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4 Steps to Home Entertainment Paradise

April 1, 2013 | Comments

After months of reading and research, you're ready to turn your audio/video dreams into reality and create an expertly designed and crafted environment - one that puts you in the middle of action, whether you're watching a movie, sports, The Walking Dead, or a concert on Blu-ray, or even playing Halo 4.

You know that building the kind of space you have in mind will require a substantial investment, so now it becomes a question of where to start your journey on the path to home entertainment paradise.

A dedicated home cinema by The Pyramid Group (UK)

Anthony Grimani, a longtime CEDIA instructor and president of Performance Media Industries (PMI) in Novato, CA, lays out four steps for anyone who is serious about creating a state-of-the-art home entertainment environment.

"Many people think of a home entertainment system as the gear," says Grimani, who as a veteran of Dolby Labs and Lucasfilm THX helped create home theater standards and developed the Surround EX format introduced with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. "It's not just the gear. It's the space, the optical environment, the acoustics, the seating and the ergonomic environment that first matter for a successful outcome."

Step 1: Design It

The first step is to hire a professional design firm that specializes in home entertainment and media spaces.

"Long before you put electronic equipment into an entertainment area, you need to architect and engineer that area," Grimani says. "You have to lay out the space, which I'm loosely calling architecture. It's like building a home: You need to design the home before you can decide what furnace you're going to put in."

During this phase, you meet with the design firm to share your vision and answer lots of questions. A consultant like Grimani will then assess the space and prepare a detailed plan with technical specifications and, ideally, a set of drawings.

Whether you're planning for a dedicated home theater to rival the Ziegfeld or a mixed-used "media room" for the family, the process is the same and leads to recommendations in a number of areas, including:

  • Acoustics: How will sound flowing around this space interact with the speakers, neighboring spaces and even the ventilation system? "Essentially, you're looking at how the space supports or detracts from the sound produced by the speakers," Grimani says. Among the questions that come into play here is whether you want your speakers to be freestanding or "hidden" in the walls and ceiling.
  • Optics: How will the location of windows, ambient light and the color of the room affect what you see on the TV or projector screen? What is the best lighting system?
  • Room Layout: Where should the seating go and, if we're talking about new construction or renovation, where should doors be located?
  • Equipment: What type of audio/video gear - speakers, amplifiers, TV or video projector and screen - will deliver the best performance?

Step 2: Engineer It

Once the design work is complete, the next step is engineering, which is sometimes done by the same firm that does the design work. "Somebody has to run modeling programs and calculate a number of different parameters that relate to optics, acoustics and electro-acoustics to determine requirements for the gear that will be used," Grimani explains.

Construction on the theater shown above. The raised platform provides seating for the the second row of seats, and the enclosure at top holds the projector, isolating the sound of its fans from the room.

Step 3: Integrate It

Find a CEDIA member home technology professional, sometimes called an integrator, who will recommend audio/video and control equipment based on the architectural plan and install everything once basic room construction has been completed. "At this stage, you take your plans to different firms, get quotes and pick the one you like — the same way you would choose a builder," Grimani explains.

You want to find a firm with an impeccable track record, which means reviewing portfolios with an eye toward installations that are similar to what you have in mind, checking references and, if possible, getting referrals from friends and neighbors.

"I like the word 'integrator' because this stage requires more than just installation," Grimani says. "It's also about making sure the equipment works together seamlessly and is easy to operate."

Step 4: Commission It

After the equipment has been installed and is up and running, it's time to confirm that the system is working at its full potential. Put another way, it's time to ensure an optimal return on your investment.

"Commissioning starts with testing and configuring each piece of gear to make sure it's in the right mode and working correctly, and then verifying that all interconnections are working properly," Grimani explains. "Somebody has to go through menus upon menus upon menus to make sure everything is doing what it's supposed to be doing. Once you've done that, the orchestra is ready to play."

The next step is to "tune" the system. Specialized test equipment is used to calibrate the audio and video to a set of standards. "Calibration is not just pressing a button and making sure the system does certain things," Grimani says. "It starts with a thorough debug of everything that happened during the installation process ... The final step is to use your eyes and ears to confirm that everything you've done with test equipment looks good and sounds good."

A pro will find things that were missed in testing and make a final round of tweaks based on what they see and hear. "I've been in front of probably a thousand quality systems and I've yet to find one that cannot be improved," Grimani adds. "When you think of the sheer number of connections, configurations and things you have to do to make everything work right, it's statistically impossible to get it right the first time."

The secret to building the ultimate home entertainment environment is to make sure each phase of your project is carefully thought through by a qualified professional. "The thing to remember is that the environment is a technical space and, unless you hire someone who does this kind of work regularly, it's difficult to know everything, which is why it's best to leave specialty operations to the specialist," said Grimani.

Click here to find CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.