CEDIA Project Highlights: From a Garage to a Sound-Optimized Home Theater

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The following is a guest post from CEDIA — hopefully the first of many — about the art of home theater design.

In this age of multiple screens—from your iPhone to your laptop to your television—it can sometimes be hard to recall the kind of impact that cinema-going once had on the psyche of earlier audiences. The sacred darkness of the theater combined with the immersive audio technology created visceral experiences that many of us remember for a lifetime.

Box Office Trends

Now, though, movies are more accessible than ever. You don’t even have to make the effort to use the “tracking” control on your VCR, or eject a DVD; online streaming services have made viewing a virtual avalanche of movies as easy as a single mouse-click. Unsurprisingly, lots of folks opt to watch a movie on Netflix, or a TV episode on Hulu, instead of going out to the local theater these days. Just take a look at this graph from Mother Jones, to get a grip on the direction that box office sales are trending:

In order to maintain the full-immersion experience that movie-theaters provide, while retaining access to the classics of Cinema’s golden age, you pretty much have to build a theater for yourself. Then you get to choose which movies get shown–and can control the quality theater experience, far beyond what any laptop can provide.

In this series, we’re going to look at what it takes to build a home theater to perfection. As we’ll see there’s a lot that goes into recreating that perfect environment where space, sound, lighting and decor all align to create an ideal movie-watching experience.

Taking us on a tour of this process will be the Erskine Group, featured in the inspiration gallery over at CEDIA, who took this garage…

Erskine Group garage before

and turned it into this home theater.  

Erskine Group home theater after

Optimizing a Home Theater’s Audio Performance

For most of us–at first glance–the most remarkable aspect of Erskine’s theater is the honeycombed crown-molding that separates the ceiling panels into a grid of octagonal chambers. And so that’s what the first part of our series will focus on: how and why does honeycomb crown-molding optimize audio, while heightening the aesthetic that the Erskine Group was aiming at here?

The honeycombing is beautifully done, but its purpose is more than just for looks.

Erskine Group honeycombing

This darkly varnished beehive pattern performs a crucial role in optimizing sound quality in the room. To avoid reverberation against the floor, resulting in noisiness and poor sound quality, it’s important to structure the ceiling to diffuse the sound into the space above the floor level. This aspect of acoustical design is called sound diffusion.  

What is sound diffusion?  

First order reflections

Sound diffusion is a structural aspect of acoustic design–the design element is intended to evenly spread out the sound energy given off by the audio equipment in a specific environment. As you can see in the diagram just above, flat ceilings and floors bounce sound around in a way that causes interference patterns and leads to jarring, sometimes dissonant audio quality.

The trick is to design a surface that is multi-faceted, so that sound waves bounce off of it in multiple angles. The honeycombed crown molding suits our purposes in this case to a tee. The multiple chambers, as well as the multiple frames & facets within each chamber, break the sound up into hundreds of angles when the entire vault is considered. This splits up the directional energy of the sound so that it reaches the ear more like a homogeneous presence than like a stray sound wave bouncing off of the floor.

CEDIA sound diffusion, simplified

The Art of the Theater Ceiling

Erskine Group began the process of installation by putting the silos together in their workshop. They then had to space them evenly across the ceiling. Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs work well for doing the measurements needed for this kind of distribution.

Erskine Group honeycombs
After the honeycombs were all in place and equidistantly distributed across the plane of the ceiling, it was time to “raise the roof.”

Erskine Group home theater ceilingIn this case, “raising the roof” meant vaulting up the sheathe, or frame, to cap off the gaps between each frame of the honeycomb.

Erskine Group home theater ceiling construction Into this frame, they installed the crown-molded individual honeycomb panels. As you can see, from the flat panel in the center of the cell to the very lip of the chamber, there are eight stair steps of crown molding, just as the octagon has eight sides. This created a nice (although obviously very subtle) symmetry between design elements.

Erskine Group honeycombs, internals

These panels were then installed into the skeleton that had already been fixed into place.

Erskine Group home theater ceiling honeycomb skeleton

After putting all of the pieces together, Erskine Group applied several coats of stain to deepen and enrich the color, creating an elegant vibe.

Erskine Group home theater honeycomb ceiling finished

As you can see, every aspect of the space has been constructed to complement the sound equipment. Like what you see? Head over to CEDIA’s Inspiration Gallery for other great home theater project galleries.

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