Building a Home Theater – Part 2

In our first part of this series, we covered our room design and some of the issues we would have to overcome. We also painted the walls to be more ideal for a home theater environment and decided to install some wall shelving to hold media and equipment. This installment we are going to focus on installing that wall shelving and how it works out and then the selection of gear for the room.

Algot Installation and Use

The Algot system of shelving from IKEA is much more affordable than the other options I considered. The Elfa system from The Container Store is more attractive and has some other accessories that I would like, but was going to cost 3-4x as much to purchase. Given that I’d much rather spend that money on other areas of the home theater, and that most people won’t even see this room, I decided to go with the Algot system. The only designer from IKEA made it easy to pick out what parts I needed and design a layout. It also gives you a shopping plan with locations and quantities so your trip can be quick.

Installing the Algot was fairly easy once I learned the best method. First, locate the wall studs. If you attach these columns to the studs, they’re going to be rock solid. The key step is to align all of the columns, with the shelves installed, before you screw the columns into the wall. If you remove the shelves and then screw, you’ll be slightly mis-aligned. It’ll still work, but it won’t be perfect. Trust me, I learned. Instead get everything setup to the right distances, make sure you’re still on the studs, and then start to screw them in. After a few screws you can then move the shelves around to get the final screw locations and you’re good. I also recommend finding screws that accept a star bit or square bit, as they’ll drive directly into the studs much better than a phillips head.

Once assembled, the Algot system has been great. It holds hundreds of Blu-ray discs and records and doesn’t sag at all. My computer has a nice desk with a few shelves above it to store equipment, and I still have lots of space free. The flexibility means I can adjust the shelves as I see fit, and I can easily take them off when I need to route cables or anything behind them. One thing I did have to do to make it more usable is to get some matching white bookends off Amazon. Otherwise records and Blu-ray movies at the end of the shelves would start to fall. I wish there was an easy way to add some dividers for records to make them easier to stand up, but I can figure that out down the road if necessary.

Gear Selection

Before I could build out the room, I had to decide what to do for gear inside of it. I knew I would need to install a drop-down screen because of the wall I was using. To free up more space in this relatively small room, I also wanted to go with in-wall speakers. When I was renting, cutting out big pieces of drywall wasn’t something I could easily do. Now that I own the house, I was free to install whatever I wanted and do as much damage as I cared to do. I also needed to put a TV behind the screen, but was going to choose whatever won for Best TV in my testing at Wirecutter this year.

I also wanted to hide as much of the wiring as possible. For me this meant putting the gear into the closet and then running all of the cables in the wall or in the crawl space as possible. It would open up more of the room and keep it clean while not requiring any compromise. The overall goal of this entire situation was to keep as much open space as possible to allow for review gear while still having a high-end system that works for testing that gear. My prior home theaters have always been very cave-like and uninviting. People often wound up watching movies on the Panasonic VT60 plasma with a sound bar instead because the living room was just more comfortable to be in.

Finally, with the lesser amount of space available to me than I’ve had in the past, I wanted to downsize to a single receiver instead of running separates. I sold off my Parasound and Emotiva amps as well as my Marantz preamp to get ready for this. I never have to test amps and preamps for work anymore, so keeping them around wasn’t necessary.

For a drop-down screen, there were two major companies that came to mind: Stewart Filmscreen and Seymour Screen Excellence. I’ve reviewed screens from them in the past and they have been very impressive. One major difference is that the Enlightor 4K from Seymour Screen Excellence is a woven material while the Snomatte 100 from Stewart that you can get motorized in a Microperf X2. My prior time with the Seymour screen was great. It had very little visible texture and was almost completely acoustically transparent when in use. It did let a lot of light pass through, but since my room size meant 92”-96” was the largest screen I could do that was not an issue.

modelahome

In the end I decided on the Stewart screen. The main reason being that Stewart is well known for being the reference quality screen. Snomatte 100 is completely neutral with no gain. No matter what angle you view it from it will look great, and it introduces almost no color shift at all. When you want a reference standard, that is what Snomatte 100 is for screens. Because of throw distances and room size, I had to go with a 92” screen. While smaller than the 100” and 120” screens I’ve had in the past, I’m only sitting around 7’ away from the screen in this room so the image is very large. Stewart is also able to customize the screen to work with your situation. In my case, that meant placing the wall mounting on the opposite side as normal to fit inside my ceiling beams while giving me the maximum throw distance.

For speakers the choices were much easier. Ever since I reviewed the Q100 a couple of years ago I’ve loved the sound of KEFs. The UniQ driver leads to a more time and phase coherent sound with improved clarity compared to other options. KEF also offers a full line of in-wall systems including their THX Extreme Home Theater options. These are a version of the Reference line I already was using in my theater in the R300 bookshelf and R600 center. When I picked out bookshelf speakers, it was because it let me move them around more easily without always straining my back to move towers around. Since these are never being moved again, I was under no such restraint.

thx-extreme-home-theater

I decided to go with a system consisting of two Ci5160RL-THX fronts, a matching Ci3160RL-THX center, two Ci200RR-THX speakers for left and right surrounds, and four more of the Ci200RR-THX speakers for Atmos and DTS:X height channels. For the time being I passed on rear speakers, but at some point in the future I might reconsider that choice. Even when I’ve tested the difference between 5.1 and 7.1 I’ve never felt I’m missing much without the rear speakers and would rather have the extra Atmos speakers. These are all being paired with my existing Power Sound Audio subwoofer, which can easily handle the bass below 80Hz in a room this size. I did consider going with in-wall subwoofers to open up even more space, and might in the future, but for now will use an in-room sub.

I now needed a receiver to power all of these speakers. The choice here was easy as the updated Anthem MRX 1120 offers 11 channels of amplification along with their room correction technology. After talking to Nick Platsis at Anthem (their lead engineer) and then to KEF at CEDIA about the speaker choices, they both agrees they would work well together. The Anthem has five channels with 140 watts per channel in a Class A/B amp for the five main channels and 60 watts per channel in a Class D amp for the remaining six channels. The reason for choosing Class D is that a single component like the MRX 1120 can only pull so much power from the wall at one time. Using more efficient, less powerful amps for the rear and height channels let you dedicate more power to the main speakers. To me, this is a better choice than using a Class A/B amp for those that will starve the main channels of power during certain situations.

mrx-1120

The Anthem also features ARC which allows for far more control over calibration than almost any other system available at this price. As I love the sound of the KEF speakers and don’t want to change them, I can calibrate the room only at 300Hz and below. This will fix the effects of the room on the bass, but not alter the traditional sound of the KEFs. I can also setup three more configurations so I can have one with the fronts going full range with no room correction for playing vinyl, one with more room gain, and one with a higher frequency of bass correction if I want to have a completely flat response. It also allows me to do quick measurements in the room, allowing for positioning speakers for review quickly and easily. Since I can save the ARC results to a local file, after a review is done I can reload those settings right back into the Anthem and not have to measure the room again as well.

If you’ve read my piece at The Wirecutter about it, or my review of it, you won’t be surprised I went with the Vizio P65-C1 TV. As beautiful as OLED TVs are, a 65” one would cost double the Vizio and that was money I was allocating elsewhere in the home theater. Using an OmniMount wall mount I can have the Vizio placed flat against the wall and the Stewart screen drops down just a couple of inches in front of it. With support for HDR10 and Dolby Vision it is ready for future content no matter what standard wins out.

Finally I needed a surge protector to cover all this equipment, as well as loaner gear. Reading the guide to surge protectors at Wirecutter led me to wanting a series mode unit. Standard units can work fine, but they break down eventually and many don’t even let you know that they’ve stopped working. A series mode unit can stop a surge over and over, without needing to be replaced. They’re more expensive, but when you might have thousands and thousands of dollars in equipment, the long term peace of mind can be worth it.

With that in mind, I went with the SurgeX SEQ. Before it arrived, I had a 20 Amp line run to my AV closet. I was already having work done on the power at the house, but the cost of $250 was relatively low. It also ensured that my gear closet would not run low on power in the future if I need to test amplifiers. The SurgeX SEQ uses a 20 Amp input to 14 outlets with series mode protection. This was enough to power all of the gear I have in the closet safely and securely. There are some cheaper series mode units out there, but I had friends with good experience with the SurgeX units.

ComponentQuantityPrice Each
KEF Ci5160RL-THX2$3,000
KEF Ci3160RL-THX1$1,800
KEF Ci200RR-THX6$800
Anthem MRX 11201$3,500
Stewart 92" Snomatte Electriscreen1Varries
OmniMount OE120FM1$102
Vizio P65-C11$2,000
SurgeX SEQ1$1,250

Saving Money

Now many of these choices are fairly expensive since I had to go with reference quality for reviewing, but there are many other options you could pick to save money while still getting much of the performance.

For the receiver, you can save $2,000 by going with the Denon AVR-X4300H. It offers 9 channels of amplification and the ability to do an 11.2 system with an external amplifier. It uses Audyssey XT32 instead of ARC, which isn’t as powerful or flexible, but still does a good job. It also has the best setup routine of any receiver I’ve used to date. It even includes a phono amp which the Anthem lacks.

For speakers the easiest way to save is to downsize the Ci5160RL-THX fronts to the Ci3160RL-THX versions. With home theater you won’t notice as much of a difference, only with direct two channel content will it be apparent. For those that aren’t listening to analog content much you might be fine. There are also a number of in-wall speakers available from dozens of other companies you can use if the KEFs aren’t your preferred sound. Revel, Paradigm, GoldenEar, and many others make great sounding in-walls, and KEF has many more affordable models as well.

Finally there are many other drop-down screens you can choose. If you don’t need acoustically transparent, then you have lots of options. Even if you do, there are a number of other choices that might not be quite as neutral in color or acoustically transparent as the Stewart. Or you can choose to do either a projector or a TV, instead of both, and save a lot of money that way. No matter what you choose, there are many options available that don’t have to cost a fortune.

Next Up: Wiring

Before we can install any of this year, we need to make sure the room is wired for everything first. We also have some more improvements to make in the room, including covering up that large outside window and installing lights. Next installment we go over these choices as well as all of the mistakes I made when deciding how to wire the room because I didn’t think it through all the way. Hopefully everyone will be able to learn from my mistakes on that.

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6 Comments on "Building a Home Theater – Part 2"

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Curious what projector you are using…

Oh, I could mention that. I have an Epson 5020UB though I’m so often reviewing projectors that it is almost never used.

Nice KEF front speakers and TV.
I get it – In-Ceiling surrounds are necessary for small space, but far from optimal.
Anthem vs Denon you’ve already covered, but I will disagree on ARC being better systems, it may be more adjustable, but that Denon will auto calibrate dual subs which no other system will.
And finally that power surge is MASSIVE waste of money. You could have achieved same exact result with this : APC Smart-UPS SMT750

That APC is completely different than the SurgeX. The SurgeX is a 20 amp input, not 15, and it has 2,400 total watts available while the APC only has 500. It also has 14 outlets vs. 6, and uses series mode surge suppression instead of relying on MOVs. I’ve asked Anthem about the sub calibration in the past, and their response has been “Even if subs are corrected individually by whichever other means, in the end they must be swept as a mono group since the sub responses interact when multiple subs play simultaneously.” So even if you do them… Read more »

Great set up – how far is the screen from the viewing position?

Right around 7.5′ currently, but it might shift slightly when I eventually change couches.

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