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Best Home Theater: Design the Acoustics

Recently I was with a client in their home that is under construction in a high-rise in downtown Chicago. The homeowner plans to have a dedicated home theater in one of the rooms. Walking into the space I realized through our more in-depth discussions that it was planned to be a box of finished drywall, theater seating, and some electronics thrown in. My mind instantly thought of Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live many years ago, "Oh, Nooooooo!"

A little background is in order. We have two Principals at Tech Tonic Consultants. Both Greg Rankin and I, after receiving electrical engineering degrees, were Technicians for years at Universal Recording Corporation located on Walton Street in Chicago. It was THE studio in Chicago. Musicians from Nat King Cole, Placido Domingo, and The Police recorded there. As well, sound for the films Blues Brothers and Top Gun were created within various Film Recording Suites. The below picture shows Greg and I (as youngsters over 30 years ago) during a video tour of the of all the studios before they were torn down and moved to a new location in the Oriental Theater Building on Randolph. You may see videos of this massive move with pictures and audio recordings of artists like the Police at the above link.

Universal Recording Corporation

So while our award winning firm, Tech Tonic Consultants, designs residential and commercial smart technology solutions, we started in the Commercial Sound Recording Arena.

Therefore, when I heard "Home Theater," I instantly discussed acoustics from the standpoint of Acoustical Isolation and Acoustics Tuning.

As I have said to countless clients, I do not care if you place speakers that are $100,000 or $100 speakers in a room. The investment of what you cannot see (The Acoustics) is well worth the money.

People understand what they can see. They want the Viking Refrigerator or the Wolf Stoves because they have seen it and have touched it. They understand the Eames Lounge Chair because they have sat on it. However, how does one understand the value of something they cannot see nor touch?

"Let's go on a tour," I said. So I set up a date for our client to witness a correctly designed home theater we designed for a different client who owned a Glass Theater that faced the Lake in another Chicago high-rise.

We rarely get the chance to design the perfect home theater. On occasion we do. However, what we normally design (and what we find more fun) are ways to make spaces the most quiet they can be from outside elements as well as tuned for the best acoustics based on parameters we know from designing professional recording studios. This, coupled with electronics selected for their best acoustic properties and hidden abilities for the space, makes for a phenomenal experience.

Below is a picture of the Glass Theater without finished walls. This is a case of a completely imperfect room for a Home Theater. We were only given the ceiling and back walls to work with with. We were given what we were given. As well, if you look closely you will see glass that has horizontal black tape so that no one will hit into them. These actually pull out to make complete enclosed walls. The front of the room looks out to the Lake Michigan. Mark Weber of Wheeler Kearns Architect designed this awesome apartment.

If you note, we used various styles of absorption and reflection technologies in the ceiling and back wall to make the room not only sound tight but feel larger as well. Also, when coupled with the materials used in the finished room we were able to have a balanced sound reverberation throughout the hearing frequency spectrum. The speakers ALL had to be in the ceiling except for the subwoofer which ported through the couch's kick (See below picture).

Below is a look at the completed Theater. At this point, all the materials are hidden behind acoustically transparent fabric. If the homeowner truly wants to get away from the rest of the open floor plan home AND make the room sound even better, they can close both glass panels as well as the curtains and lower the window shades.

So our client took the field trip to see this room. Her first impression was "Wow, there is a perceptible difference." It is more...."comfortable." She noticed that background noise was less apparent and not fatiguing inviting her to stay.

We told her of a party the client had for all the firms that worked on the project. I say all parties end in the Kitchen. However,

this one ended in the Home Theater not because of the movie, but because it was less fatiguing and easier to converse with people due to the acoustics we set in place. (Not too mention it sounds incredible!)

We played various sources from movies to music. She noticed that the intelligibility of the audio for movies was "fantastic." Because we lowered the background noise, the speakers did not have to be turned up to understand the dialog. She was a true believer and excited for her husband because he had difficulty hearing the dialog in other rooms she had been in.

Many people who we have started to consult with say they want a home theater or media room that sounds unbelievable. They have just enough knowledge to say "let's put in some acoustic panels." (Usually because the have seen it in other homes). My thoughts go to a painter. Anyone can buy the paint, however it is what you do with that canvass that brings it to life. It is not about just absorption of sound, but also how is it reflected or dispersed.

We also, have situations where clients want a silent noise free room. The do not want sound coming in or out of the room. Again, I have heard "We are placing some Quietrock on the walls or using Resilient Drywall Channels. That will take care of it, right?" Too many times I have seen the incorrect use of these products to such a point that they might as well have not been installed at all. It takes some real skill to not hear a subway car moving right next door. You really have to build a spring loaded room that is box within a box.

There are lots of products out there to make wonderful sounding listening rooms and Home Theaters. However, the Best Home Theaters are carefully designed to reduce the outside world and create the best sound from your investment of products. When you hear the difference (AND YOU CAN) you will absolutely say Oh, Yesssssss!

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