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Building a Reference Grade Media Room on a Budget – Part One

 

AndrewRobinson-hometheater-install.gifI've always liked the idea of having a dedicated home theater; a simple, dark space that I could fill to the ceiling with gear and call it my own. Well, want in one hand and you-know-what in the other and see which happens first, as my Grandfather used to say. Needless to say I've never had a room solely dedicated to being a home theater; instead I've built one multi-purpose media room after another.

My former reference theater featured acoustical treatments hidden behind floor-to-ceiling fabric walls, a 92-inch acoustically transparent drop down screen, a complete 5.1 in-wall speaker system from Meridian and a dedicated equipment closet that housed a single Middle Atlantic rack littered with some of the finest electronics money could buy. The thing I truly loved most about the room was the fact that 90 percent of those who entered it had no earthly idea it was a purpose built theater. It consistently scored high marks in the "wife acceptance factor" (WAF) category with everyone but my fiancée.

She never really liked the room, for she felt it was to "fancy." While she liked that everything was hidden from view, the fabric walls spooked her a bit because we have three dogs and she worried constantly that they would damage my precious fabric walls. She had a point: custom installed fabric walls are not cheap, nor were the acoustic treatments they concealed from view. After only a year, I began to dislike my theater, for I too became overly paranoid about people or animals damaging it. The sad reality was that my reference system served double duty as our living and family room, but since we were both afraid of it we found ourselves watching television and movies in our bedroom, which featured a far less complicated and all together cheaper setup.

When it was time to move into our new home this year, we knew our approach to how we enjoy music and movies had to change, both in terms of design as well as budget, for we (like many of you I'm sure) weren't immune to the current economic climate. What follows is a play-by-play on how to build a state-of-the-art media room that is both stylish and functional, not to mention affordable.

Step 1: Have a Plan
I know this seems like it should go without saying but you'd be surprised at the number of consumers who simply waltz into their local dealer or big box store and simply begin to buy the items they think they're going to need. Having a plan, even before a budget, will pay huge dividends and save you a lot of money in the long run. Trust me.

So, what do I mean when I say, "Have a plan?" For starters, know what type of enthusiast you are. Are you a casual movie watcher, a television aficionado, an audiophile or a true die-hard and lover of all things consumer electronics? For instance if you're simply a casual movie watcher in the market for an slightly more involving experience, you probably don't need to spend a lot of time and money shopping for costly 5.1 speaker systems and AV preamp processor/multi-channel amp combos when a good soundbar and a larger, quality, HDTV will suffice.

My personal tastes tend to lend themselves towards the higher end of the spectrum with an emphasis on two-channel playback and reference grade video performance. Knowing that I was able to structure my time and budget accordingly, this allowed for the items that would directly impact the performance of those two key areas to take precedent while saving money elsewhere, hopefully without negatively impacting the system's overall performance.

Step 2: Be Realistic
It's one thing to have a plan, it's another thing entirely to think everything is going to go according to it. While I'm sure we'd all like a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 800Ds in our system, don't think for a minute that spending 90 percent on your budget on speakers and the remaining 10 percent on everything else is going to be a smart move. Don't let your lust for gear overpower your means. If you know you typically only watch two to three movies a month or listen to maybe 15 minutes of music a day on the system you currently have, don't go spending mad amounts of money hoping it will change your habits because it likely won't.

Step 3: Take Stock
A lot of consumers overlook what they currently own or have in their possession when it comes time to build and/or reinvigorate their home theater or two channel systems. Believe it or not, many enthusiasts think that the best move to make when building a system is to simply start anew. This is a good way to go over budget, not to mention overboard. You don't necessarily need to budget for or buy that new Blu-ray player when your two year old PS3 will do.

The same goes for your room's décor and furniture as well. The main purpose for building a media room over a dedicated home theater or a two channel listening space is that it can serve more than one purpose. It's about living with your system, not for your system. Balance grasshopper, balance.

For my room I already had a lot of gear that I knew would be making encore performances, mainly my Revel Studio2 loudspeakers, Mark Levinson Amplifier, Anthem D-ILA projector, SI Screen as well as various source components and cables bringing it all together.

Now I know many of you are saying to yourself, "It's easy to build a reference grade media room when you already own reference grade components." This is true; however the tips you'll find in these articles can be applied to mid-fi and even budget gear with excellent results. It's easy to get caught up in the gear and lose sight of the enjoyment, something I've been guilty of in the past, but know this: it's far easier and cost effective to make affordable gear sound amazing in a properly set up room than it is to go back and make expensive gear sound acceptable because you set off without a plan in the first place. Taking stock of what you currently own will also help you in determining how much or how little you'll ultimately have to budget for as you set off in building your new media room.

Step 4: Budget
Budget is everything nowadays and for good reason as this economy has affected everyone, from the entry-level enthusiast to the well-heeled CEO. Now, that doesn't mean we can't have a home theater or two channel music system, it just means we have to be smarter than we once were when it comes to our purchasing decisions.

There are several theories on how to budget for your new home theater or two channel system. Some people think you should shop around and demo a variety of systems both affordable and expensive and figure out what you can live with and what you can live without and then budget accordingly. Okay. Others say you should let a custom installer help you. Not a bad idea. Others suggest finding out what it is you think you can afford monetarily, then tack on 10 to 20 percent for unexpected costs, which should give you a realistic budget. Again, not a bad way to go.

Truth be told – all of the methods I've described are good but ultimately it has to be an amount you're comfortable with. Once you settle on it, hold yourself to it. Don't be afraid to say "no" or even walk away if someone, be it a salesman or a dear friend, is trying to get you to break your budget.

Having been one who's broken their budget in the past, I held myself to a strict $5,000 limit for the entire project, which included the room, décor, acoustics and equipment. A challenge? Sure. Doable? Time would tell.

Step 5: Don't Forget Your Room Is The Star
More than any single component, your room is the most important variable impacting your system's overall performance, be it audio or video, and it's often the most overlooked. I've known many who have invested thousands into their systems only to end up with sub-par performance because they didn't factor in the impact of their room.

Whenever possible, rooms that are equal in dimension, both in length and width, should be avoided, for they're only going to enhance problem nodes and frequency anomalies that exist when sound waves are allowed to collect and/or double back upon themselves as they move about a symmetrical room. This is how you get "boomy" bass, shrill highs and anemic vocals not to mention poor imaging and listener fatigue.

Rectangular rooms are better, though rooms with no parallel surfaces are ideal, though not entirely realistic given most of us are trying to integrate our systems into existing rooms. There are a number of sites and/or white pages out there that go more in depth on room acoustics and dimensions, a few personal favorites of mine can be found at www.decware.com and www.gikacoustics.com/education.html.

A common misconception among consumers is that acoustical treatments are ugly and will make your room resemble a recording studio more than a living room or highly polished media room. Untrue – in fact many foam products such as wedges, egg crates etc. do little to fix your room's acoustics for they simply do not have enough mass to be effective. So before you go plastering your ceiling, first order reflections and/or corners in charcoal gray foam, know that a large percentage of room anomalies can be solved by simply changing the layout of your room and equipment in it, mainly your listening position in relation to your speakers. All you have to arm yourself with is a bit of knowledge, some patience and a DIY attitude, all of which are free of charge.

If you find terms like Axial and Tangential Modes overwhelming, there are people and companies out there who can help guide you through the process for a small fee and even free. For my room I turned to Bryan Pape, GIK Acoustics' Lead Acoustics Designer, for assistance. HomeTheaterReview.com's publisher uses studio-tuner-to-the-stars, Bob Hodas and RPG treatments for his room, which is a little higher end of a solution.

GIK Acoustics is an Internet direct company that specializes in affordable acoustic treatments for your home or recording studio. While you can go to their website and simply order up what ever acoustic treatments you'd like, I'd urge you to take advantage of their free room setup guide. GIK's room setup guide is merely a tool or jumping off point for GIK's talented team of professionals to get in contact with you (either by phone or via e-mail) to discuss your room one-on-one to decide what products, if any, are needed to best solve your room acoustic issues. I had an idea of what I needed in terms of acoustical treatments before reaching out to GIK. After speaking with Bryan for about an hour we found that I actually needed fewer products then I originally thought.

Bryan worked with me to determine the best place to position my left and right main speakers as well as my primary listening seat in my room and then worked backwards from there. Note: I hadn't yet placed any speakers in my room, however because sound and the way it reacts to boundaries is largely predictable you can essentially lay out your entire room for optimal sound reproduction before you even install a single component. This can save you a lot of money down the road, not to mention help you in deciding just what speakers and/or components to buy.

From there Bryan and I determined the type of products I required to make my room "sing," regardless of what components or speakers I were to place within. We settled on GIK's Tri-Traps for the corners of the front wall ($129 each), two Monster Bass Traps for my back wall ($118 each) and two 233 Bass Traps ($69 each) for behind the speakers themselves. Total price $632.00 plus shipping, not bad considering I had budgeted a little over $1,000 for room treatments.

I should also point out that if you're willing to put in a little elbow grease, GIK Acoustics will sell you the raw materials to build your own acoustic treatments, which in turn will save you money. Also, there are plans online detailing how to build your own acoustic treatments using materials readily available at your local hardware store. While I was willing to pay upwards of $600 to treat my room, that doesn't mean you have to; you could very easily treat your room on as little as a few hundred dollars provided you're a little bit handy and willing to put in the time.

Part Two: Coming Soon…
Tune in next time as we dive into interior design versus performance, installation and final calibration – all leading up to the final reveal of a finished, reference grade media room.

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