Selling the Wrong Chair Can Negate Careful AV Engineering

The audience experience is the most important element in a private theater design, from the accuracy of the audio system to the stunning visual capabilities of the HD video.
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Sam Cavitt (samcavitt@medesign.tv) is president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, Hawaii, and Carlsbad, California. The audience experience is the most important element in a private theater design, from the accuracy of the audio system to the stunning visual capabilities of the HD video. But how the audience is seated in the room is not a detail to be overlooked or trivialized. In fact, often, with every good intention, a home theater designer can negate all of the careful engineering in the theater simply by selling the wrong chair. Here are some common errors to avoid when specifying private theater seating.

Bigger is Better

Many home theater seats are based on a 24-inch seat width. While this is an expansive and seemingly appealing number, it can have a detrimental effect on the room design. In many cases, we are attempting to place listeners at optimum acoustical positions, and width options are vital. In other cases, the desire to have more seats in a row and maintain aisle width is deterred by a seat’s sheer size. Anthropometric studies, using statistical data about the distribution of body dimensions in the population to optimize products relevant to design, ergonomics, and architecture, indicate that the majority of the population requires a hip clearance of a little less than 17 inches and elbow-to-elbow distance of a little over 22 inches. We need to analyze our audience members and specify the appropriate seating for comfort and the engineering requirements of the room. It is not one size fits all. Many theater seat manufacturers offer different seat widths and can accommodate this need.

More is Better

We jokingly say the correct number of seats for a private theater is as many as possible. That may be correct, but what do we mean by “possible?” If it means jamming an extra row up against the back wall, removing aisles, or creating an uncomfortable if not dangerous condition with no consideration of acoustical and viewing position engineering, then I would disagree. Creatively balancing the client’s target audience number with positioning and seating options that are functionally correct often ends up delighting the client.

Same Old Thing

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Fortress Seating’s Lexington line in a “common-arm” configuration. What is a theater seat? Before private theaters, it was something that was tolerated in public theaters. Now there are private theater seats that are some of the most luxurious and comfortable seating products in any category. Still, we have the opportunity to think outside the box and offer our clientele creative options that serve more recent trends for mixed venue rooms.

To Recline or Not Recline

If we ask our clients without any further clarification, the choice is always to recline. But if we asked the clients a more revealing question, the answer may differ. Would you prefer to be able to fully recline all seats, or do you want us to optimize your seating layout for best viewing and listening positions for all seats? A thoughtful client will probably ask for clarification, thus allowing the designer to educate them on the impact of recline on theater seating arrangements. The following are some key impacts of the recline option on theater seating layouts:

Vertical viewing angle–A traditional seating position (seat upright) will place a viewer at about a 3- to 5-degree angle. Viewing position (seat upright, footrest extended) will ease the backrest back another few degrees. The recline position, however, adds as much as 27 degrees of tilt, which places the viewer’s eyes at an angle at or over 30 degrees above the screen.

Dimensional impact–A theater seat that features full recline will add an additional 20 inches to 30 inches to the spacing required to accommodate a standard seat. A theater seat that is optimized for “viewing position only” will add from 10 to 16 inches to the required spacing. By selecting this option for some or all rows, the theater has expanded seating capacity, all seats are more suited for the purpose of viewing movies, and there is one more important benefit.

Screen size and position–The greater the space between rows, the higher the screen must be to provide clear sight lines. This impacts the potential screen size and/or the vertical viewing angle of the audience. For example the greater distance can cause the screen bottom to be either several inches higher (raising the vertical viewing angle for all viewers), or if ceiling height is an issue, the screen size may have to decrease.

We have developed an iterative process for specifying seats that includes preliminary acoustical studies for seating and loudspeaker positioning and preliminary studies for viewer and display positioning. Naturally, one must consider the client’s family, friends, and desired seating capacity. We then compare the room characteristics with the seating capacity desired and start working toward an aggregate solution. This includes reviewing many seating designs and referring to accurate CAD drawings of the choices, then selecting seating options that truly fit all the bills. This is then followed up with documentation drawings, including viewing angle and sight line studies, electrical, and low-voltage wiring diagrams, as well as platform designs and more as required.

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