The 10 Things Every General Contractor Should Know about Home Theater Construction
We have completed hundreds of custom home theater systems and screening rooms over our history often to demanding Hollywood professionals from Malibu to Montecito. Along the way we have worked with dozens of great general contractors from very large firms to single owner-operators. Since GC's may go a year or two without doing a build for a top home theater, they always need a little hand-holding in order to deliver a great product to their clients.
I thought I would assemble a list that addresses the top items that every general contractor should know about a home theater build.
1. Quietrock is not enough! I often hear a super say, "we will soundproof with some Quietrock". Quietrock can help sound transmission, but is not enough to do serious home theater sound control. Too many clients have basement theaters that can be heard on the top level. To get proper sound isolation you need to mechanically decouple the room surfaces from the main house structure. Otherwise, sound will just travel throughout the home like crazy. Think of sound like water. You need to plug the leaks. This can be done using room within a room construction, resilient (or hat) channel, isolation clips, etc. There are a lot of techniques that require a lot more time to explain. Feel free to reach out to my email below for additional info.
2. Don't build a riser until you know the exact screen size! Too many GC's are anxious to keep the project moving and start framing out risers based on the architectural drawings. Sightlines are critical and the homeowners typically expect to see the whole screen without obstructions. It is imperative that the screen size and height off the floor is locked down before you start riser construction.
3. Projector location - Today's screening room projector's have the ability to be put very far back from the screen. There is no reason to hang an unsightly projector in the middle of the room. A small projector that does not give off much heat (typically used with smaller screens) can be installed in a soffit. You can even install larger projectors in the soffit but it takes some very careful planning to make sure noise is abated and cooling is addressed. The best place for a projector is in a room or area behind the room shooting through an opening (preferably with port glass). This gets the heat and fan noise out of the room and takes care of having an unattractive unit in the room. My strong suggestion is to find a way to shoot the image through the back wall of the theater.
4. How to make the room sound great. Step one is to make sure it is quiet and the room isolates any noise from the outside (condenser units, footfalls, leaf blowers, traffic, etc.). This allows you to not have to turn up the sound to hear a soft voice. So start with a quiet room. Step two is to treat the room with acoustic panels that are thoughtfully planned out by an acoustical expert. Acoustical panels do one of three things, absorb sound, reflect sound, and diffuse sound. Applying the right size and type of treatment to the right part of the room involves a lot of science and a little art. An acoustically designed room will improve the sound in most rooms by 200%. If given a choice of spending budget on upgrading the electronics or adding acoustic design and treatments, pick the latter every time.
5. Install fabric walls with batting is the worst thing you can do to a room. Often a GC will confuse a fabric wall system with batting with an acoustical fabric wall system. Easy to understand as they look the same. They are not. A standard stretched fabric wall will have batting that is 100% absorptive. This will suck all the sound reflections out of the room and make it feel small and claustrophobic. You want a decent amount of reflections to create an open feeling in the room. Not Staples center level reflections but some level of sound bouncing around the room. This emphasizes the need for a mix of reflective panels, absorptive panels, and diffusive panels
6. Speakers, Speakers, Speakers! With the advent of 3-D video, it seems the audio manufacturers and sound pioneers like Dolby got jealous. Where is the 3-D audio? Well it is here and it is available in 2 flavors, Dolby Atmos and Auro 3-D. These new audio formats require a lot more speakers in the room which means more boxes or speaker grilles to hide. In addition to the standard left, center, right, and subwoofers, Dolby uses side speakers for every row, rear speakers on the back wall and typically 4-8 speakers in the ceiling. We call these "the voice of God" speakers. If you are putting together a Bel Air Circuit Dolby Atmos room, you may have to add additional height channels above the left center and right and also upgrade the electronics and speakers to meet the Dolby standard to get your room certified. Auro 3-D takes it to the next level and adds height channels for all speakers which almost doubles the speaker requirements that you formerly needed for a standard Dolby Digital 7.2 system.
7. IMAX! Everyone is familiar with the amazing spectacle of an IMAX movie. It is now available for your home. IMAX is offering two home IMAX products to North America. The first is the IMAX Private Theater. This is a 2M+ no-compromise home theater experience for the billionaire in your life. The second is a product called IMAX Palais, this is a scaled down version for the IMAX Private Theater that is about to launch in the US. We expect it to be much more affordable than the IMAX Private Theater yet still in the hundreds of thousands. After all it would not be special if everyone had an IMAX home theater. The thing a GC needs to know is that IMAX is very stringent on the size requirements of a theater room so if you think your client may be a candidate, stop the presses and make sure the room will accommodate it.
8. The fabric on the walls is vital. Most interior designers value design over functionality. Surprised? I didn't think so. In a theater, the speakers and acoustic treatments are behind the fabric on the walls. This fabric absolutely must be acoustically transparent. Sound must pass through the fabric freely. Get any and every fabric acoustically tested before agreeing to implement it into a theater. There are several fabric suppliers like Guilford of Maine and Acoustex that offer full lines of acoustically transparent fabric. A few simple tests you can do is 1. blow through it. If it passes air it probably will pass sound . 2. Hold it up to the light to see how tight the weave is. If you can recognize a face through the fabric you are probably good.
9. Leave room behind the screen. Sound is very directional. When you go to a commercial theater, the speakers all reside behind the acoustically transparent film screen. This is where they should be. So leave about 3 feet of space behind the screen to install speakers and subwoofers. This will typically be overlooked by the architect. Once you get a final speaker choice from the A/V firm supplying the gear, you can perhaps shrink that opening.
10. There is help! If you do not feel like getting in the weeds on a high-performance home theater build-out, there are firms that specialize in acoustical design and theater planning, subcontractors that specialize in only theater construction, and of course technology integrators (like myself) that help you conduct the entire orchestra of specialists. Please reach out if you need help finding any of these specialists.