I'm sitting on a Zoom meeting with Scott Newnam, CEO and president of Audio Advice (the popular high-end, brick-and-mortar and online AV retailer based in Raleigh, NC) watching him build a completely custom home theater. From scratch. In minutes. Complete with detailed measurements to every speaker and seat and riser in the room. As we're chatting, he drags his mouse across the screen and literally transforms his initial design into an entirely different room in mere seconds.
The tool that makes this magic possible is the company's recently launched Home Theater Designer, an online 3D design app that enables pretty much anyone to design a home theater system that meets all the specifications for viewing distances and angles, speaker placement, screen size, and a number of other parameters. We may not literally be living in the future, but this demonstration sure makes it feel like it.
As Newnam punches in room dimensions and selects speaker layouts from a dropdown list, I get curious about why a consumer electronics retailer would put so much effort into offering such a powerful tool to anyone who wants to use it.
Dennis Burger: Where did the idea for the Home Theater Designer come from?
Scott Newnam: By way of background, I started a software company when I was at Harvard Business School 20 years ago. I sold it approximately 15 years ago, when I decided that I didn't want to be on a plane all the time; I wanted to see my kids. So, I moved to Raleigh and bought into Audio Advice, which I co-own today with founder Leon Shaw. We now run it together.
One of the visions I had for Audio Advice when I bought into the company was building an e-commerce site that has the benefits of walking into one of our stores. What would it take to do that?
That meant we needed more images, we needed product videos, sure. But more importantly, we needed to have people on chat and answering the phone who know what they're talking about, so if you're going to buy a Sonos Arc, and you're not sure if it's going to work with your TV, we can answer that question for you. And if you get it and don't know how to plug stuff in, we can walk you through it.
The Home Theater Designer is ultimately just another extension of that same philosophy: giving you online access to the same sort of expertise that you could previously only access in person. We've been working on coding and designing this tool since 2019, but because of COVID, we finally pulled the trigger and released it to market now.
DB: So, ultimately, the desire is for customers to use Home Theater Designer to build their dream systems online and then buy the gear they need from Audio Advice?
SN: Ultimately, yes. But it's important to note that this is more than just the Home Theater Designer tool; it's a complete resource for someone who's thinking about building a home theater and wondering where to go from there. They've been to Home Theater Review and read a great review of some cool new component, but they want to know everything they need to buy and how to set it up. The Home Theater Designer is the sexy part of this equation, and it's going to get all the attention, for good reason. But in addition to the designer tool, we're really proud of the tool tips that lead to deeper explorations of things like the relationship between screen size and seating distance, proper speaker placement, et cetera.
DB: I notice that the tool only allows you to build rectangular rooms, and roughly symmetrical ones at that. Was that an intentional design choice or a compromise made to keep the math simpler, or... what was it?
You know, if you go to a site like Wayfair, where you can do 3D designs of rooms, you can build all sorts of spaces with coffered ceilings and crazy shapes. But we decided it was more important to maintain simplicity, rather than getting into all the eye-candy you would get from an interior design tool. Because most of the time, when you have a non-rectangular room, you're probably going to build your home theater system as if it were in a rectangular space.
But if someone has a crazy situation – an L-shaped room or things like that – we have the chat button at the bottom right of the page so they can communicate directly with our team for more specialized advice.
DB: I noticed the tool does a great job of illustrating how interconnected every aspect of home theater design is. Change one parameter and everything changes. Can you talk a little about that?
SN: Let's take a look at seating in particular. You can see that we currently have one row, and you could make this a four- or five-seat couch, but we'll leave it at three. But let's make this more fun and jump up to two rows. We're rendering it in real time. It's all web-based, but it's optimized for iPad or Android.
When you make that kind of change, it's doing a few things in the process: It's doing calculations on the movement of speakers and the seats and everything else, but it's also putting in a riser, which takes into account ceiling height and every other dimension of the room. And everything is positioned in the optimal location.
But let's say you decide you want your front row of seating to be further back than we positioned it. When you move the seating back, the rear speakers turn red. That's telling you that you're now out of spec. Not that you can't do it; you're just out of spec. And it gives you a note telling you what the problem is: Your seating position is too far back.
I don't know if you noticed this when you played with the tool, but you can just grab the seating with your mouse and drag it forward until that red goes away and everything is back in spec. But if I pull the couch too far forward, the speakers turned red in the front What that's telling me is that to keep things in spec, it had to move the front left and right speakers inward to the point where they're blocking the screen. So that gives you immediate visual feedback on what's wrong.
DB: I noticed that when you switch to multiple rows of seating, it asks you to pick which row is the primary. What does that change?
SN: To show you that, we need to go back down to one row of seating. You see how in a 5.1- or 5.1.2- or 5.1.4-channel surround system, the surround speakers are at approximately 110 degrees and angled inward? That's the Dolby spec. When I switch it back to two rows of seating, the surrounds are no longer angled in. They now split the difference between the front and back rows.
This is where you have to make some decisions as a designer. If we were talking to a customer, and they said, "I want the front-row middle seat to be the perfect seat, and I couldn't care less about the other rows," then we would put the surrounds at roughly 115 degrees to that seat and angle them in. But we know the vast majority of people want one optimal seat, but they want to maintain very good performance in the other seats, too. You'll notice all sorts of decisions being made by this design tool – based on the thousands of theaters we've done – to always make the primary seat the best, but not to the point where it creates poor performance for any other seat.
DB: I noticed the Video section has something called "Immersion Level" with a little trademark symbol beside it. What does that mean, exactly, and why is it trademarked?
SN: When you do a lot of theaters, as we've done, you start to learn that the biggest challenge is matching a theater to someone's desires. And getting the relationship between screen size and seating distance is tough.
What we used to do for people who came into the store was bring them into one of our theaters and let them sit and watch video for 20 minutes. Then we'd bring them back the next week and have the seats moved forward and let them watch for another 20 minutes. And then we'd bring them back the following week and have the seats moved back. So, we might spend three weeks just to gauge their preference for what we eventually started calling Immersion Level. Immersion Level is a nomenclature that allowed us to communicate with people--whether they're here in North Carolina or we've never met them in person--how big the screen should be based on their seating distance and preferences.
You see question marks right beside entries like that. We put the summary of what we think 90 percent of people want to know in the question-mark pop-up text, but most of them also have a Read More link that takes you to an entire page that gets into the technical weeds.
The gist is this: When you go to the movie theater in your city, if you sit in the first third of the theater and you love that, you should adjust the screen size and seating distance such that you end up with High Immersion.
We've actually measured the relationship of screen to seating distance in the average theater, and most of our customers who tell us they prefer the front third, we know what viewing angle they're experiencing.
If you're the type of person who sits in the middle of your local cinema auditorium, then you should be at Medium Immersion. And if you're the type of person who sits in the back row, then you should be at Low Immersion. And we can tell you that without ever having met you, assuming you've ever been to a commercial cinema and you know where you like to sit.
There's a button in the Theater Designer that says "View from Primary Seat." You can turn the lights off in this virtual room and hit this button, and it puts the camera in the main seat and shows you the average person's peripheral view so you can get a sense of what the screen in this room would look like from your primary seat. And while you're sitting in this seat, you can change the screen size and see what effect that has on your Immersion Level.
DB: A few years back, I designed the theater system for a booth at the CEDIA Expo trade show. It was a long and arduous process, a constant struggle between the needs of a home cinema system and the needs of a manufacturer's booth. We went back and forth on the design so many times I lost count, and every time we made a change, I had to effectively start over from scratch with the speaker layout. This tool could have knocked a couple of months off the timeline, easily. So, remind me again why you're releasing this tool for free?
SN: That's a good question. As you might imagine, it was very expensive to develop this. Just filing the patents on it was expensive. And we were originally going to charge people to use it. We went to NC State University and did a focus group with the marketing group there to decide how much to charge. Because, you know, if someone does a really expensive theater, it's not unusual to pay $3,000 or $4,000 or $5,000 to have your room designed. And if you're doing a very basic theater – a $10,000 theater – maybe it's more like $500. So, we worked through what we were going to charge based on that.
But then when COVID-19 hit, we made the executive decision to make this 100-percent free. With everything that's going on in the world right now, the news cycle is just generally negative, and we thought we could do something positive to counteract a little of that in the AV space.
Of course, the downside to us will be a lot of people playing with it and using it and then not buying anything from Audio Advice. But what does that downside cost us? We've already incurred the cost to develop this tool. Now it's just the processing power on Google servers that we're paying for. What's the incremental cost of other home theater companies in Wyoming or Colorado or Chicago using this to design? And we realized we have 80 or 90 companies who are in Home Technology Specialists of America with us. They're all our friends. They're going to be able to use this when designing theaters for their customers.
So, yeah, we know that maybe 30 to 50 percent of the people who use this thing are going to buy their gear from someone else, and that's perfectly fine. It's not really going to cost us much. And we actually tell people, "If you have a local custom installer you love, use that guy." Where our value comes in is going to be to the guy who wants to do it himself. He'll chat with our agents, he'll go to Home Theater Review and read reviews. It's a bigger universe than I think a lot of people understand. Because we're serving it now.
DB: Do you have any plans down the road to add architectural speakers to the mix? Because if you've got an acoustically transparent screen and speakers in the wall behind that screen, things like the speakers moving into the sightlines are a feature, not a bug.
SN: The short answer is yes. The long answer is, when we were originally designing the tool, we actually at one point wouldn't allow you to bring the seating far enough forward to bring the speakers into the sightlines. But we eventually decided to let the speakers move to the right location to keep the front soundstage correct, because anyone wanting to do architectural would then be able to see where the correct placement of those front speakers behind the screen would be. And if you leave it in that position and get the specs, the specs tell you what the distances are for those speakers.
DB: Is there any thought to adding positioning advice or guidelines for multiple subwoofers and the different recommended arrangement of subs, whether you're opting for two or four subs or what have you?
SN: It's going to be added in the future, no question. But as you know, once you start adding multiple subs, the math gets complicated really quickly. Then again, so does acoustic paneling. But as you saw when you turned on the sound dispersion in the Designer, you can now see the first reflections, and we have calculations already sitting in the database. So, we know exactly where you need acoustic paneling.
For now, though, clicking on the question mark takes you to this page that walks people through the math and discussion on multiple subs, as well as the placement of all the other speakers. But adding things like that to the Designer itself causes delays, and we really wanted to get this tool out. And I think what we've done is really cool. It surpasses anything we've seen in this space. But, yes, positioning for multiple subs needs to be in the next version, and we need to start showing where to put basic acoustic paneling.
DB: Are there any other things that you don't have in there now that you want to add?
SN: I'm not going to differentiate between our actual roadmap and features I would love to add, but you can imagine rendering actual speakers... In other words, someone could put in a budget for their system, and we could recommend speakers based on that budget – the Klipsch Reference Premier or the SVS or B&W – and then they could see those actual speaker cabinets in the render.
Frankly, from my history as a software developer, I can tell you that the last thing you want to do is try to build the ultimate tool as your first version. You'll get it wrong because you won't have the feedback from guys like you. I'm sure you'll come back to me in a month and say, "Scott, I've played around with this tool for a while now, and I think you need X or Y or Z." And it will become obvious as people use this tool what customers and designers want and need.
The big thing in software development right now is these really quick iterations: Get it out quickly, see what people want, iterate again. I suspect we'll launch a new version of the design tool early next year.
• Visit the Audio Advice website for more information and to use the Home Theater Designer
• Retailer Audio Advice Wants to Help You Virtually Redesign Your Home Theater at HomeTheaterReview.com
• Check out our TV Reviews page and Front Projector Reviews page