What Defines A Custom Home Theater?
The difference between a custom home theater and a room with speakers and boxes is “suspension of disbelief.” A custom home theater pulls you into, say, the latest James Bond flick, where for two hours you feel like you’re in a Lamborghini driving down a cobblestone street about the crash into that fruit vendor’s cart. In a custom home theater, you experience 5.1 surround sound, but you don’t know where the sound is coming from because the speakers blend into the wall or ceiling. No wires are dangling from the TV, no blinking lights to distract you. For not much more than you would pay for a box system, a custom home theater will not only sound better, it will be more aesthetically pleasing to a picky spouse who may not be thrilled to see a bunch of black boxes and cables.
Let's Start with Custom Speakers
In a custom home theater, in-wall or ceiling speakers replace bulky free-standing models, and the speaker grilles are often painted to match the room décor. These speakers are designed to reproduce multichannel audio tracks, so when you watch a movie encoded with 5.1, you’ll hear five separate audio tracks as opposed to a measly two. Three audio channels route to the Front Stage of a home theater (left, center, right speakers); two channels route to the surrounds (these are the left and right speakers located behind or to the side of the listeners); and the .1 reserves those rumbling low frequencies for the subwoofer. In a 7.1 surround system, an additional surround speaker is located on each side.
A Good Front Stage
If you’re on a budget (and who isn’t?), try to invest funds toward the Front Stage of your custom theater. These speakers carry critical dialog, surround effects, staging, and imaging that draw you into a scene. The image below shows a typical front stage that includes a center channel (Dual 5.25”) and a left and right speaker (both 2-way 6.5”) commonly referred to as LCR.
The right and left surrounds are generally 2-way speakers that supply surround effects. The money speaker is the center channel. It looks different than the other speakers and typically includes two woofers and a tweeter for a mid, tweeter, mid configuration (MTM). Since so much information comes from the center channel, purchase the best quality center channel your budget will allow. Note the optimum Front Stage LCR speakers Center channels can be mounted either above or below your screen, but it’s important that all the front stage speakers share the same timbre match where the Tweeters are identical, and the woofer cone materials are the same. If you mix and match the front stage speakers, a dinosaur roar may sound terrifying one second then meek as a mooing cow the next.
No room for In-wall Speakers? Think Ceiling Speakers!
Going with in-wall speakers depends largely on the space available around the TV and, of course, accessibility for connectivity. In an ideal situation, you would have plenty of room for Dual 5.25” In-Wall LCR speakers for the Front Stage but let’s be real. Not every wall has access to run wires or perhaps a big cabinet stretches from one end to the next. Here’s where ceiling speakers can help.
Keep in mind that no matter what type of speaker is used for the front stage (box, in-wall or ceiling), the tweeter controlling the high frequencies needs to be focused or directed at the ideal viewing/listening/seating area. The problem with traditional ceiling speakers is that for the tweeter to be properly aimed towards the listener, the speaker would have to be mounted slightly forward and above the seating area. This creates an unusual disconnect between viewing the picture at eye level and the sound coming from almost directly above.
Angled Ceiling Speakers to the Rescue!
The angled in-ceiling speaker tilts the midbass driver 15 degrees and includes a pivoting tweeter for the optimum front stage placement flexibility. The angled design allows placement of the in-ceiling closer to the wall just above the monitor. This creates a more realistic sound image when compared to regular in-ceiling speakers that are mounted closer to or directly above the viewing area. While standard in-ceiling speakers are generally placed at least three feet from the wall to avoid reflective sound, the angled speaker can be placed within a foot of the wall. Here’s what front stage ceiling speakers would look like:
These speakers can be angled so that dialog feels like it’s coming from the monitor. Install 2-way ceiling speakers in the rear, and you’ve got yourself a custom home theater!
Rear Speakers for Surround Effects
The rear channels are located behind or to the side of the listeners. These speakers are important backup players in surround sound effects, so when a helicopter flies above, the sound will envelop the listener. Rear speakers don’t carry as much information as the front stage so there’s no need to go overkill here. The type and size are not as important, although timbre matching should be a consideration. Again, the flexibility of the angled ceiling speakers (originally created for the front stage) is another good option for rear speakers. The ceiling is often more accessible than the “in the wall” for wiring, and angled speakers have an added advantage of being placed closer to an adjacent wall without the worry of too much reflection.
One Last Word on Surround Channels
Aiming the tweeter at the selected listening/viewing area is the key whether you are using in-ceiling, in-wall, or even wall-mounted speakers. The high frequencies produced by the tweeters are very directional, and the tweeter must remain focused. That is why the tweeter in all ceiling and In-wall speakers have the ability to pivot or swivel so they can be aimed at the optimum listening position.
Free-Standing and In-wall Home Theater Subwoofers
Subwoofers are designed specifically for low-frequency effects (LFE) and give you that gut-churning rumble that transports you out of reality and into a scene. If your room can’t accommodate a subwoofer, try to invest in ceiling or wall speakers with 8” woofers. An 8-inch in-ceiling speaker will typically have more bass due to the larger cone area of the 8" woofer, but in a home theater 5.1 or 7.1 set up, the speakers will be limited by the frequency output of the audio/video receiver. We recommend at least one subwoofer, and if your budget allows, two subs to cancel out dead spots. Powered subs include an internal amplifier while passive subs, such as our in-wall subs, rely on external amplification. Both options are good but freestanding subwoofers offer more placement flexibility. Once you install an in-wall sub, you’re stuck with the low-frequency direction, whereas freestanding models let you experiment with sound. We tell folks to place their sub in the middle of the room, play a movie with good low-frequency effects and walk around it in a circle. Wherever it sounds best, mark the spot and place the sub there.