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Pleasing the AV Palate

Like a recipe for a favorite culinary delight, a properly designed home theater requires an artful blend of ingredients.

Juggling the Proper Mix of Theater Design Ingredients

Sam Cavitt ([email protected]) 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 than others.

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 defeat reflections.

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.