Building a Reference Grade Media Room on a Budget - Part One

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AndrewRobinson-hometheater-install.gifI've always liked the idea of having a dedicated home theater; a simple, dark space that I could fill to the ceiling with gear and call it my own. Well, want in one hand and you-know-what in the other and see which happens first, as my Grandfather used to say. Needless to say I've never had a room solely dedicated to being a home theater; instead I've built one multi-purpose media room after another.

My former reference theater featured acoustical treatments hidden behind floor-to-ceiling fabric walls, a 92-inch acoustically transparent drop down screen, a complete 5.1 in-wall speaker system from Meridian and a dedicated equipment closet that housed a single Middle Atlantic rack littered with some of the finest electronics money could buy. The thing I truly loved most about the room was the fact that 90 percent of those who entered it had no earthly idea it was a purpose built theater. It consistently scored high marks in the "wife acceptance factor" (WAF) category with everyone but my fiancée.

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She never really liked the room, for she felt it was to "fancy." While she liked that everything was hidden from view, the fabric walls spooked her a bit because we have three dogs and she worried constantly that they would damage my precious fabric walls. She had a point: custom installed fabric walls are not cheap, nor were the acoustic treatments they concealed from view. After only a year, I began to dislike my theater, for I too became overly paranoid about people or animals damaging it. The sad reality was that my reference system served double duty as our living and family room, but since we were both afraid of it we found ourselves watching television and movies in our bedroom, which featured a far less complicated and all together cheaper setup.

When it was time to move into our new home this year, we knew our approach to how we enjoy music and movies had to change, both in terms of design as well as budget, for we (like many of you I'm sure) weren't immune to the current economic climate. What follows is a play-by-play on how to build a state-of-the-art media room that is both stylish and functional, not to mention affordable.

Step 1: Have a Plan
I know this seems like it should go without saying but you'd be surprised at the number of consumers who simply waltz into their local dealer or big box store and simply begin to buy the items they think they're going to need. Having a plan, even before a budget, will pay huge dividends and save you a lot of money in the long run. Trust me.

So, what do I mean when I say, "Have a plan?" For starters, know what type of enthusiast you are. Are you a casual movie watcher, a television aficionado, an audiophile or a true die-hard and lover of all things consumer electronics? For instance if you're simply a casual movie watcher in the market for an slightly more involving experience, you probably don't need to spend a lot of time and money shopping for costly 5.1 speaker systems and AV preamp processor/multi-channel amp combos when a good soundbar and a larger, quality, HDTV will suffice.

My personal tastes tend to lend themselves towards the higher end of the spectrum with an emphasis on two-channel playback and reference grade video performance. Knowing that I was able to structure my time and budget accordingly, this allowed for the items that would directly impact the performance of those two key areas to take precedent while saving money elsewhere, hopefully without negatively impacting the system's overall performance.

Step 2: Be Realistic
It's one thing to have a plan, it's another thing entirely to think everything is going to go according to it. While I'm sure we'd all like a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 800Ds in our system, don't think for a minute that spending 90 percent on your budget on speakers and the remaining 10 percent on everything else is going to be a smart move. Don't let your lust for gear overpower your means. If you know you typically only watch two to three movies a month or listen to maybe 15 minutes of music a day on the system you currently have, don't go spending mad amounts of money hoping it will change your habits because it likely won't.

Step 3: Take Stock
A lot of consumers overlook what they currently own or have in their possession when it comes time to build and/or reinvigorate their home theater or two channel systems. Believe it or not, many enthusiasts think that the best move to make when building a system is to simply start anew. This is a good way to go over budget, not to mention overboard. You don't necessarily need to budget for or buy that new Blu-ray player when your two year old PS3 will do.

The same goes for your room's décor and furniture as well. The main purpose for building a media room over a dedicated home theater or a two channel listening space is that it can serve more than one purpose. It's about living with your system, not for your system. Balance grasshopper, balance.

For my room I already had a lot of gear that I knew would be making encore performances, mainly my Revel Studio2 loudspeakers, Mark Levinson Amplifier, Anthem D-ILA projector, SI Screen as well as various source components and cables bringing it all together.

Now I know many of you are saying to yourself, "It's easy to build a reference grade media room when you already own reference grade components." This is true; however the tips you'll find in these articles can be applied to mid-fi and even budget gear with excellent results. It's easy to get caught up in the gear and lose sight of the enjoyment, something I've been guilty of in the past, but know this: it's far easier and cost effective to make affordable gear sound amazing in a properly set up room than it is to go back and make expensive gear sound acceptable because you set off without a plan in the first place. Taking stock of what you currently own will also help you in determining how much or how little you'll ultimately have to budget for as you set off in building your new media room.

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