Ten Steps to Movie Nirvana
So your “show off” neighbor invited you and your spouse over for a movie last week. What he didn’t want to tell you in advance was his surprise that he had just installed a new home theater system the week before. Together, you watched Ford vs. Ferrrari in 4K/HDR. Although you weren’t sure what was involved, you were duly impressed and the seed was planted. Clearly, front projection was the way to go for all the theater-like “drama” it fostered.
After obligatory negotiations with your significant other an agreement was made to proceed...carefully. But where to start? Having been down this path with hundreds of couples, here is the generic counsel I usually provide:
1. Be sure you want to make the investment in space and money. Game rooms and basements are natural habitats for a home theater. If neither exist, some other part of the home must be sacrificed. Be comfortable that the space being displaced can be re-created somewhere else or done away with entirely.
2. Be realistic about the budget. Describe what you want the end result to look like and try to find an unbiased professional to convert your ideas into dollars. You don't need the biggest, baddest theater on the block to enjoy great, enveloping movies and primetime TV. A two-seat theater, the correct distance from the screen that engages all of your field-of-view, supported with a decent 5.1 (or better) audio system can be just as satisfying as the Bijou downtown.
3. The seating arrangement and distance-to-screen will determine screen size. Maximum distance, rear row to screen, keeps field of view under control and minimizes angle of light reflection (we want most light back into our eyes, not on the sidewalls). I counsel as large a screen as practical allowing for the left and right speakers to be outboard of screen. A $ caution here: The larger the screen, the more light output required from the projector to have a decent contrast ratio, perhaps the most important metric in the whole system. Light output from a projector correlates closely with dollars and cents. Likewise, contrast performance varies by projector, and better contrast/deeper blacks usually cost more.
4. Now to the equipment. Where will it go? Separate rack? On a credenza? Hid in a closet? It’s easy to remote the equipment whereever it can be accommodated. The UHD player should be kept in the room, if possible, for easy access.
5. The biggest decision…projector/screen. I like the end result of the combination to output about 30 FtL of light. That’s more than twice what you will likely get in a commercial theater. Most importantly, make sure the projector is HDR compliant and, of course, is being fed by a UHD Blu-ray player similarly compliant. The HDR part has to do with reproduction of specular highlights (the subject of at least one more blog) and is essential to maximum image enjoyment. Take the time to get seating distances, screen size and projector light output right. Errors here will haunt you for a long time. [Editor's note: We cover these subjects in detail and provide resources in "How to Buy a Home Theater Projector, Part 2: Step by Step to Your New Home Theater" from our Home Theater Projector Buyer's Guide.—R.S.]
6. The screen here ideally needs to be in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that's common to widescreen movies. This means that when you're viewing normal HD content (16x9 or 1:78:1) there will be small posts either side of the image. A velvet frame is a good idea. If the theater is “pitch black” and you have black level set correctly, you will not likely notice the difference. If your wallet is big enough, consider motorized masking…waaay cool!
7. The receiver should have multiple inputs if you are the one who can’t let go of your VHS deck, laser disc player, and the (R.I.P.) Betamax.
8. Wherever the equipment rests, be sure it is all plugged into some kind of surge protection. That goes for the projector too.
9. Don’t skimp on cables and connectors. All the new features that make the images as good as they can be (4K and higher resolution, 4:4:4 chroma sub-sampling, 12-bit color, etc.) require higher bandwidth cables.
10. Now the fun part: Feather your nest. Space and budget allowing, add a popcorn machine, movie posters, sconce lighting, a small candy counter, motorized curtains and movie-themed pillows.
Attention to detail is important, but the journey to finish the project should be enjoyable, interesting, and finally provide you with a world of entertainment that you and your family may not have imagined possible.