Features

A Home Theater Build Project - Part III

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction: Home Theater Room Treatment, Lighting, Remote, and Calibration

In this section I'll begin to talk about the ways in which I upgraded my room outside of actual equipment changes. Some of these changes were implemented to improve performance, while others were to improve the overall viewing experience. Either way, many of these are easy things that anyone can do in between the major equipment changes that we are often researching.


Room Lighting, Carpet and Ceiling

One of the first things that I talked about in this series was ambient light and its impact on front projection systems. As I have stated previously: ambient light is the enemy of front projection. No matter how good the space-aged screen technologies created to deal with this problem are, prevention the issue in the first place will always yield a more pleasing experience than whatever these materials achieve.

In order to address this, we must focus attention not only on light entering the room, but also on the light that we are creating...meaning the light coming from our projector. Why? To illustrate you can go into a dark room, take a flash light and shine it on a wall. Can you see anything else in the room besides the spot of light? Can you see yourself? May be walls around you? The entire purpose of a projector screen is to reflect light back to our eyes - but the screen is unbiased - the light can go anywhere in the room - and once that light has illuminated something other than our eyes, that light is free to go back onto the screen and ruin our black levels in the same way that a light in coming through a window can. I don't know many people who have a black ceiling or carpet - which would minimize this reflected light - and my room was no exception. The ceiling and floor directly in front of my screen were both light colored. In addition, the door leading into the room was white. When watching a movie, these surfaces lit up and reflected light back onto my screen. I tackled the floor first by simply buying a small black carpet that would sit in front of the screen, between the speakers, that extended out about 4 feet out into the room.

The ceiling was a little trickier. Panting was out - I didn't want to risk ruining the pop corned ceiling, nor did I want to have to worry about repainting the ceiling back when we moved out. Instead, I took a trip to my local Wal-Mart and picked up some felt. Using very thin carpet tacks, I tacked this felt to the ceiling extending out, again, about three feet (a trial run showed that this would come down really easily with very minimal damage to the actual ceiling). Lastly, I addressed the white door that sat to the left of my screen and shone brightly when closed during a movie. Instead of panting, I opted to hang some basic window dressings. A curtain rod and floor to ceiling black curtain would allow me to move the curtain into place easily when watching a movie, completely obscuring the white door, yet fold away when the theater was not in use for easy access. The results of all of these additions had a significant effect on the picture that I was getting - all for about less than a few hundred dollars in supplies.


Remote control

I'll admit, I held out for quite a while. The equipment closet I use has a leafed door and if I pointed the remote at the right angle, the remote signal would pass through and hit the equipment just right for me to control things. The PS3 that I had been using used a blue-tooth controller, which didn't require line-of-sight operation and thus worked through the door just fine. I could get away with 3 remotes floating around the coffee table in the room: one for the projector, one for the receiver and the controller for the PS3. For the most part the system was usable, but really only by me: operation of the three remotes was complicated enough that I couldn't expect my wife to realistically be able to control the theater if I wasn't around.

If I was going to do a universal solution, I wanted to do it right: I wanted to construct a powerful system that my wife, heck, even my dog, would be able to use without me there to assist them. I knew many people who have success using the self-programming systems that use wizard based approaches for configuration, like Logitec's Harmony line, but I wanted to have a bit more control over the programming process. This meant looking at other options than Harmony.

I had a few overarching requirements that guided my search

Whatever remote I went with had to have Radio Frequency (RF) capabilities. Not only does RF free you from having to actually "see" your equipment to interact with it, but it also allows you to execute more complex macros without having to worry about commands being lost. Typical remote controls communicate via Infrared (IR) light pulses. These light pulses are not only incapable of passing through barriers they are also directional. When giving a series of commands required to perform more complex functions, the IR emitter needs to stay oriented towards the equipment receiving the commands. As the number of tasks and amount of equipment increases, so does the likelihood that one of these commands gets lost as the user holds the remote. Therefore, one of the first steps to constructing a reliable remote system, whether your equipment is hidden or not, is moving away from IR based solutions that requires the remote to be oriented correctly for the desired task to be successful. Given my equipment was hidden and that my tasks involved multiple pieces of equipment in different locations, RF was essential.

There is one additional piece to the puzzle: because our equipment "speaks" in IR, we need something to translate these RF signals back into an IR pulse. Referred to by different names depending on manufacturer, an "RF base-station" was also a necessary piece of gear. From this base station one runs IR emitters directly to the IR receivers on the gear, "blasting" the IR code directly to the component.

In the end I settled on a remote that had software that allowed me full access to the macro programming.

It did, without a doubt, have a steep learning curve and changing out equipment takes a little bit longer then it might with a wizard programming based solution, but after some time with the software these changes go pretty quickly. To learn more about universal remotes, their programming, and approaches that can be used to make the system both reliable and user friendly, I'd like to point you towards the forums at Remote Central.


Lighting Control

Some upgrades don't directly impact performance, but rather impact the overall experience we have using our theater - lighting control is one of those upgrades. Can you get up to turn off the lights? Sure. But it's also really cool to just hit a button and have the lights go down automatically.

Lighting control is often one of the areas that often intimidate DIY'ers - it is viewed as overly complex and potentially costly. While that might have been true in the past, it is most certainly no longer the case. There are now a plethora of devices that make lighting control, both basic and fairly complex, accessible to even the most tightly budgeted projects.

I chose to do my basic lighting control using a Lutron Maestro IR switch. This ran about $30 at Home Depot and my universal remote software already included IR codes for this switch.

This allows my remote to turn the lights On or Off, as well as incidentally up or down, or go directly to a pre-determined light level. I simply added an additional page to my remote with the most common features and I was done. Luckily, my room was small enough that the IR from the front of my remote, really no matter where it's pointed, hits the receiver on the front of the switch. If it weren't, the amount of RF based lighting switches has exploded since I first undertook lighting control in my room, making really robust implementations accessible and affordable. It is amazing how much this adds to the experience - highly recommended.


Video Calibration

The merits of calibrating ones display have been widely documented. In short: displays do not arrive performing their best and proper calibration can improve not only picture quality but also efficiency and longevity. However, what we are talking about here is things that we, as users, can do to improve our theaters. Well, luckily, what once was the purview of expensive professional calibrators is now within the grasp of enthusiast users.

Several years ago a company called SpectraCal began utilizing moderately priced testing equipment, not originally intended for display calibration, for the calibration of all display types, including front projectors. Their efforts materialized in CalMAN, software designed and marketed towards enthusiasts looking to tackle calibration themselves. I was one of the very early adopters of the CalMAN platform. Since then, other software, including some free platforms, have popped up giving enthusiasts more options than ever to get into doing video calibration.

The question that is almost always asked when people begin looking at getting into video calibration is: Is this hard? My answer is almost always: depends. If you are a technically minded person, and willing to struggle a bit, video calibration isn't unapproachable. Some display are easy to calibrate than others and while the number of displays amenable to calibration is ever increasing, the process can still be frustrating at times. Like learning many tasks, it isn't something that you are going to pick-up in a few hours. However, with a few evenings and some experimentation, it is well within the grasp of almost anyone. If you want to get an idea of the "process" of calibration, I would eagerly point you to the following document at Curtepalme.com that walks you step by step through all aspects of the video calibration process. Another great resource, though not free, are the basic training courses offered by SpectraCal. Their "Enthusiast Bootcamp" is a one-evening course that serves to give users an introduction to the ins and outs of video calibration along with hands-on instruction on actual displays. If you'd like to learn more visit the SpectraCal website, or take a look at the Bootcamp review that I wrote here at Secrets or go to the SpectraCal website.

If reading the above document or attending an introductory class doesn't frighten you, you are in luck: for a few hundred dollars you can purchase a basic calibration set-up, including both a meter and software, and begin learning how to calibrate your display on your own. Unlike when I started, there are multiple options on both the software and hardware front that allow for fairly sophisticated set-ups to be procured at reasonable prices. We did a review of the consumer targeted software solutions here at Secrets last year: http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/diy/diy/diy-calibration-overview.html, and these options remain available today and have gone through a few new versions since this review was published. We will have an updated review of CalMan 4.0 shortly.

My personal video calibration set-up is based around the Chromapure platform, which just won a Secrets "Product of 2010" award for Calibration Software. In addition to Chromapure Pro, I use an X-rite Hubble Colorimeter and Sencore MP500 pattern generator.


Acoustics

Your room plays as much of a role in the way your system sounds as your equipment. However, the world of acoustics gets complicated...fast...and one can easily be swallowed up trying to understand just how sound behaves in their room and how this impacts the overall experience. Luckily, many advances in the last few years have made the process of getting our theaters sounding their best much easier.

In general, there are two ways in which one can address the way that their system sounds without actually changing equipment. We can address the room itself, whether that means room treatments or moving speakers, or we can manipulate the signal electronically, to compensate for the effects that the room is having on our system. Because my room is small, changing layout of the speakers or sub was not really practical (there were only so many options) and the random use of different acoustical treatments can do as much harm as good, so I was mostly limited to electronic manipulation of the sound to maximize what was coming from my room. That said, making sure the placement of your speakers, and especially your subwoofer, are correct is one of the easiest things you can do to begin getting great sound. There are loads written on this but my suggestion of a place to start would be the THX, Audyssey or Dolby websites.

Over the last several years the presence of auto-calibration and room correction features has become near ubiquitous in mid level receivers. Though these systems have many critics, I feel that this is unjustified. It always seems those that are quickest to point the fingers at these systems are the ones who have the technical knowledge and equipment to go far beyond what auto-calibration/room correction can accomplish. For those of use who don't have that equipment (or the budget to pay these people to come to our homes) I think the room correction features are a great way to get you closer than you'd have been without doing anything. I would counter that even with the inaccuracies, people systems sound better now then they did before such systems were so widespread. For many years I made due with these systems and the results, for me, were very satisfying and better than I had had before - so I've made sure that all of my receivers have had competent room correction/auto-calibration features. Let your ears be the final judge - if the system sounds off in someway after running auto calibration features, don't use it.

The first thing that I did to move past the basic auto calibration that a system like Audyssey was giving me was to purchase an external subwoofer equalization box from SVS. Lower frequencies are the most susceptible to negative effects from our room and the capabilities of most standard room correction features to deal with these lower frequencies is limited: enter an external sub equalization box. Units like these do essentially the same thing that the auto-calibration systems do, but are specifically targeted towards optimizing subwoofer sound. The results from the AS-EQ1 in my room were significant - not the least of which was probably due to the susceptibility of subwoofer issues in a small room. I've since moved past the use of the SVS as Audyssey's newest offering: the brand new Audyssey MultiEQXT-32, builds the functionality of the external box directly into the processing power found in my new Preamp/Processor.

Another way I moved past the basic Audyssey calibration was to purchase an Audyssey Professional Kit. Audyssey Pro brings increased functionality to standard Audyssey as well as the addition of laboratory grade, calibrated test equipment giving much more accurate measurements. Unfortunately you have to purchase a license for each unit you will do an Audyssey Pro calibration on, but the cost isn't huge ($150). Many custom installers offer this service, but Audyssey does authorize sale of the professional kit to end users, so if you think you will enjoy playing around with different type of correction curves and settings, the Audyssey Pro Kit is a great way to go.


Where we go next?

In the next, and last, section of this series. I want to talk all a little bit more about my wish list: where I'm looking to make changes and why.