There are literally hundreds of articles on the internet that deal with how to design and build the perfect media room. This is NOT another one of those articles. This, instead, is an article that provides advice on how to design and build a media room that can take advantage of the myriad content sources that are available online in addition to the more traditional media sources.
The first step in designing our media room is to determine what we want to get out of the new space. Here are some of the questions I ask myself when designing a room like this:
- Is this space dedicated to a media room, or will it serve other purposes?
- What activities will take place in this space? Movies? Gaming? Entertaining? Family activities?
- What are the heating and cooling capabilities of the space?
- What type of content will be viewed in this space?
- Where will the consumer electronics equipment be placed?
- Is the space overhead accessible from an attic/garage/bedroom?
- What type of budget is allocated to improving this space?
- Are you looking for a complete, turnkey solution or a solution broken into distinct phases?
- What type of equipment do you already have? What type of equipment needs to be purchased?
Dedicated Space or Multi-Purpose Space
If you are fortunate enough to have a room dedicated to a home theater/media room, congratulations. This allows you to select equipment and furnishings that have a specific purpose, and it also frequently means that you have pre-wiring! If you don’t have a dedicated room, don’t worry. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful room that meets your entertainment goals, it just means it may take a little more planning, and may require some compromises to satisfy the other ways in which the room will be used. If you are going to be running speaker wiring anyway, consider a 7.1 or even 9.1 speaker setup
This method employs two sets of front speakers and two sets of surround speakers to increase the depth of the sound. Another option is to add a second subwoofer across the room from the primary sub. This actually provides you with .2 (7.2, for example) instead of .1. While you can purchase a new receiver to do this, you can utilize your current AVR by using a simple “Y” adapter RCA cable. I found one on Amazon.com for $4, and the net result is that I can turn down each sub individually (which my neighbors appreciate), but I still get the nice low end to which I’ve grown accustomed.
You may also find that your “builder-installed” media room is probably only 5.1 – most I’ve seen are only 5.1, but that’s not to say that you can’t add another two channels to get that 7.1 goodness.
In some situations, running wires is simply not an option at all. Technology comes to the rescue here, as advancements in wireless speaker technology can now deliver an experience very near that of a wired system, and when compared to the parts and labor of a traditional, wired 5.1 or 7.1 system, can actually be less expensive in the long run. One of my favorites is the Summit Wireless Speaker System from Aperion Audio (www.aperionaudio.com)
The size of a room will frequently dictate the activities that can take place. Smaller spaces may be best suited to watching movies and playing games on a large-screen TV with more traditional seating, whereas bigger rooms are better suited to accommodate home theater-styled seating and perhaps even a projector. Regardless of the size of the space, you want to be able to control the “mood” of the room specific to the activity, and the easiest way to do that is with an easy-to-install dimmer switch and recessed lighting. If you do not have recessed lighting installed, an option is to build a soffit around the perimeter of the room and install architectural lighting or even DIY-friendly LED lighting to help “set the mood”. Ideal furniture is easy to clean (eating and drinking in low light can be messy) as well as oversized and comfortable.
In most of the media rooms in North Texas, these rooms are frequently located on the second floor, usually above a garage. And, because it can get HOT in D/FW, considering your air conditioning (and heating) requirements for your media room is a major consideration. The last thing you want is a room you can only use half of the year because it’s too hot upstairs. In new construction or a remodel, consider having your builder route multiple a/c ducts to the media room. And also consider where the furniture will be placed (i.e. where YOU will sit) and make sure the ducts are positioned so that you will benefit from that cold air blowing on you. I know most designers don’t like ceiling fans, but I find them to be indispensable in North Texas, because they can quietly move enough air without having to run the a/c constantly. But, a ceiling fan is probably not an option if you plan on installing a projector. Both have their pros and cons, so make sure you have the information and discuss with your contractor at the planning point of the construction.
You may not have much control over the heating and cooling options if you are converting an existing space, but there are options you can choose to ensure the room is still comfortable. For starters, it would be best to stay away from plasma televisions, as these can generate a LOT of heat. Those televisions with LED light sources would be best as they tend to generate the least amount of heat. If the room has a closet, consider housing your A/V equipment in it and install a fan (like a bathroom exhaust fan) to vent the hot air out of the closet and into an attic or other room. Avoid installing your A/V equipment in a closed space without any way to remove the heat, as you will significantly reduce the lifespan of your consumer electronics equipment.
What types of content will be viewed in this space? Sports? Movies? Streaming content from sources like Hulu and Netflix? For watching sports, I like to make sure the room is free of sharp objects and contains lots of pillows (for screaming into) and stuffed objects (to throw at the wall) to help me deal with the anxiety and frustration of being a Cowboys/Rangers/Mavericks fan. Movies are ideally suited for rooms with a means of controlling external light, especially if using a projector. If windows are present, consider black-out blinds or heavy curtains to help control ambient lighting. For streaming content, I strongly recommend a hard-wired Ethernet connection. While wireless has improved, it is still best to view streaming content, especially HD1080p, over a wired connection. If hard-wired Ethernet is not available in your room (or where your equipment is located), you can also use a PNA-adapter. These can transfer data at rates up to 500mb over the power lines in your home, and work reasonably well. I have used the XAVB5001 from Netgear and recommend it.
Budget and Planning
When you are planning out your space, make sure your contractor and your A/V Specialist understand your priorities and budget. If you are more interested in audiophile-quality sound, then you will be more satisfied in allocating more of your budget towards high-quality speakers and amplifiers. If you’re a true movie buff, then the display and sound field is going to be more important to you. If you have kids that have lots of friends always at your house, then make sure the budget allows for lots of comfortable yet inexpensive seating.
When considering the order in which a media room should be assembled, here are some of my thoughts:
- Start with the infrastructure. If you are already installing wiring, go ahead and wire for 7.1 or 9.1, even though you may only be interested in 5.1 for now. In the long run, it may not be that much more expensive to run a few more wires.
- Protect your investment. Be sure that adequate ventilation, surge protection and power conditioning are present in the location where your equipment will be installed.
- Plan for the future. With more and more content becoming available on-line, consider running a CAT5e or CAT6 line from your home’s router to the media room equipment location. And if you have multiple “connected devices”, simply add a switch in the cabinet itself.
- Paint and lighting can dramatically transform a room, and can do so quite affordably in the great scheme of things.
- Make sure the room is comfortable. In terms of furniture and temperature, as that is the best way to ensure you use it regularly and enjoy it every time.
- Don’t skimp on the display. I worked previously at a company that built high-definition training devices for F-16 and F-18 pilots. As a result, I learned a LOT about the differences in various display technologies and it has subsequently made it very difficult (and expensive) for me to purchase a television for my home. While it should come as no surprise there are differences between a 120 Hz and 240 Hz refresh rate, it should also be noted that not all 240 Hz compatible televisions are the same, either. If you are about to spend a large sum of money on a big screen TV, make sure you are going to be happy with it by asking to watch content like you watch at home.