Juggling the Proper Mix of
Theater Design Ingredients
Sam Cavitt (email@example.com) is
president of Paradise Theater in Kihei,
Hawaii, and Carlsbad, California.
Like a recipe for a favorite culinary
delight, a properly designed home
theater requires an artful blend of
ingredients. A theater designer must first
choose his main ingredients–the essential
technologies of sight and sound–consider
the desired outcome of the design, then
blend in proper amounts of knowledge,
engineering, and design. Certain
“ingredients” will have characteristics
that blend better with some solutions
For example, many home theater
projects feature direct-view video
devices or rear-screen applications
that offer some very appealing image
characteristics, notably higher contrast
and excellent performance in higher
ambient light conditions, yet they come
at the expense of acoustic performance.
The large reflective surface of a directview
video device or rear-screen projected display
presents an acoustical anomaly, and the center, and
in some cases the left and right, loudspeaker are
difficult to properly place. In projects that feature
multiple rows of seats, this issue can be even more
challenging. Typically, the center speaker is placed
below the screen. In this scenario, however, the front
row would be the only one to receive unobstructed
center-channel sound even though it is rarely the
primary seating location in a multiple-row theater.
Like a recipe for a favorite culinary delight, a properly designed home theater requires
an artful blend of ingredients.
A creative designer can instead design the speaker
array to be placed above the screen and engineer it
to be directed toward the primary field of listeners
in the second and third row. The room can then
be modeled for video sight lines, viewing angles,
listening positions, loudspeaker positions, and sound
field characteristics at these listening positions. This engineering data will
provide the needed feedback to make adjustments for optimized results
and deliver the client’s desired experience.
Acoustically Transparent Screens
On the other end of the spectrum, acoustically transparent screens
are generally chosen for their acoustic performance, yet they also pose
challenges for a theater designer. For instance, these screens may reduce
projection light output by somewhere in the area of 10 percent, depending
on the specific screen material and its perforation or weave technology. This
becomes an even more important issue if 3D systems are being considered
due to the increased light requirement of that technology. Secondly, an
acoustically transparent screen, by definition, means that we will be dealing
with front projection, which makes video contrast a consideration as well.
The material selected to enhance the contrast may have an additional impact
on the brightness (although many screen manufacturers produce excellent
high-contrast and high-brightness screen materials).
Finally, the introduction of artifacts or distortions due
to the interplay within a projector’s pixel structure
and/or light penetration and reflection back through
the screen can be challenging to a designer. Solutions
include image processing, shifting, and a scrim to
The reason we would introduce an acoustically
transparent screen, even if it negatively affects the
sound, is that it allows the center channel to be in the
perfect location behind the screen. This enhances
the viewer’s experience by placing the dialog track
right where they expect to hear it.
The good news is that the leading screen
manufacturers are conducting research on
solutions and many publish fairly objective
papers on the acoustical characteristics of many of their materials.
As home theater designers, we need to ask them to continue research
and development of solutions as well as performance data. It is our
responsibility to look into all the attributes of the various technologies
and engineer the proper mix that will please our clients’ home theater
palates. A little extra effort on our part will leave a sweet taste that will
keep them coming back for more.