An inside look at our Reference Theater design process by Audio Advice chairman Leon Shaw:
In Sept. of 2009, after we signed the lease for our new store in Charlotte, I started mapping out how to remodel the space. The one room I wanted to be perfect was our Reference Theater room. Every time I drive to our Charlotte store, one of the first things I do is sit down in our Reference Theater, start up a new Blu-ray movie in the changer, and grin ear to ear. The combination of the B&W speakers, Classe processor, and Rotel amps is magical. The sound and picture are just flat jaw dropping! I don’t think a single person has come out of a demo without having a similar reaction. When there are dynamic effects, they sound incredibly realistic. You can hear every nuance of emotion in the voices of the actors and actresses. The level at which this theater came out has me all excited to redo our big theater here in Raleigh. Keep reading, and I think you will find it useful and have fun learning about the ways we went about deciding what gear to use, how we designed the acoustics, and our installation and room calibration process.
Presenting the latest video technology for home theater was a big goal. We want you to see how the wide screen viewing experience you have in a commercial theater can now be created in the home. Most blockbuster movies are shot in much a wider ratio than the usual HDTV image. (HDTV has a 1:78 ratio, where most popular films have a ratio of 2:35.) To create the 2:35 image for both home and commercial cinema, an anamorphic lens is needed. It slides in front of the projector’s primary lens. The projector electronically stretches the picture from top to bottom, and the lens stretches it left to right, creating the 2:35 presentation. The anamorphic lens causes the picture to have a slight barreling effect, which is eliminated with a curved film screen (another requirement for our room).
There were audio goals we wanted to reach as well. In commercial theaters, the center channel speaker is always behind the screen. This helps create the effect of the dialog track matching the picture. We wanted to make sure to accomplish this in our reference theater. We also wanted the front three speakers to be identical, to perfectly match sounds panning across the front sound stage.
Another audio item on our checklist was great dynamic range. This is the measurement of the difference in sound between the softest part of the movie and the loudest part. The best theaters have tremendous dynamic range. If you start with a room having a very low noise level, then by default you have greater dynamic range. Take a room with a low noise level, design it for great low frequency impact and add very efficient speakers, and you will get the best possible outcome.
We knew our theater would have seating for 7-8 people, so we wanted every seat to provide a great viewing and listening experience, with the goal of hiding every speaker and piece of equipment. The only thing we want the viewer to see is the movie screen!
Meeting all of these goals was a challenge for me, but also lots of fun. The planning started from the outside in. Only one dimension (the width) needed to be fixed, so I played with the ceiling height and room length, creating dimensions that worked well acoustically. Since the room was going to be a rectangle (in which you can actually predict acoustics to a high degree of accuracy), and we had free reign on two of the three dimensions, we were able to plan a space with the right dimensions
The next step was about half luck. The room directly behind the back theater wall was a space we planned to use for rack building. Instead, we decided to take advantage of the space and make our Reference Theater just like a real movie theater, where the projector and equipment (which all make noise) are in a separate space. We designed this smaller area to hold the projector and theater gear, and used projection booth glass to totally isolate the two spaces.
The building HVAC system makes quite a bit of noise, so we applied acoustic dampening treatment to the ceiling above the theater. Seating was mapped out for the best acoustic spots in the room. Then the correct ratio of seating distance to screen was calculated to get the ideal screen size for the room.
Gerry Lemay of Quest Acoustics and I spent many hours working on the next step in design: getting the acoustic treatment to match speaker and seating placement. We determined to get the acoustic treatments exactly right to make the Reference Theater an example of how good things can sound with proper planning for acoustic treatment. In my opinion this can ultimately make a much bigger difference in the performance of a room than the components. The end result has just been spectacular.
Next, the real fun began, picking out the gear! The simplest thing would have been to pick the top of the line from our best vendors, write a big check and be off to the races. However, outfitting an all-new store meant we needed to watch our dollars just like anyone else. Fortunately, B&W had recently introduced a new line of Custom Theater speakers having an incredible value. We chose B&W CT7.3 speakers for left, center, and right. These are priced at a very reasonable $1500 each. CT Series SW15 subwoofers from the same series were picked as well. To get really dynamic bass, we elected to use four of these: two in the front and two in the back. All of these CT Series speakers are less than 12” deep, making them easy to hide behind a screen wall. For surround and rear speakers, we used top of the line B&W in-wall speakers.
For the picture, we chose an acoustically transparent Stewart curved film screen with masking for HDTV content. This let us put the center channel behind the screen and we flanked the sides of the screen with left and right speakers. Digital Projection has had a close connection with the film industry for many years, so we chose to use their Titan projector with their anamorphic lens.
We also chose the top of the line Classé SSP-800 processor. This is an amazing surround sound processor, the best sounding one we have ever had by far, yet at $9000 it costs less than many of its competitors. To balance our splurge in processor spending we picked Rotel amplifiers to drive all of the speakers. (The Rotel amps are just a great value- I have them in my own home theater along with the Classé processor.) The Kaleidescape movie management system and a Sony BluRay changer are our source components.
The last step was choosing the look of the room. Everything finally came together from a design standpoint. We wanted it to be tasteful, but our focus was performance and not an extravagant décor. We decided to use cherry molding trim and a simple fabric wall covering, even making columns from wrapped fabric material to keep things simple. United Leather makes a great value line of theater seats, and was our seating choice.
Then it was time to build it all! We wanted to have great speaker cables connecting the gear, so before the sheetrock was up we ran Transparent speaker cables all over the room. Then sheetrock went up and was ready for the acoustic treatments. After our great Charlotte team installed the equipment, the acoustic treatments went in. All that was left was calibration and control, with a basic Universal remote being used to control the theater room.
There is nothing like it our Reference Theater any store in Charlotte or, for that matter, probably within 300 miles. The viewing and listening experience you will receive from this theater is simply stunning. If you live in the Charlotte area and are into home theater at all, you owe it to yourself to experience our Reference Theater. Heck, if you live within 200 miles, it’s worth the drive!
Watch for more news as we begin our Raleigh theater renovation this summer. We hope you’ll come experience just how good home cinema can be, and learn how you can do all or part of it in your own home. We’d love to help design your home theater!