As a designer or decorator you confront this dilemma on an ever increasing basis. And it is no small challenge. Some clients want to just set the television down and leave it at that. Doing this leaves a big black box in the room. It's not too attractive, but if they've spent their money on the television it may have to do for a while.
An alternative to the big black box is to invest in an entertainment unit. These units are available in all sizes, shapes and qualities. "You get what you pay for" is an accurate statement here, so look for a unit that is appropriate to the investment made in the television and its surrounding furnishings.
While shopping for an entertainment unit, make sure to take along the total width and height of the set as well as two depths. The first depth is from the front of the set to the back of the set, or the box itself. The second is from the front to the very back of the picture tube. This depth should be more than the first because the picture tube usually sticks out of the back of the set.
Also, measure the wall on which the entertainment unit will be placed. Not only will you need enough width but also clearance for the depth and height of the unit. These units come in a wide range of sizes -- widths can vary from 36 to 120 inches, depths from 18 to 36 inches and heights from 36 to 96 inches.
Next, consider what the unit needs to store. Are there multiple speakers? What are their sizes? Are there stereo components to store as well? How many? How large are they? Is storage for videotapes, audio tapes and cassette tapes necessary? Will there be display space for special items? How big are they?
Consider the external style of the unit. Is it traditional or contemporary? Wood finishes such as cherry, mahogany, walnut and maple are nice, but would a painted and lacquered finish look better in the client's home?
Price range is another serious decision. Inexpensive units are made of pressboard with a wood print plastic coating. These units are durable for only relatively short periods of time. Pressboard is not dimensionally stable when used with heavy objects or when wet. Move up to strand board with a veneer for a better value. Though these boards are man-made they are very strong and stable, in many cases better than woods such as pine. Veneers will provide a rich look without the expense of solid hardwoods.
By the way, solid woods are not necessarily stronger or better than man-made materials though they are more expensive. When you consider high-end units, get details about structural and decorative components. Use manufacturers who have a proven track record of durability and style.
Home Theater Environment
Part of what makes a home theater is the size of the viewing screen, and screen size has a definite impact on optimum viewing distances. If the room size is set, you may need to consider the maximum viewing distance available and back into the appropriate screen size for the home theater being specified.
Let's begin with oversized television sets, which are not true home theaters. A 27-inch diagonal screen has a suggested viewing distance of seven feet or less. A 31-inch diagonal screen moves up to a seven- to 10-foot viewing distance. Eight to 11 feet is suggested for a 35-inch screen. Moving into the smaller home theater sizes, a 46-inch diagonal screen needs nine to 12 feet of viewing distance. A 52- to 60-inch screen requires 10 feet or more for comfortable viewing.
The true home theaters start with a 72-inch diagonal screen, which requires 12 to 18 feet of viewing distance. An 84-inch screen needs 14 to 21 feet of viewing distance, while a 100-inch screen has a suggested viewing distance of 16 to 24 feet. Finally, a 120-inch screen requires 20 to 30 feet of viewing distance.
As you can see, a diagonal screen of 52 to 100 inches can work well with a 16 foot viewing distance. However, if the room is only 12 feet wide from where the screen will be placed to the seating area, a 52- to 72-inch diagonal screen probably would be the best choice.
If you are unsure of the optimum screen size based on the room measurements, divide the available viewing distance by two for the maximum diagonal screen size and by three for the minimum diagonal screen size. For example, take a room that is 12 feet wide. Divide it by two to get six feet or 72 inches as the maximum diagonal screen size. Divided it by three to get four feet or 48 inches for the minimum screen size.
Once the screen has been selected, placing the sound components will be the next challenge. Many of the larger entertainment units supply space for these components. However, to truly achieve surround sound and create the home theater environment the components will be better placed elsewhere. The front speakers consist of two or possibly three units. The first two should be placed parallel to the viewing screen facing the seating area about ear height when sitting. They also should be placed symmetrically. That is, the left speaker and right speaker should be the same distance from the center of the screen. The third unit or center speaker should be placed below or behind the center of the screen and as close to it as possible. This speaker is used for the dialogue and some sound effects.
Ambiance speakers create the true surround sound environment. Individual units can be placed to the left and right of the seating area. This is a good application for inset ceiling or wall-mounted units if they are high quality speakers.
The final speaker is the sub-woofer. This unit provides the base frequency that gives the sound depth. This unit can be placed just about anywhere in the room. However, these units can be quite large so be prepared to face a decorating challenge. Placing this unit under a skirted table may be the easiest solution.
To enhance the surround sound layout consider the room acoustics. If all of the surfaces are hard, the sound will echo and distort. Lined draperies with blackout linings at the windows would be nice, not only for sound quality but for light reduction. Wall-to-wall carpeting or a good size area rug also can enhance the sound quality.
Such a sophisticated system can generate a lot of noise throughout the home. If the home theater is near other living spaces the proper window treatments and flooring can help reduce noise leaks. Also consider solid core doors on any entries to the room. If specifying a remodeling project, budget a few extra dollars to have the walls insulated. These efforts can do wonders for the sound within the room and the quiet without.
Finally, think about lighting and the function of the room itself. If the room is only used to watch television and movies, the room can be totally dark. More than likely, however, the room also will be used for social interactions while watching the screen. A perfect example would be a big sporting event.
Ideally, there should be reading lights, ceiling fixtures with dimmers and other lighting for accent. Consider all of the room functions when planning the lighting scheme.
It may help to go on a few field trips before beginning a home theater project. Select a couple of high quality movie theaters with notably good sound systems. Before and during the film check out the stage curtains, walls, floors, seating, lighting and sound equipment. Of course, you won't be planning a residential project on as grand a scale, but the experience will help you in the client's home.
Susan Dudics-Dean is owner of Celestial Designs and an interior designer who has worked in the San Francisco Bay area of California for more than 11 years. She also is a newspaper columnist and seminar speaker.