics or the AV equipment or whatever you want, but if you get the bones right, you’re going to be happy with that for the life of the house.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 19
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:38    How his company approaches a project,

           regardless of its budget or size

2:34    A description of Fantastic Theaters’ services

4:19    “We have to be the closest thing there is to

           a turnkey cinema solution”

6:06    The impact of his construction background

           on his company’s approach to entertainment

           spaces

6:21    His experiences working on the Paradiso

           theater

8:20    The importance of focusing on the room’s

           construction

10:25  The need for proper planning and being

            brought into a project as early as possible

11:30   Being asked to make spec homes livable

            because entertainment needs weren’t taken

            into consideration

12:21   The increasing awareness of the need for

            proper acoustics throughout the home

13:40   Making clients aware of the level of

            performance achievable by a home cinema

16:50   Getting clients to realize the impact of

            things like HVAC on their movie-watching

            experience

18:14   The problem with relying too much on

            digital room correction

19:17   Tuning a room’s acoustics for various

            entertainment uses

21:00   The increasing use of video walls in

            home cinemas

23:03   The importance of finding a good theater

            designer

24:20   The current preference for modern spaces

             over movie palaces for home cinemas

26:47   How to avoid having a theater fall into

            disuse because it’s difficult to operate

REVIEWS

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins
The 75-Inch Revolution
Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies
The Cineluxe Hour

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Only a handful of people have the creativity, taste, knowledge, and experience to create a luxury home entertainment space. This new series of podcasts and features offers a unique look at the artisans who represent the pinnacle of each profession that goes into crafting these ultimate systems and rooms.

 

We focus on the collaboration with the homeowner, and what it’s like to retain and work with the best in the field. There’s no shop talk here, no inside baseball, no speeds and feeds. This is the closest you can come to engaging with one of these experts without sitting down with them in your home.

 

It would have been wrong to begin the series with anyone other than Theo Kalomirakis, who not only created the whole idea of home theater but showed its promise through his best-selling coffeetable books and continues to create the most innovative, opulent, and stunning private theaters in the world.

—M.G.

(The text below is a slightly abridged version of the podcast, which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page. Podcast listeners will find photos and graphics illustrating some of Theo’s examples by scrolling down the page.)

How do you typically approach designing a theater?

I usually get a project either directly from a client that read about us in a magazine or whatever or from an audio/video integrator. Getting it from the client is usually the most satisfying because either they’ve done their homework or they realize we are the ones that do it professionally. And they’re usually more amenable to do it the way I suggest we do it.

 

But even if the job comes from a custom installer, I like to have direct feedback from the client. You need to have that kind of access, otherwise you design in absentia. You don’t know what they want. You have to be able to interview them.

 

The first meeting with the client

The first meeting starts with sitting down with them and communicating my enthusiasm for the space, and with helping them to feel that I’m not selling them something. I’m just bringing them into my world, because I’m immersed in home theater architecture and I want them to be part of my excitement about it. I want to be able to communicate my ideas to them and make them relax so they can listen to me. I usually start the design process after I feel like I’ve connected with the client, after

he and I are on the same page.

 

Integrating the theater design into the rest of the house

Once our visions align, I start the work. Early in my career, the client would say, “Hey, I want an Art Deco theater because I’ve seen your theaters, and I like that style—it’s cinematic.” And I would usually say, “Yes, I love that style too. Let’s do an Art Deco theater.” But after I saw Deco theaters happening in very traditional environments, I started to feel embarrassed. It’s like when you go to Epcot Center and you go into the French pavilion or the Spanish pavilion—it had that kind of phoniness.

 

So I started putting my foot down, in a gentle way. I directed the client’s attention to the fact that the theater should echo the identity of the rest of the house—but without imitating it. You don’t want the theater to look like a living room or a dining room or whatever. You want it to look like a theater—but within the same language.

 

Earning the client’s trust

One of the key elements of bonding with the client is getting them to trust me so that if I have to steer them someplace other than what they think they want, they realize it’s not because I’m trying to play the prima donna but because I have their best interest in mind. I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to give you a theater where some of your guests will go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but the more sophisticated guests will say, ‘What the hell is this theater doing in this house?’” I always seek approval—not only from the client but from the guests who might be more sophisticated than the client. I protect my ass from being accused of being a gimmicky guy.

 

Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

You have to know who the clients are as people. The first step is to learn what their tastes are. The next step is to make sure you guide them to things they may not have thought of. They may know what they like, and what they like may be perfectly legitimate, and you go with it. But if I sense that I can guide them to something they might

like just as much, I protect my integrity by also protecting the client from something that would be a liability.

 

The woman who wanted “gaudy”

I was doing a theater for a well-known baseball player, and I met with his wife somewhere in Georgia. The lady came in made up in a way that made Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup look demure—huge eyelashes, painted lips, big bouffant hairdo. She was a caricature of a nouveau riche wife.

 

So I interviewed her to find out what exactly she liked, and it turned out she wanted something very, very ornate—all the kind of stuff ladies of the South associate with an expression that they’ve made it, they’ve arrived. “I want the theater with a lot of gold,” she said. “A lot of gold.” I took a step back because I was surprised and said, “You mean you want an opulent theater.” She said, “No, honey. I want it gaudy!”

 

Good for her. She knew what she was looking for. You can’t fight that kind of person. You can’t persuade someone with a gaudy house to do something more understated. You listen to them, and 90% of the time they make sense.

 

The client who wanted the Acropolis

There were two or three times when I really hit a wall and didn’t know what to do, like at another house in Jupiter Island. It was fairly traditional—not particularly gaudy—with a typical Floridian richness.

 

When I saw the space for the theater, I asked the wife, “Do you have a particular style you want?” “Yes!” she said. “We want the Acropolis!” I almost swallowed my tongue. I said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “You know—like the Versillis.” She didn’t even know how to say “Versailles.” Now, what the Acropolis had to do with Versailles, your guess is as good as mine. I decided there was no way I could do anything there, that I would be responsible by association.

 

How do you translate the client’s idea into a theater?

I usually crank up the volume. They come with some kind of concept that’s in the right direction but it’s not full-fledged. My role is to start from their concept and improve it, enhance it, and make it more exciting.

 

The importance of a proper theater environment

If I react negatively to a client, it’s usually because they say they want a comfortable seating layout. “We don’t want anything structured—we want a sofa here and an armchair there, an ottoman there.” I try to be very restrained in my response because it’s their choice—that’s how they watch movies. I make an effort to educate them that if they do that, they’re getting a living room in the guise of a theater. You have all the accoutrements of a theater but it’s literally a living room.

Theo originally designed the space above to accommodate traditional theater seating but
modified the design to honor the client’s preference for living-room-like seating arrangements

The classic example of that was the house in Vegas [shown above], where I couldn’t persuade them to do something that was more theatrical. That was a very well-defined theater that focused on the screen, the stage, and everything, but the wife put sofas in it like in a living room.

 

This is a typical contradiction I have with the client. They want a theater but they also want comfortable seating. I’ll tell them, “By doing that, you have one foot in your living room and the other foot in my theater language.” I can’t reconcile the two.

 

My clients usually have a living room and a media room, so I try to tell them, “We can do that in the media room, where it makes sense. But let the theater be a theater, with comfy seats spread apart with big arm rests, and you can kick up your legs because of the recliner. You still have the comfort of a living room.” 

 

When I go down to my theater and I recline, it’s ideal. You see the movie. You have good sight lines. You don’t lose that luxury of a theater, where you’re meant to be able to watch a movie with people in front of you and behind you. You shouldn’t be facing each other in a position that’s meant for chit-chatting, not for watching a movie. 

 

Casual seating is meant to accommodate unruly owners who want to talk to each other while the movie’s playing. When someone comes into my theater and starts talking, I stop them, as polite as I can. “Don’t talk. Let’s watch a movie.” So when my clients want something casual, I try to persuade them to do theater seating. Do I always win? 90% of the time.

 

Have you seen a big shift from movie palaces to more contemporary designs?

There are people who want to have the movie experience without reference to the grandeur of the old movie palaces. Figuring out how to create that same kind of excitement in a room that is expressed using contemporary architecture has 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

been my Holy Grail. It’s very difficult because our minds are filled with images of ornate palaces with chandeliers and everything, which creates the ambience of wanting to see a movie. Creating that ambience using a more contemporary language is very difficult because it’s, by its nature, more stripped down.

 

But I’ve found out that you can achieve that mostly through lighting, which creates that excitement. 

Just add lighting to a room—not sconces on the wall but strip lighting or columns with backlighting—and it brings the architecture to the level of a theater.

 

Who assembles & supervises the team to create one of your theaters?

For the big projects, I usually bring the people, like acoustic designers and lighting designers—not interior designers because I usually do that myself. It’s like making a movie—you get specialists to do the various tasks. You get a crew that works together synergistically to divide the elements of the theater into their various expertises.

 

For lighting, I usually work with Howard Werner, who is a lighting designer on Broadway. He did Spider-man with Julie Taymor. For acoustics, I’ve worked very extensively with Steve Haas because he knows my ways. And he’s compromising in the same way that I’m compromising, to accommodate the acoustics. When you work with experts like that, you have to respect each other’s trades.

 

How do you accommodate the client’s or integrator’s equipment requirements?

If the job comes from an audio/video integrator, I ask immediately to get the list of equipment and the placement of the speakers. I design around what they want and where they’re going to  position the speakers on the wall. I totally respect the science of someone who has to put the speaker in exactly the right location to the left or the right of the subwoofer. So I’m very accommodating.

 

What happens when the equipment gets in the way of the design?

Sometimes you have to go back to the integrator and say, “That wasn’t what I proposed”—like a recent project in Texas. The manufacturer put the subwoofers all the way to the floor but I specified a 6-inch baseboard there. I said, “Come on, guys. Lift the woofer off the floor 6 inches. Will that create havoc? Is it going to ruin the room acoustics? I gave you a room that’s 90% transparent to put the speakers wherever you want.” The whole room is stretched fabric, so they could put the speakers pretty much anywhere, but I wanted a baseboard so people wouldn’t kick the fabric, or especially the subwoofer, when they went down down the steps.

 

Does the screen choice sometimes compromise your design?

It’s usually easy to get a client to go with the right screen. If it’s a low-ceiling room, I tell them to avoid using a 16:9 screen because it will need to go all the way to floor, so you won’t be able to see the bottom of the image from some of the seats. I tell them to use a wide screen because it will fill the room width-wise but it doesn’t need to go all the way down.

 

If they get a wide screen, they can watch epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia without bars at the top and bottom, and they’ll be able to move the image inside the screen if they want to watch 16:9 content. If they say, “We don’t watch movies—we watch sports,” then they’re meant for a 16:9 screen. But if I have my way, I push for the wide screen because you get a bigger screen in a smaller space.

 

Have you seen video walls being used more frequently in home theaters?

Not yet because they’re very expensive, around $300,000 to $400,000. But a nicely calibrated set will give you the same performance as a projector—and probably an advantage, because you’re going to produce a brighter picture. When I watch 

3D movies in my theater, they suffer. Even though I have a bright projector, the level goes down. You don’t have that problem with a display.

 

You like to create a sense of anticipation before people enter one of your theaters. Have clients ever objected to that?

Nobody has rejected that because I usually remind them of what it’s like to go to a movie theater. When you go there, you don’t expect to open the door from the sidewalk and find yourself in the middle of the theater. Why? Because going to a movie is like riding a submarine. As you go up in the water, you have to go through various compartments of decompression before you get to the very top.

 

So you need to go from a small space to a larger space to an even larger space—and I usually bring up the example of the Roxy Theater in New York. The Roxy had an incredible corridor with movie posters right on 50th St. and 7th Ave. that was like 10 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Theo’s design for the Ritz Theater in Texas takes visitors down a long hallway and through a series of lobbies before they arrive at the theater proper, which is placed right next to where they first entered

feet high. From that you would get to the ticket lobby, which was grander—like 15 feet high. Once you were past that, you went down into a tunnel that was 8 feet or 9 feet high that led to the grand rotunda, which zoomed up to 70 feet.

 

It’s like an orchestral piece. You orchestrate the crescendos and the pianissimos to create variation and a sense of anticipation and a sense of excitement for when something big happens. You can’t have a symphony that starts with a big crescendo and just stays there.

 

I explain to the client that, even if they have the smallest space in the world, they should let me subdivide it. I’m not taking away from the space—I’m giving them a more nuanced approach to the theater. I haven’t met anybody who’s said “No,” unless they just don’t have the space.

 

I did a theater called The Ritz in Texas [shown above]. It’s in my book Great Escapes [page 136]. The client gave me the attic, which was a big space—2,000 square feet—and he said, “How many seats can we fit in here? I have a big space and a big 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomiraks

Max Fleischer’s 1934 cartoon tour of the ultimate movie palace

family.”  I said, “Wrong question. It’s not how many seats. It’s how do you create a home theater environment?”

 

So I created a layout that was like a maze that was opening up. The theater ended up right next to the left of the entry, but you had to go all the way to the back and snake around and go through inner lobbies—a big lobby and a grand foyer—and then a smoking room, and then two corridors. And finally, breathlessly, you arrived at the theater.

It’s just like what Disney does with the theme rides where they have you waiting in line for two hours and you watch different things on TV or you go from one room to another before you get onto the ride. They prepare you. That is not done to showcase the architecture of the various rooms; it’s to create a sense of anticipation, which is what I do by capturing the grandeur of arriving at the Roxy in a simple theater—which is what that Max Fleischer cartoon accomplishes so well.

 

Working with the client’s interior designer

I usually don’t talk to the client while I’m working with the architect and contractor. But when the construction is underway, I meet with them to select things. That’s a very important part of the job because usually there’s a designer in attendance, and they don’t want the theater to be too far away from what they’re doing in the rest of the house. I tell them not to use bright colors in the theater, and that they can’t use a carpet design that jumps out of the floor because it makes the seats prominent.

 

Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

The seats are probably the most damaging element in a theater because they’re large. Everything else I do is kind of miniaturized to create a sense of scale, so the wrong seats can throw my work out of proportion. The most typical example 

of that is the theater I did that was a recreation of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. But when you see the seats, which are as big as the buildings, you say right away, “That’s fake.” Your sense of disbelief is eliminated and you suddenly see the artifact, that it’s all miniatures to create an effect.

 

I was watching the Netflix documentary Martin Scorsese did with Fran Leibowitz, and there’s a scene where she sits in

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

the miniature of Manhattan that’s in Queens. And then she steps into the set, and her shoes are as high as some of the shorter buildings. She becomes like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

 

How does your approach differ from other theater designers?

I don’t really know because I haven’t really worked with them. All I know—and this is a very generic observation—is theater designers with a technical background tend to start from the technology. And that is Sam Cavitt, and that’s Keith Yates. They’re very protective of technology, and they should be. Traditional designers are the opposite. They start with the interior design, and they tend to be technology adverse. I see myself as sitting in the middle, between acoustical or technical designers and those who decorate. If I were to put a label on my principal contribution to home theater design, it’s that I became a bridge between technology and design by respecting both.

 

How did you learn to balance technology & design?

When technical or acoustic designers like Steve Haas began to get involved, I had to start listening to them. I didn’t want to because I wanted to decorate, but slowly I realized it’s not just decoration. They would pressure me—“We can’t put that speaker too far behind the seats. We want it here.” So you have to work with the integrator, or with clients who are sound-savvy.

 

And I learned to pay attention to materials. You can’t make a theater using all wood. It looks fantastic, but wood is very reflective. So I learned to use materials that aren’t reflective—not only in terms of material but of color. If you have a white surface, it reflects too much color off the screen and makes you aware you’re in the room. You want the room to disappear.

 

The extreme case of wanting the room to disappear is [video-calibration expert] Joe Kane. He doesn’t want to have anything other than a black room, which is going to the one extreme. Having a room that’s very bright and colorful would be the other. There’s got to be a middle ground, where the room can look attractive when the lights are on but disappears when you watch a movie, like in my theater downstairs.

 

I can change the color of the walls to give the room a different personality because I have LEDs, but when the movie begins, the room disappears. So, everything can be done if you know the tricks of the trade, and I developed them by making mistakes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 17
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:32   How do you typically approach designing a

          theater?

1:55   The first meeting with the client

3:00   Integrating the theater design into the rest of

          the house

4:42   Earning the client’s trust

6:00   Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

6:57   The woman who wanted “gaudy”

8:39   The client who wanted the Acropolis

10:20  How do you translate the client’s idea into

           a theater?

10:58  The importance of a proper theater

           environment

15:12  Have you seen a shift from movie palaces to

           more contemporary designs?

16:53  Who assembles & supervises the team to

           create one of your theaters?

19:33  How do you accommodate the client’s or

           integrator’s equipment requirements?

20:51  What happens when the equipment gets

           in the way of the design?

21:20  Does the screen choice sometimes

           compromise your design?

23:23  Have you seen video walls being used more

           frequently in home theaters?

24:42  You like to create a sense of anticipation

           before people enter one of your theaters.

           Have clients ever objected to that?

30:14  Working with the client’s interior designer

30:51  Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

33:04  How does your approach differ from other

           theater designers?

34:51  How did you learn to balance technology &

           design?

REVIEWS

Nashville (1975)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Nomadland (2020)
Gattaca (1997)
The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Long Goodbye (1973)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die
Oscar-Nominated Films 2021
John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List
The Cineluxe Hour

Ep. 15: Theo at Home

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Legendary home theater designer (and Cineluxe contributor) Theo Kalomirakis went back to Greece last year to supervise work on his summer home only to find himself locked down in the country, thanks to the pandemic. He quickly realized his confinement was a blessing in disguise since it allowed him to enjoy the cuisine, walking on the nearby beach, his work-in-progress home—and the attention of the Athenians, who have embraced him as a long-lost son.

 

Theo decided to have his personal home theater transported from the U.S. and reconstructed in the basement of his new home, where he implemented a number of upgrades (which we discuss in the episode).

He was also able to realize a childhood dream. Greece is famous for its outdoor theaters, and, wanting to emulate those, Theo as a teenager built his first home theater out on the terrace of his parents’ apartment in Athens. Never able to find a way to do something similar at his Brooklyn home, he seized on the chance to take advantage of the 10,000 square feet of property surrounding his summer home to create the ultimate outdoor movie space.

Our conversation covers the circumstances that brought Theo to Greece and the creation of his new personal theaters along with a slew of other subjects, including his latest work and his love for movies. Here’s a road map:

 

0:00    How the pandemic brought him back to Greece.

5:06    How he planned his new home theater.

5:49    How his new yard became an outdoor theater.

7:14    The status of his archives, which document the history of home theater.

8:18    How he’s been embraced by the Greek film community.

8:26    Donating his collection of 5,000 laserdiscs.

10:13  Donating his collection of 6,000 Blu-ray Discs.

11:40  The Greek passion for movies.

13:30  The effort to finish his home theater.

13:53  The improvements over his Brooklyn theater.

16:06  Theo’s preference for a clean, modern design style vs. the “movie palace” approach.

19:16  How his outdoor theater was inspired by Greek theaters & his first home theater.

22:45  A description of the outdoor theater.

25:17  His efforts to archive his collection of Blu-ray Discs and 9,000 DVDs.

27:35  The impressive recent re-issues of Technicolor movies.

30:49  What 4K brings to re-issues.

31:42  Technicolor vs. contemporary films (The Harvey Girls vs. Tenet).

33:10  Wrap-up / tweaking his home theater.

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Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

LED light panels and a PTZ camera concealed behind side panels and a NUC mini-computer
hidden 
beneath the screen allow the Minema home theater to be transformed into a state-of-the-art
video- and teleconferencing space

As a supplement to the “Inside the Minema” podcast episode, I thought it might be helpful to share some details of the conferencing system configuration in my home cinema (dubbed the “Minema” for Mini+Cinema), together with some lessons I learned along the way. Hopefully this will be a useful reference for Cineluxe readers who may have similar objectives for making the most of their entertainment spaces, particularly given the increased demand for conferencing capabilities in the home as a result of the pandemic. There are no doubt other ways of achieving the same objectives, but I hope this overview can help inform discussions clients will have with their integrators about their own installations.

 

DESIGN APPROACH

One of the things I like about the overall design for the Minema is that none of the conference-room functionality is visible when you walk into the room. The conferencing equipment (e.g., the camera, mini-PC, and microphone) is either stored inside purpose-built cabinetry on the screen wall or mounted on the ceiling behind acoustically transparent fabric. LED lighting for videoconferencing is also hidden behind hinged doors on both sides of the screen. Other conference-room features, such as connectivity for laptops (projector display, ethernet, power), are built into small discreet cabinets tucked behind the seating armrests.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

click on the image to enlarge

VIDEO- AND TELECONFERENCING SYSTEM

The schematic above depicts the core elements of my videoconferencing and teleconferencing system. Here are some of the key design decisions reflected in the final layout:

 

Camera Location

In order to avoid problematic camera angles from above or below the screen, the camera is positioned in cabinetry to the right of the screen to get it more in line with the face height of anyone sitting in the theater seats. It is installed on a small custom-built shelf with an articulating arm so it can be stowed away when not in use. I use my Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor to shrink the projected video image onto the bottom right corner of the screen to make it easier for meeting

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

participants to look in the camera’s direction while watching the conferencing image on the screen. The Logitech Rally PTZ (pan/tilt/ zoom) camera is easy to control and the resolution is excellent even when zooming in on the faces of meeting participants in the center seats.

 

Use of Ceiling Microphone

The Shure MXA910 ceiling-array microphone (shown at left) came highly recommended by several conference-room integrators. I’ve found that it picks up everyone’s voices well regardless of where

they’re sitting, but by definition any ceiling microphone will struggle to compete with the quality of a headset microphone or other microphones that can be placed closer to someone when they’re speaking. The ceiling microphone is great for its wide coverage and its invisibility, so this was a compromise I was willing to make. 

 

One unintended benefit from an early design decision to use Wisdom line-source speakers for all seven horizontal channels in the Minema is that I have very little acoustic treatment in the ceiling. This left plenty of room in the area above the seats for the microphone (which is surprisingly large) and a WiFi access point. 

 

Location of Mini-PC (for videoconferencing codecs)

Although my conference-room integrator initially proposed putting an Intel NUC in the equipment rack, we ended up moving it to the screen wall to make for a much shorter cable run to the 4K camera, which requires a USB 3.1 connection. 

I primarily use the NUC with Zoom Rooms Conference Room software to host my meetings, which has the advantage that I can use the companion Zoom Rooms controller iOS app on the iPad Mini I use as the main Crestron controller for the theater. If I need to join a meeting hosted on another conferencing platform, it’s simple to exit the Zoom Rooms software on the NUC to do so.

 

The NUC is getting a lot of use beyond just conferencing since my personal computers are MacBooks and I need a Windows device to connect to some critical AV equipment (Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor, Biamp TesiraForté conferencing DSP, etc.). I’ve also found it very

handy to have a computer permanently connected to my theater AV system because so much movie and performing-arts content has migrated to the internet since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 

Adding Teleconferencing

The Biamp TesiraForté DSP comes standard with VoIP and analog telephony ports, which made it possible to add a telephone line to my conferencing system. I now often use the Minema effectively as a giant speakerphone. 

 

LESSONS LEARNED

 

1) It may not be easy to find integrators with conference-room expertise who are willing to work on a residential project

In 2019, when I was in the design phase for my installation, I found it extremely difficult to hire an integrator with conferencing expertise for a residential project. Hopefully the situation is different today since there are so many more people working from home, but the only way I was able to get a commercial integrator to agree to help me was by tapping some former work contacts. Once the commercial integrator came on board, they collaborated closely with my AV integrator to add the conferencing piece into the overall theater AV system.

 

These are the key capabilities the commercial integrator brought to the table:

 

Specifying the conferencing equipment (audio DSP, camera, microphone, mini-PC)

Providing guidelines for conference-room acoustic performance (easy to surpass with the original theater design specs) and lighting levels

Developing a signal-flow diagram for the conferencing system

Programming the audio DSP

“Tuning” the beamforming ceiling microphone

 

2) Typical commercial conference-room equipment specs may not work in a home theater setting

It didn’t take long after installing the conferencing system for me to realize I would need to swap out the NUC that was originally specified. Since the NUC is always on, I could hear its fan noise in the background when I was watching a movie or listening to music. Replacing it with a fanless model that is completely 

silent solved that problem. I also needed to tweak the NUC BIOS settings to turn off the front LED, which was visible through the fabric covers on the screen-wall cabinetry.

 

When I opened the box containing the Shure ceiling microphone, I realized I had another problem because it was bright white, not optimal for mounting behind black acoustically transparent ceiling fabric. Fortunately, Shure makes the same microphone in black, so that was an easy fix. 

 

One minor change that made a big difference was swapping out the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse that were originally provided for a Logitech K830 illuminated living-room keyboard with a built-in trackpad. Using a mouse is simple when you’re sitting at a conference-room table but not so easy from theater seating. 

 

3) A commercial conferencing DSP may not be certified by some popular VoIP service providers

Although I am currently using the Biamp DSP with a Zoom Phone license, this has been challenging to set up since the Biamp isn’t a Zoom Phone-certified device. Biamp has certifications from Cisco, Avaya, ShoreTel, Mitel, and Skype for Business. I can use my Zoom Phone license seamlessly with the Zoom Rooms software, but since this would restrict me to using the VoIP line only when the NUC is selected as my video source, this isn’t an optimal solution either. Using the Biamp with an analog phone line may in some cases therefore be the simplest option for adding teleconferencing. 

 

CONCLUSION

I was very fortunate that my project was completed in February 2020, immediately before the lockdown. When I was in the planning stages, I couldn’t have anticipated how much we would use the conferencing functionality in the Minema. Now I can’t imagine living without it.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

Ep. 11: Inside The Minema with Sam Cavitt & William Erb

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This episode is the first chance we’ve had on The Cineluxe Hour to really dive deep into the creation of a luxury home theater. And the room explored here is a trailblazing effort that goes beyond being able to produce a better-than-movie-theater experience at home to include state-of-the-art video- and teleconferencing—a need that has come to the forefront as the pandemic has caused more and more people to work from home.

 

Since this theater, dubbed the Minema (for “mini cinema”), was essentially a collaboration between designer Sam Cavitt and his client, William Erb, we interviewed both William and Sam about the process that led to its creation.

 

Sam Cavitt (a frequent contributor to the site who we’ve featured in Cineluxe Trendsetters) is known for designing—and spreading the gospel about—no-compromise home entertainment spaces, which he prefers to call private cinemas.

 

William Erb isn’t a typical client. His enthusiasm for high-quality video and audio caused him to get deeply involved in the planning, building, and tweaking of the Minema. The mandate to create a high-end movie-watching and music-listening space that could also accommodate conferencing was difficult enough, but Sam and Willam had to make it all work within the constraints of a high-end LA condo.

 

Here’s an overview of the episode:

 

1:18  Sam talks about how a designer is different from an integrator, and how only a small group of people do what he does.

4:04  Sam discusses the kinds of clients he usually works with, and what makes someone a Cinema Connoisseur.

5:27  Sam introduces Willam, who talks about how he found Sam and brought together the team that created his theater.

10:34  What Sam and his company bring to a project like the Minema.

13:10  How Sam collaborates with integrators.

15:32  William describes his approach to finding the trades to create a theater.

18:01  William gives his objectives for the Minema.

20:12  The emergence of multi-use luxury theaters.

23:14  The problems of doing sound isolation in a condo.

29:00  William talks about how the theater was developed for more than just movie watching and what his expectations were for videoconferencing.

32:45  How to create a space where none of the functions are compromised.

37:19  The recent surge in demand for luxury home cinemas—and for making them more flexible.

42:10  William’s future expectations for his theater.

44:09  Sam on appreciating a private cinema as a luxury item.

46:29  William on how video- and teleconferencing is a great opportunity for integrators.

47:36  William on how beginning the planning of a theater by giving the integrator a budget number can actually hurt a client’s chances of getting what they’re looking for.

50:09  Sam talks about the importance of thinking of a private cinema as an experience and a luxury acquisition instead of just some room for watching movies.

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Sam Cavitt is the founder & CEO of Paradise Theater. His firm has collaborated with leading integrators, architects, designers & builders on nearly a thousand of the world’s finest private cinemas, employing an exclusive process that assures excellence always. Sam is also spearheading Cinema Connoisseur, an initiative to create a community of enthusiasts—cinema connoisseurs—both professional and public to embrace and enhance the world of private cinema and film. He likes to spend his spare time in Maui surfing, sailing, paddling & drumming.

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music. 

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

A Media Room by Any Other Name

Making sure we have access to a high-quality movie-watching experience may become more important
now that our entire cinema experience may be our home cinema experience

In 2018, the last time I was in Paris, my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie before the crowds arrived. The Orangerie is where, along with many Impressionist paintings, Claude Monet’s extraordinary Water Lilies paintings are exhibited. Spellbinding! Unfortunately, many will never experience this in person; however, many will “see” these works in print, on screen, or via some other convenient conveyance. I assure all, until I visited Water Lilies at the Orangerie, I had not truly seen the masterpiece that Monet created. Being in the presence of the works themselves was indeed an advantage, but that is not all. The environment completed the experience. The artist knew this. In fact, Monet assisted architect Camille Lefevre with the architectural design. He even required skylights so the paintings would be viewed in natural light. The result, an experience I will repeat as often as I visit Paris!

 

What about Film? It has been called “the most complete, truly contemporary art form . . . a most marvelous machine for emotion” (Renzo Piano, architect of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures). Film, as an art form, has as unique a set of challenges. Its artistic value is in its effect on the individual, when tears, laughter, memories, or thrills materialize unforeseen. Does the environment play a part in this interaction? It might be said that those who want to experience the film art-form at its best should seek out those exhibitions dedicated for that purpose, the commercial cinema. Although, even if it 

A Media Room by Any Other Name

Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

were possible during this pandemic (or advisable after), most commercial cinemas fall far short of that standard! Many may say that the right environment for viewing movies in the home is not a theater but a media room. But such blanket statements do not address important considerations, and labels such as commercial cinema, home theater, and media room do not unequivocally describe ideal solutions.

 

What considerations are vital in choosing the right environment to enjoy movies and other forms of entertainment in our homes? To truly get the most enjoyment from any media, be it movies, television series, music, or games, we need to become fully engaged. The state of full engagement is that magical time when the participant experiences the fullness of whatever media they are involved in. With music, the performance, timbre, rhythm, and mix coalesce into a whole in which a listener can be captivated. In games, the avatar becomes of greater substance than oneself. In film, the story, drama, imagery, sounds, and more create a realism that captivates us like no other experience. This “suspension of disbelief” is the essence and objective of these forms of entertainment art. It cannot be experienced when multi-tasking. It cannot be sustained when distracted. It is magic and is to be desired. This ability to be fully engaged should inform all considerations when determining the type of media environment to acquire for our home. 

 

This engagement requires a distraction-free environment. It may surprise many that this quality is not exclusive to dedicated home theaters. It is certainly much easier to do so within that configuration; however, many traditional home theaters fall far short of that objective. Distractions can be caused by many sources, but the most commonly discussed is noise. Noise is particularly distracting because humans are designed to detect sounds, and once we do, it is very difficult to ignore them. 

The damage to the state of engagement and the suspension of disbelief is significant, immediate, and persistent. Our experience is visceral, emotional, and transient. Once a magical moment is disturbed, it is lost. Think of how frustrated we feel when someone’s cellphone rings in a movie theater. That moment in time is lost and cannot be regained, even when the content is replayed. It is different.

 

This is where the discussion of the right media environment—dedicated theater or media room—can become confusing. The labels do not help. For instance, even a beautifully decorated dedicated theater that has inadequate wall construction, noisy HVAC, projector, and other equipment fans (to mention a few common oversights), will be fraught with distractions and as prone to destroy magic moments as any room. On the other hand, a media room that shares space with other activities has inherent distractions in addition to those mentioned above. If those activities produce any noise at all and will be engaged in while participants are attempting to enjoy movies, music, or other media, distractions will result. But if such a multi-use room is designed to be acoustically isolated, and HVAC 

and other ventilation is kept to an inaudible level, such a room can provide a distraction-free environment. Of course, it will be necessary to limit competing activities when it is desirable to be fully engaged in a movie, music, or other program.

 

Distractions are not limited to noise. While sound quality is key to the experiences available in today’s movies, games, and productions, the quality of the visual imagery is just as important. Ever-increasing resolution, color gamut, and high dynamic range provide the tools to display astounding cinematography. Combine that with immersive sound, great stories, acting, and production, and you will want to get lost in the experience! Unfortunately, many popular design trends are not conducive to that goal. Natural light, light colors, competing design elements, casual seating arrangements, and other factors can compete with the visual experience. These are clearly desirable attributes for living spaces, but if the best media entertainment experience is a goal, they must be considered accordingly. 

 

Many will point to the rapidly developing LED technology as a solution that negates abundant natural light and lightly shaded décor as an issue. While it is true that these displays can provide hyper-realistic imagery even in high ambient-light conditions, the viewer is still part of the equation. If the objective is maximum enjoyment of an art form, especially movies, but also games and musical performances, distractions will impede that goal. When we are distracted, the engagement is broken and the magic is lost. If that were not the case, Monet would not have insisted on the right environment for his form of visual art! In fact, to achieve the desired results, what may initially seem to be desirable may be counterproductive. An example of this is the recent advent of immersive sound. Notable film producers, directors, and sound editors caution the overuse of these “desirable” effects because they take the audience’s attention away from the screen and subsequently out of the “spell” or suspension of disbelief. It requires a higher standard and is a more difficult challenge to achieve the artful and appropriate application of immersive sound to achieve the desired effect. In the same way, if we are to create media rooms that perform, we must not blindly follow design trends or even personal bias but instead accept the challenge and create interior environments that both support the purpose and are aesthetically pleasing. 

 

Distractions are not the only concern. There are many elements that need to be correct if the optimum media experience is the goal. This holds true in both dedicated-theater and media-room applications. In order to achieve the elusive suspension of disbelief, a lot has to take place. Of course, the production of the art itself must be well executed. Amazing cinematography and artfully crafted and often thrilling sound combined with compelling plots and talent is job one. But all that is for naught if it is not presented in such a way that faithfully reproduces the artist’s intent. Video imagery must be presented to viewers correctly and unimpeded. Listeners must receive the audio information accurately and as intended.  Achieving these characteristics requires careful engineering and integration of the technologies with the design. This is required in either a dedicated theater or a media room.

 

Labels can obscure the objectives. Thinking that a dark room with rows of seats and acoustical fabric walls will necessarily provide proper sight lines, viewing angles, and balanced immersive sound is just as inaccurate as thinking that these considerations don’t matter as long as the room looks good. Whether in a theater or a media room, sight lines, viewing angles (horizontal and vertical), as well as light and color considerations must be planned. Speaker positioning, dispersion, sound power, and acoustics must be correct as well. When we have properly addressed all the design and engineering considerations, the difference between a well-designed media room and a well-designed dedicated theater is hard to distinguish. However, if the term media room is being used to describe a great room with a large screen over the fireplace and speaker locations compromised due to traffic patterns, billiard table, windows, and vaulted ceilings, the difference is unmistakable.      

 

A great room as described above can be a wonderful part of the home, offering casual socializing, convenience to kitchens, patios, and access to other fun diversions. But if we were to modify the design of that space to support the performance we desire for our movies, music, and other beloved media, what would that look like? Would we be willing to lose the fireplace, the billiards, and the windows? Does the ceiling have to come down? But is that even necessary? What about those pivoting and invisible speakers, or a bigger screen over the fireplace, and doesn’t that room-correction system fix the acoustics? While these devices are available and even advisable for great-room applications, do not be deceived. There is a discernible and measurable difference between the entertainment experience in a multi-purpose room that includes the aforementioned compromises and that of a performance-engineered room that is not compromised, whether that room is called a cinema, theater, or media room. 

 

All of these rooms serve a purpose. More important, though, is the question of whether the room we design serves the right purpose. The pathway to success is not labels but thoughtful, objective design, scientifically valid acoustical engineering, meticulous engineering of systems, mechanical, and ergonomics, quality assurance, and professional-quality workmanship.The key that will unlock that pathway is communication. If the audience is not aware of the difference, and more importantly, the value of that difference and the impact it will have in their lives, the audience will not listen. However, like Monet’s Water Lilies, once experienced, there is no acceptable substitute for the real thing in the right setting. We should accept no less. 

Sam Cavitt

Sam Cavitt is the founder & president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, HI and Carlsbad, CA.
Sam hails from Maui, where he can be found surfing, sailing, drumming, and paddling
when he is not designing.

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Theo Kalomirakis

So much has been written about Theo Kalomirakis and his body of work—the subject of two bestselling coffeetable books and countless articles and videos—that there’s not much left to say. Except maybe that, for all of that attention, people still don’t have a good bead on exactly how innovative and influential his efforts have been, or that his theaters spring primarily not from an interest in gear or interior design but from a deep love for movies and the art of watching them.

Theo’s work is a sincere and natural extension of that love, which goes well beyond just being a fan to being someone who understands and appreciates the deep wellsprings that feed the art of the movies. And because of that almost naive sincerity, Theo in casual conversation is the same Theo you get in an interview on camera. He would make a lousy corporate spokesman because he always says exactly what he thinks and feels—which is why he has always been the best possible representative for the industry he gave birth to and continues to inspire, and for everything that’s great about watching movies at home.

 

We had a chance to do a a brief interview with Theo in his temporary apartment overlooking the Hudson River right before he departed for his new home in Greece—a move that included dismantling and shipping the entire private cinema in his New York City apartment to be reconstructed in his summer residence. We discussed the pandemic’s impact on moviewatching, how he was faring with an ad hoc system in his temporary digs, and whether 8K will represent the same significant stride forward as did the progression from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to UHD.

Here’s hoping Theo will be back in the States sometime soon so we can record a more exhaustive, definitive exchange on his history, theaters, and legacy.

CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

Inside a Film Connoisseur’s No-Compromise Home Theater

Michael Kobb isn’t just a casual film fan but a true connoisseur who both loves movies and savors the whole movie-watching experience. So it’s not too surprising that he’s the principal engineer of user experience for the premium movie-download service Kaleidescape, nor that he has a reference-quality theater in his Silicon Valley-area home.

 

What really sets him apart from most film lovers, though, is how deeply he became involved in the process of researching, planning, and executing his theater—a process he recently recounted for Cineluxe’ John Sciacca.

ed.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

Michael Kobb

Most people have a story about how they got involved in home theater. For me, I saw Speed on LaserDisc at a friend’s house, and that was it. What is your story?

My dad took me to visit a friend of his who had a home theater. He had a CRT projector with a ridiculously ahead-of-its-time control system called Frox with an onscreen display to control all of the components. The system looked and sounded great for the day, but ironically the thing that really stuck with me was that he had his equipment in a bookshelf on the back wall with a closet you could walk in to access the back of the gear. When I built my theater, I put the equipment in a separate room for sound reasons but I made sure to incorporate access to the back of the racks.

 

How has your theater system evolved over the years?

My first system was just a big rear-projection TV with a LaserDisc player and VCR. After that, I moved to a front projector. Then I bought my own house and planned on 

converting an existing room into a theater, but the dimensions were really wrong, making it hard to arrange seating. We basically had to restructure the house to accommodate my current theater.

 

Your space isn’t really a traditional man cave or reference movie theater, but more of a hybrid. How did that design come about?

It was really an interesting process. I hired general contractor Bob Byrne with the intention of converting that existing room, but as I was explaining the project to him, he realized that if we took out a wet bar and relocated a bathroom and a 

mechanical room, we could gain a lot of space. It went from a 13 x 19 room to 19 x 24, which was a crucial change. It required taking out a load-bearing wall, pouring a couple of footings, and putting in a steel I-beam. A lot of work, but incredibly worth it.

 

I also brought in theater designer Keith Yates, who gave me two proposals for having two rows of seats [shown at right]. One had a riser, and the other required cutting the concrete slab and excavating down a foot to lower the front row, which I never would have thought of, but was the way to go for a host of reasons.

 

I wanted a big bookcase in the room, both because I needed someplace for my books and also to make it feel more like a study than a scaled-down commercial theater. Bob designed the aesthetics of the bookcase and Keith’s team did the engineering to incorporate the center speaker and two subwoofers, air returns for the HVAC system, and acoustic treatments behind all the books. We also have acoustically transparent motorized shades that mask the outer shelves when the screen is down, to eliminate visual distractions.

A Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater
Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

I requested the curved stage, having seen a similar design in a magazine. I picked tanoak flooring for it, which is a really pretty wood with a little red tone in it that fits in well with the sapele mahogany used for the bookshelves and the other woodwork, and with the rosewood on the floorstanding speakers. Originally, the boards were going to just run front to back, but Bob proposed tapering them to follow the curve, and that totally took it to a new level. If you follow the convergence point the tapers make, the really cool thing is that the focus of those boards is the front-row center seat, which is my seat.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater
Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

A clamping system was used to hold the curved boards for the stage in place
while the glue dried so there would be no visible nail holes

Tell us about your current theater system.

Unsurprisingly, the primary content source is the Kaleidescape—a combination of the Premiere components for disc-based media and our Strato family for downloaded media and 4K content joined through a software and hardware solution called Co-Star that makes it all act like a single system. I have about a thousand movies in my collection. I also have a TiVo and a streaming player to be able to watch other stuff.

 

It wasn’t possible to have a booth or hush box for the projector, so I needed a model that was quiet. I’ve had a series of Sony projectors, culminating with a Sony 995ES. With its laser light engine and ARC-F lens, it produces fantastic bright and vivid images while still being reasonably quiet.

 

Video processing is handled by a Lumagen Radiance Pro, which works with the motorized screen-masking system from Screen Research and also provides the HDR tone mapping. The screen is 96 inches wide, or 110 inches diagonal in a 16:9 aspect ratio, but masks down to 104 inches diagonal for 2.4 aspect-ratio films. I went with a motorized screen because I

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

Trinnov MC processor was used during construction to create two
separate calibrations for the theater—one for group viewing and one
optimized for solo listening from the center seat

wanted this room to be multipurpose, with the screen out of the way of the big bookshelf up front when I’m not watching movies.

 

The front speakers are Aerial Acoustics, and the subwoofers are a mix of three Seaton SubMersive HP subs and four Velodyne SC-IWDVR in-wall models, three of which are in the ceiling. I’m currently upgrading my audio processing from the Trinnov MCwhich handles the system’s room EQ and speaker correction, to the Trinnov Altitude 16.

A Control4 system operates everything, including automated screen masking and lighting scenes, triggered by the Kaleidescape system. I have to laugh because the thing that really floors new visitors to my theater is that the lights come up by themselves when the end credits start.

 

How about acoustic treatments?

The acoustics were designed by Keith Yates and his company. All the walls and the ceiling are covered with fabric that conceals the acoustic treatments and the surround speakers.

 

I spent lots of time auditioning fabrics because the material had to be aesthetically appealing, meet certain acoustical characteristics, and not reflect light coming off the projection screen. I bought extra fabric and have it squirreled away in case it’s ever damaged or we have to take fabric down for a repair or upgrade.

 

Keith’s team also designed ultra-quiet HVAC for the room, and sound isolation. The theater achieves an NC-14 noise rating with the HVAC and the projector running, which is comparable to many recording studios. Even the lighting transformers are remote-mounted to eliminate hum. Bob also took great care to ensure that there would be no rattles or vibrations. All the construction is glued and screwed rather than nailed, and even the speaker wiring is glued to the walls. We also did an extensive vibration/rattle test before installing the fabric.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

An interactive 3D tour of the theater

People don’t generally consider seating essential theater equipment, but I know you spent a lot of time researching your chairs.

I had previously sat in various dedicated theater seating that I found uncomfortable so I wanted seating comfortable enough for the length of the movie. I happened across these chairs made by a Norwegian company called Ekornes that lift your head slightly as you recline, which seemed perfect for movie theater seating, and there were many models to choose from. I went to the local dealer, told them I was building a theater room, and asked if I could come by from time to time and sit in a chair and read a book for a couple of hours, and that’s what I did until I found the right ones. You can sit in these chairs for hours and hours.

 

Do you have any upgrades planned?

My system is 7.1 right now, but I will be able to use my new Altitude 16 processor to add ceiling speakers to do a 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos system. Once we do that upgrade, the room correction processing will move from the MC to the Altitude, and the MC will be retired.

 

With a room like mine, some upgrades are easier than others. Changing the projector is comparatively easy, and we were smart enough to run conduit for any cabling changes. But the speakers behind the fabric are not easy to change. Adding new Atmos speakers will likely mean redoing the entire ceiling. Fortunately, I do have extra fabric. Also, the ceiling is acoustically treated, so I’ll work with Keith to identify where those speakers will go and if anything else will need to be changed acoustically; and of course Keith will update the calibration.

 

Do you plan to upgrade to 8K as well?

On my screen, a 4K pixel is less than 1/32nd of an inch. Obviously, those pixels would be bigger on a larger screen, but I would also want to be sitting farther away from a larger screen. So, do I need my pixels to be smaller than 1/32nd of an inch when viewed from 12 feet away? I don’t think so. It’s already hard enough to get a 4K image in sharp focus—just imagine what an 8K lens will cost!

 

The exception might be something like IMAX. But, in my opinion, IMAX-size screens are only appropriate for content that is shot for an IMAX-style presentation. When you take content shot for cinematic presentation and blow it up to IMAX size, it’s 

too big for my comfort. It doesn’t become more immersive for me, it just becomes too big. If I were watching IMAX nature features at home on a screen double the size of mine, but from the same seating distance, then sure, 8K would be dandy.

 

Has spending time sheltering at home caused you to rethink the space? Are you finding you are using it more for non-movie viewing like TV, concerts, or gaming?

I have definitely been using the space more! I usually watch a movie a week with friends, but since that is not 

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

feasible at the moment, it’s freed me up to watch a movie any time I feel like it, without the pressure to save the good ones for when people come over. So I’m really enjoying that!

 

There have also been some very enjoyable series streaming recently—Watchmen, Westworld, The Mandalorian—though you see the shortcomings of streaming video pretty readily on a big screen, which can be distracting. But The Mandalorian was 2.35:1 aspect, which made it feel more cinematic.

 

I love music and concerts, and I have a bunch of concerts on the Kaleidescape system I watch when I’m in the mood. There are a few I go back to again and again because they look and sound so darned good! Cream: Live at the Royal Albert Hall is one of the best mixed concerts I’ve ever heard.

 

Any closing thoughts?

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of hiring great people. Bob was the perfect contractor for this complex and detail-oriented project, and he brought in numerous craftsmen whose skills all contributed to its success, especially Steve Kent, the cabinetmaker and finish carpenter. Keith and his team did a fantastic job with the acoustical and technical requirements of the theater and making it all work within the existing framework of the house. Every time I go into my theater, I’m grateful to everyone who built it.

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.

Inside the Ultimate Home Entertainment Space

photos by Randall Michelson

Legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis and acoustician Steve Haas have collaborated on a number of cost-no-object home theaters, but probably none of those efforts has been as ambitious, versatile, or well-realized as the Paradiso. Seventeen years in the making, this Southern California gem is actually an entire home-entertainment complex built around an Italianate piazza. The reference-quality 15-seat home theater doubles as a fully-fledged concert hall. The nightclub features a hydraulic stage and can handle anything from a rock band to a jazz group. Next door to the club resides an arcade, containing the homeowner’s extensive collection of pinball machines and video games. There’s even a g-force flight simulator.

 

At a time when people are developing a new appreciation for what home entertainment has to offer, the Paradiso provides the ultimate example of what can be done when you venture outside the home theater box. I recently talked to Steve and Theo about the project’s genesis, execution, and legacy.

—Michael Gaughn

THEO KALOMIRAKIS: The client had been dreaming about doing a theater with me and asked me to do the basement of his house, which is next to where the Paradiso is now. It had a seven-and-a-half-foot ceiling, so it was only a modest room. I did it because I liked the guy very much. He was passionate about doing something, but there was not much I could do with the space. So he sensed I was kind of compromising.

 

One day, he called me and said, “Theo, I have good news and bad news for you.” I said, “What is the bad news?” He said, “I have to pull the plug on the theater downstairs because I cannot see myself working with you in such a compromised space.” 

“So, what’s the good news?” “I bought two lots next to my house, and I want to set you free to design whatever the hell you want. Let your mind soar. I trust you.” It was the best thing I was ever offered to do.

 

Since the house is located in an Italianate enclave, he said, “We need to do something that would be very much in keeping with 

the neighborhood.” Which is fine, but I realized the size I had in mind for the theater exceeded the one-story height that would be allowed there. That started our endless process of digging down to create a subterranean environment.

 

Originally, there were going to be two more floors below the piazza level, and he kept pushing. “Let’s dig some more. Let’s put the bowling alley there. Let’s have a restaurant for 30 people.” I said to him, “If we dig anymore, we’re going to reach China before we do the theater. So let’s put a stop on it.”

 

And then 2008 came. When the bubble burst, he called me and said, “There is no budget to excavate, so we have to scrap the basement. Can we limit the scope to make it into just the piazza level?” And of course, we redesigned the whole thing.

Inside the Ultimate Luxury Home Entertainment Space

click on the image to enlarge

The idea of adding multiple environments is an extension of what I have described in my book, Great Escapes, as my need to break away from the constraints of a very limited room where you only watch TV. I was dreaming of spaces where before you go into the theater, you have to go under marquees and through lobbies and other areas. And now, here I had the room to do it.

 

We ended up creating a city environment based on his desire to bring in Italian architectural influences. He sent me to Italy and I spent 10 days in Siena. I took about 2,000 photographs in nearby villages for reference. I came back and showed him some incredible charcuterie stores that sold cheeses, and pizzerias, and this and that, and he said, “Let’s do it.” The only things that were dictated by him were the arcade, because he had a very nice collection of pinball machines and video games, and the nightclub because he wanted to have gigs for jazz.

 

He basically gave me permission to go crazy. He didn’t ask me to do this village or do this or do that. I presented the ideas that he gradually grasped and accepted. It’s usually a collaborative effort. The client lets his imagination go to think about the things that mean something to him, and I put them into context.

 

Steve, you were obviously heavily involved in the theater space, but I would imagine you worked on the nightclub as well.

STEVE HAAS: We were involved in all the spaces, really, because acoustics and audio mattered in the pizzeria, the arcade, and even the lobby. For all of these, we provided general noise control, sound containment, and acoustic treatment, as well as audio system design and calibration. But the premier spaces were the cinema, the nightclub, and the pizzeria. This wonderful client was just so open in sharing his goals and desires. In addition to his love for arcade games, he also loved live music. His daughters were both learning to play string instruments, so he wanted the ability to have everything from a more formal concert environment to a loose hangout-type of club where you can have rock bands or jazz groups come and play. He can have a chamber trio performing in the theater and a rock band in the club with no sound bleed between them.

 

Somebody coming into the theater cold would think it’s just for watching movies, but it’s actually a fully-fledged performance space as well.

TK: I want to remind you, Mike, that the theaters that have inspired me over the years were never just for watching movies. The movie palaces were mixed-use spaces where you could have an orchestra and also acrobats or a comedy act or whatever, which is exactly what the Paradiso can do. So it’s not like we suddenly came up with the novel idea of using a

theater this way. This project brought us back, completed the circle to what the movie theaters were supposed to be.

 

Does the desire to be able to do live performances in a home theater come up very often with clients?

TK: Yes, but usually at a much more elementary level.

 

SH: It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. And, yes, that’s a biased perspective, but I think a lot of people just don’t realize what can be done. 

Inside the Ultimate Home Entertainment Space

And even if you don’t go to the nth degree like we did with the Paradiso, there are many ways to upgrade a theater space, and it starts with the layout. You have to have the space to be able to have one to four people be able to play and perform, and have a system that can support it—not just audio, but lighting, because that’s different from what you need for a home theater system.

 

TK: Because live performances require specific lighting, we brought in a very well-known lighting designer with a background in theater. This is probably the only project I’ve done in the US that incorporated so many different disciplines. It’s not just the clients who don’t realize all the possibilities. Even the designers cannot wrap their heads around how many wonderful things you can do in a space like that.

 

Steve, the theater had to have a traditional surround sound system for watching movies, but you also have your Concertino system in there for live performances. Are they two discrete systems or is there some overlap?

SH: I think we did share a couple of components. Maybe some of the subwoofers were relay switched back and forth, but inherently quite independent.

 

There was a lot of control programming. If you could see all the bells and whistles switching behind the scenes, it would be amazing. Almost a dozen processes switched in a sequenced manner to go just from theater mode to live concert and back, 

but the user interface was as simple as pressing a button for the initial selection and then there were custom presets within each mode.

 

What did the Concertino system bring to this project in particular, given what the client wanted to do?

SH: The Concertino, which is in the nightclub and pizzeria as well, expanded the ability to have various kinds of live music in an acoustically dry room. As Theo knows, we don’t design “dead” home theaters. However, even a mildly dry diffused home theater appropriate for cinema presentation doesn’t provide the right acoustic for many types of live music.

 

This acoustic-enhancement technology allows the performance space to become a true-sounding

concert hall, cathedral, or any other space you can imagine. So if they want to have a choir, string orchestra, or even a jazz group with a bit livelier sound, you can do that and then blend it with more traditional amplified sound as needed.

 

I’ve heard that people have been in that space and didn’t even know there was processing going on because it sounded so authentic, or is that an exaggeration?

SH: That’s exactly right. This is a world of difference from the Concert Hall and Cathedral modes you get in your car stereo or home receivers. This is recreating in the digital virtual electronic world exactly what a real hall of a different size, different shape, a different acoustic will do to enhance sound—the early reflections, reverberations in the proper timing and frequency manner. The technology can be described for days, but in the end it’s all about what happens when somebody presses a button and sits down and that string quartet, that cellist comes out, and just like, “Wow.” It’s just a great experience for performers and audience alike.

 

Theo, you weren’t here when Mike and I discussed how things are changing with music performances over livestream during the pandemic, but having spaces like this, whether it’s to this degree or even one or two degrees lower—I think a lot of affluent homowners are going to say, “You know what, I don’t want to be in a theater with 1,000 or 2,000 other people for quite some time. So why not create great-sounding spaces that will allow me to bring that type of experience home, literally, for not just movies, but for live music and other types of live entertainment?”

 

TK: I am hearing from people, “I don’t want to go to the movie theaters and catch a disease. I want to make my house be more like a theater.” This is an incredible new opportunity. And it’s up to us to capture it and relay the message that you can have this kind of theater space in your home.

 

SH: Am I hearing Theo saying he’s getting back into custom theaters again?

 

TK: I do want to do custom theaters but very, very selectively. If there is something of the caliber of the Paradiso, I will do it.

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury
theater designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,ooo discs.
Theo is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

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