All in the Details

An unmovable basement door was one of a few recent challenges faced by Broomall, Pennsylvania's Hi-Fi House in the design and installation of a media room.
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It's not ancient wisdom, but maybe it should be: When the door cannot be moved, a new media room entrance with a beautiful vestibule is best.

An unmovable basement door was one of a few recent challenges faced by Broomall, Pennsylvania's Hi-Fi House in the design and installation of a media room for an established client. Project manager T.J. Simonds, job coordinator Mike Brown and A/V systems designer Harry Blanchard succeeded in creating a regal media room replete with Blanchard's calling card, hidden electronics and an adjacent wine cellar accessed by a secret door.

Hi-Fi House president Jon Robbins says it's imperative to have employees who are familiar with custom electronics design as well as staff who are well-versed in construction. "This ensures that our plans are viable," he said. "This is even more important in a retrofit because you're dealing with existing construction. It's totally a team effort."

The $125,000 media room, in a two-story contemporary home in Philadelphia's wooded suburbs, features Sonance in-wall speakers, Velodyne powered subwoofers, a DWIN projector, Stewart screen and Crestron remote control st1700. The 12-seat theater is designed in a regal black and gold theme reminiscent of Camelot, Blanchard says.

"We had previously designed and installed a multi-room system for the client's main floor family room, living and dining rooms and had replaced electronics as time went on," Blanchard recalled. "A couple of years ago we installed surround sound in the basement, and we talked with the client about the possibility of a dedicated media room down there."

In 2002, when the client decided to expand living spaces on the main floor and make way for a long-desired media room and new wine cellar on the lower level, Hi-Fi House returned.

"We made some minor changes to the architectural plans such as making the space a little deeper, enlarging platform size adding a vestibule with a waist-high granite-topped wall," Blanchard said.

The client, an ardent wine connoisseur, also wanted a new wine cellar built, but did not want its entrance to disrupt the natural flow of the space. The placement of the unmovable basement door, leading to an outside deck, inspired Blanchard to create the foyer, which has the feel of a theater lobby complete with a popcorn machine.

"When guests come downstairs, they walk into the space that previously housed the surround system," Blanchard said. "They're on the same level as the back row of seats."

A hidden door in a corner at the back of the theater, opposite the screen, is the secret to finding the glassed front of the plush wine cellar. The door swings open with the push of a panel, revealing a small hallway leading to the cellar. "It's a beautiful wine cellar," Blanchard said. "What the client feared would be a nuisance, I was able to turn into a cool feature."

The client, Blanchard explained, entrusted him with the design of a $125,000 media room. The selected design theme, Metro from Acoustic Innovations, features a recurring diamond-shaped motif in gold and black.

"The interior look is based on color and shape," Blanchard said. "On none of the drawings do you see speakers. I used that old advertising trick-where there are no visible cords in a room-except it's not a trick. I hide as much as I can so in the end, the room is as visually appealing as it is sonically pleasing. The Metro style has no columns; it reminds me of Camelot."

The client was more involved than many who walk away after surveying project drawings, Blanchard remembered. "He had seen photos of our other projects but not any actual rooms. Seventy-five to 80 percent of our clients have never actually seen one, although now it's more common to see a media room at a friend's house. Of course now that the project is finished, he really likes to show it off."

Other than the exposed ceiling projector and screen, it's difficult to spot the electronics in the theater. "Hiding everything is my trademark," Blanchard said. "I like hidden speakers in a wall."

Blanchard covered the in-wall speakers with panels of fabric. "We used cinema-quality speakers," he said. "Sound passes through the fabric and gives good acoustics without the necessity of the speaker being visually exposed. We cut out the fiberglass panel where the speaker is because the cloth it already acoustically transparent."

The novelty of a full curtain, opening and closing, quickly wears off, Blanchard said. "I do a faux curtain, a two-foot panel not big enough to cover the screen. We've never put in a motorized curtain; it eats speaker space. I would rather have the appearance of a curtain and be able to hide subwoofers."

Some media room components will be exchanged for newer versions in the near future, Blanchard said. "The DWIN projector, the latest technology when it was purchased for the previous room, does 16x9 very well but today you can buy a DLP projector with a dedicated chip for better resolution. That may be the first thing to be replaced."

The Crestron remote control st1700, also reused, maybe replaced with the stx1700 because stx is a two-way type remote with a true number volume unavailable on the older model.

To maintain the integrity of the wall design for the space, Blanchard hid equipment in its own space, an otherwise unused spot in the hallway near the wine cellar.

HVAC, which Hi-Fi House does not provide, was an expected challenge, he said. "I always run into heating and air conditioning issues. The ducts are always where you want something else. But [HVAC installers] reign in the world of construction."

Because there are no vents or ducts across the ceiling, a soffit was not mandatory. This pleased Blanchard who prefers his media rooms with flat ceilings.

"If you looked at the room with and without vents running through it, you would like both until you compared them," he said. "Then side-by-side, you'd see the detail and that it looks cleaner without them. It's about the details."

Fortunately, Blanchard's client gave him leeway to talk with the HVAC installers, something that happens infrequently. "The ducts for the family room upstairs are in my room, but they ran them up inside the walls and inside the floor joist. Vents are in the seat risers; each has a little round air vent," he said.

Intake to suck air out of the media room is accomplished with a large vent in the wall behind the last row of chairs. "Unless you pull the chairs out, you never see it, and it's painted black," Blanchard explained. "There is no thermostat in the room. There is a remote censor in the hall, and only I know where it is."

Blanchard used a Lutron Graphic Eye to control the six lighting zones. That control is also in the hall. "A single-button keypad switch at the media room entrance turns the lights on. The lighting comes up as full, bright or whatever is set. It takes 90 seconds for the lights to go to complete darkness. Zones have names such as Intermission, Party and Movie Time, with step lights on and sconces on low."

Upstairs on the main floor, where the client had enlarged living space, Blanchard's touch is evident in another granite-topped half wall, similar to that in the media room foyer.

"Because they live in a wooded area with a view to the countryside, I didn't want to block the view with a big TV," he says. "I put a 50-inch Fujitsu plasma TV on the short wall built between the kitchen and family room. It has a pop-up motorized Auton lift so it turns 180 degrees. It's as slick as the media room."

The equipment for the remote-controlled plasma is also hidden in a closet, Blanchard said. "Hiding takes a lot more detail work. I have to make sure the right cabling is there and that the closet or space is big enough for equipment. If it's in a closet, it's not that easy to install."

When the client uses the remote he can't see the equipment, on the main floor or in the media room. "When he pushes DVD, he can't see the numbers moving. He's got to have blind faith and that can be frustrating if it doesn't work all the time," he said. "We make sure it does. Hiding is worth it. If it was easy, anybody could do it."

Karen Mitchell is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.

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