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Fact-Based Theater Design

Presenting the Truth to Discerning Clients

Homeowners seeking private theater advice are faced with the daunting task of sorting through far too much input and too little truth. Even industry professionals deal with a similar quandary: How do we go about filtering out all the inaccuracies so that our clientele can make the right choices and enable us to deliver true excellence? The following are a few examples of what to look out for.

This high-performance theater installed by Echo Systems of Omaha Nebraska features acoustical devices and fabric that were specified through careful engineering.

Know What Matters
Private theaters embody many disciplines, each with its own set of criteria and information sources. It is important to be able to discern which is relevant and complete information to make the right choice. A good example of this would be in floor isolation solutions. There are products in this category ranging from very thin underlayment materials to engineered systems. Unfortunately, these are often painted with the same brush.

We have seen cases where half-inch underlayment was specified to “isolate” the theater from the rest of the house. The specification was based on the manufacturer’s assurance that the material passed building industry standards for noise control between rooms. This assurance was based on truth, but not the whole truth. In reality, the product was designed to mitigate impact sound in a structure, but was specified to mitigate all structural sound transmission in and out of the room, not just impact. The correct solution to mitigate all structure-borne sound requires a minimum buildup of 2.5 inches. That 2-inch difference could be devastating to the design, if not caught early. Worse yet, failure to specify the right solution would result in an irreparable defect in the room.

In Name Only
Many products and even companies employ names or titles that, intentional or not, mislead. For instance, a company with the word “acoustic” as part of its name might create an inaccurate perception of skillset. Clientele and even many integrators take the word as an indication of quality or performance. Sadly, there also are speaker companies that don’t publish performance data or that sell acoustical devices that actually do more harm than good. Such products are often supported with statements like “countless applications” and “desired results.” The truth is that high-quality loudspeakers undergo considerable engineering and testing, and manufacturers of these products won’t hesitate to publish accurate data in industry-standard formats. Appropriate acoustical products and services are the result of engineering and analysis, as well. Reliable companies will share that data.

The term “acoustic” can be used to imply qualities that don’t exist. One particularly egregious instance of this misapplication is acoustical fabric. While many suppliers of acoustical fabrics do provide test data, there is some ambiguity as to what test is appropriate. My opinion is that both regularly conducted tests are fine, but it is the interpretation of results that makes the difference. One instance is a fabric with a published NRC of 0.95. Most AV consultants would look at that number and assume excellent performance. In fact, this particular fabric is regularly specified as speaker cloth for home theater walls. While it is a fine covering for absorptive acoustical devices, it is, at best, marginally acceptable as speaker fabric. The high NRC number belies the fact this fabric is not transmissive at high frequencies.

Whether this is from unawareness or willful misinterpretation of facts, the result is the same: poor performance. It is our responsibility as professionals and an industry to analyze the products and services being offered and determine those that truly deliver the performance that our clients should expect. It is also our responsibility to educate our clientele as well as our industry that performance matters.

Therein lies the true harm of misleading information in the private theater industry: If a client is faced with selecting a product or service, they will turn to all sources available to educate themselves. In many cases, the client will be influenced by inaccurate information that will set the bar far below what is appropriate. If the consultant has dutifully prepared a design proposal for the work and systems that will actually be required to serve the client’s needs, then there is likely to be a disparity. The first part of that disparity will be cost. Products and services that embody the engineering and build quality to do the job right cost more. If the client cannot get past the cost difference, then they will eventually face the second part of this discrepancy. These lower-priced options do not stack up. Sadly, by the time the truth comes to light, it is too late.