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.
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.
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.
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
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 MC, which 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.
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
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.