November 15, 2019

The Home Theater’s Engine

A great private theater is no accident. Theater designers cannot merely show up with the latest top of the line equipment, hang it in the proffered space, and knock out extraordinary results.

In a previous post, I compared the room itself to the chassis of a high-performance machine— purpose engineered for specified results and able to sustain the power and performance that we plan to equip it with. Because we have carefully engineered that chassis, we must follow through with specification, design, and engineering of the engine that will drive it.

The private theater’s engine represents a system of many parts that combine to deliver the final experience. These parts are broken up into a few subsystems, including the video system, the audio system, control, power, and storage. The specification of each subsystem is, in turn, subject to parameters that include, room size, room configuration, performance expectations, and budget. Additional parameters that the private theater designer must also consider are compatibility, reliability, product knowledge, experience, availability, and support. Finally, each subsystem and the entire theater engine require engineering and documentation to properly deliver a quality result.


A common mistake is the result of selecting equipment before the parameters are understood.  A typical scenario is one in which the client is pushing for a price quote before the system integrator has had the opportunity to properly discover the parameters and engineer the chassis.  In some cases, an integrator may not yet clearly understand the client’s expectations and true budgetary constraints.  The resulting equipment specification is likely to miss the mark on several parameters and could set the stage for unsatisfactory results going forward.  Many times the system engineering will identify flaws in the original (hasty) product specification that was created prior to engineering and supplied to the client to satisfy their desire for a price quote.

The preferred process for private theater system (engine) design is this:

  • Initial client interview
  • System intent and design agreement
  • Client discovery
  • Theater design intent, scope of work and design agreement
  • Functional room design (See Process Steps 1-3)
  • System specification and price estimate
  • System engineering and documentation
  • Theater interior design integration (See Process Steps 4-6)

The process of creating a system intent or scope of work upfront establishes a clear and open communication between the client and the system integrator and helps minimize miscommunications as the project progresses.  Starting with system intent ensures the integrator is engineering the proper system to meet the client’s expectations.  The next step is the functional room design, which provides the necessary information to properly specify the products making up the private theater ‘engine’.


CEDIA’S “Recommended Practices for Home Cinema Design” offers performance specification requirements for speakers, processors, amplifiers, cabling, projection, screen and other technical components.  Following these recommendations will ensure, for instance, that speakers are adequately powered for the designated space, projectors are up to the task of driving the screen size that has been properly designed for the space, etc…

Producing great results is not just about following a list of specs.  This is where those additional parameters and experience come in.  One example is Compatibility.  A component must be compatible with the application and the other equipment in the system.  Compatibility covers a lot of ground, including impedance, connectivity, control protocol, power handling, light output and aspect ratio to name a few.  Reliability, product knowledge and experience work hand in hand.  The only way that a designer can know if a product is reliable is through product knowledge and product knowledge is only available through product experience.


Proper engineering and system documentation is much more than providing a list of components and manufacturer cut sheets.  The system designer should employ their knowledge, tools and effort to provide detailed system documentation as they complete the system engineering.

Private theater designers and integrators who professionally design and engineer theater systems to their client’s stated and understood expectations will produce fantastic theater rooms that deliver an amazing experience.  Instead of an accident waiting to happen, these properly engineered rooms will prompt proud owners to show off what’s under the hood.