Evidence-based audio enthusiasts know that the best way to make your system sound better is to improve your room's acoustics. There are many ways to go about this, but the most basic and drastic improvements come from using a combination of absorptive and diffusive materials to deal with first reflections and reverberations. You can buy all sorts of decorative treatments to accomplish these goals, ranging from very affordable to pretty damn expensive, but the results tend to be anything other than subtle.
The next big acoustical improvement that will rock your world is to get some bass absorption in your corners. There are a number of commercial bass traps that work like a charm, but they also can inspire divorce proceedings. I like the more discreet products that are actually installed in your stud bays between the 2x4s and ultimately covered with something like a fabric wall. These products (like RPG's Modex Plates) simply eat the bloated, muddy bass that loads in your corners and gets you that tight, deep, righteous bottom end that we all seek.
There are so many other acoustical upgrades that we can make, including those that lower room noise and more, but this is a pretty good place to start for any new audiophile or home theater enthusiast before plunking down the setup mic and running room correction. Don't get me wrong: I love today's room correction and it is only getting better, but do some of the above suggested acoustic hacks and be prepared to go to Electric Ladyland right in your AV room.
But most home theater enthusiasts (and even some audiophiles) already know about the importance of room acoustics. The topic of this article is about what other elements one can upgrade to make any AV room notably better that doesn't include yet another equipment upgrade. The good news is, there are many!
This is a big one for me right now, as I'm currently working on building out the new HomeTheaterReview.com Reference Theater. Like a fool, I once bought into the concept that furniture is somehow art, thus worthy of a Picasso or Warhol-like investment. I have painfully learned that furniture is not art. Furniture is fashion and in the case of your AV furniture, you want to be very comfortable but you also want to look good. Be sure to avoid clichés (think: 1990s art deco theaters with popcorn makers and red velvet walls), but be sure to be stylish. Yes, black walls and ceilings will yield better contrast ratios, but do you really want that look in your home, especially with today's super-bright TVs and much-improved video projectors? Your theater room should look like a room that belongs in your home. Neat, stylish, functional, and very comfortable.
There are all sorts of great options for home theater seating out in the real world. I have used products from Room and Board, Restoration Hardware, and elsewhere with great success. They aren't IKEA-cheap, but they won't break the bank, considering the cost of a high-performance home theater or audiophile system. What I am looking at for this 16-by-16-foot family room theater is from Elite HTS, which is a very high-end solution. These enthusiastic Canadians make over-the-top, bespoke seating complete with Aluminum frames, incredibly subtle reclining features, cooling "silk leather" upholstery, and all sorts of modular component choices, from seat backs to seats to armrests to cupholders and more.
They measure you like a fine suit for your chair, which is cool, because someone like me, at almost six foot three, fits differently in his seating than someone who is five foot three. But don't worry, they can accommodate for everybody. They even measure for your torso height as well as your leg height so that when you spend the big bucks (I think a single home theater seat from Elite HTS costs between $4,000 and $8,000 and they take 14 to 18 weeks to arrive) you get something that is outrageously comfortable. Dennis Burger has one Elite HTS seat covered in silk leather that he simply is love with, and is at the center of his review rig at his home. Clearly, investing in where you sit to enjoy your music and movies isn't something that everybody does, but everybody should, for so many good reasons.
Lighting and Electrical
In the old days, when you'd bring home a new home theater system, calling the electrician wasn't really part of the equation. Today, it isn't such a bad idea for a number of reasons. Adding a few dedicated electrical circuits for your equipment (especially your amps) is a good way to get clean, bountiful power to your gear that will help get you the performance you paid for. It also can help you move your gear from in between your speakers, which can help de-clutter your front soundstage. Having a good electrician upgrade your incoming power is, in most parts of the country, a few hundred bucks, but it can make a big difference in the long-term enjoyment of your system.
Next, take a look up at the lights. While you can spend an absolute fortune on cans like Ketra, which automatically and dynamically changes color temperature to match the lighting for the time of day, outside conditions, season, and beyond, by no means do you have to spend that kind of coin to get a huge upgrade to your home theater. Work with your electrician to install color temperature adjustable and specific LED lights into your ceiling. Most people today tend to like 2,700 Kelvin as a nice, warm color temperature, and many of today's best cans can be adjusted accordingly as I did with the $52 Elite cans that we used in my home.
Where you can get really fancy, but also without spending a fortune, is adding different zones of lights with differing types of beams and brightness. You can install very tight beams for lights that allow you to read in a somewhat darkened audio room. You can wash a wall with art on it nicely. You can light up your equipment rack for easy access even in a dimly lit room.
There is just so much that you can do in this department without going broke. Lutron Caséta lighting controls cost roughly $50 apiece and can be easily controlled by many of today's most simple control systems. You can also spend as little as $1,000 on an advanced control system for your home cinema system that not only controls the AV, but also the lights in a meaningful and integrated way.
Other, Less-Obvious AV Upgrade Ideas
A modern thermostat is an easy and possibly DIY solution that adds value to your home entertainment system in sometimes unexpected ways. I use Crestron for HVAC control, but by no means do you have to spend that much to add meaningful and intelligent comfort control to your AV experience. Ecobee makes a fantastic thermostat that many can install themselves. Nest products get mixed reviews, but I've used them out in the wild (mostly at Air BnBs), and they've been pretty easy to use. Getting the temperature right in your media room is just one more level of fine tuning that makes your room just that much better and more enjoyable for everyone. And these new, connected thermostats make that easier before. Just as we discussed above about your lighting and AV control working in concert, a connected thermostat can become, quite literally, another automated component in your home theater system.
I'm also a big advocate of rack mounting gear. In my new home, we're currently working on building out not one but two eight-foot-tall Middle Atlantic equipment racks. While this is an extreme solution that took out a large (and very tall) coat closet to make for a "mechanical room," what is great about Middle Atlantic-type products is that they offer custom face plates that not only improve the look of your gear, but also the reliability. They have software that allows you to organize your gear with plenty of breathing room. You can manage your power cords with aftermarket solutions that cut down on cable clutter. You can remove hot air with whisper-quiet fans that come as accessories to your rack. Even having a remote drawer is super useful.
But by no means do you have to go full-bore into the equipment rack game. You can do a half rack or any number of other solutions. There are also super cool looking commercial racks that have power solutions, nice gear mounting options, fan cooling, and more, and they don't cost a fortune.
You might think that I've lost my mind here, but plants (real or fake) can help with not just giving a room a more livable look but they can also be good for acoustical diffusion. You will see audiophile companies actually renting a whole bunch of plants for their trade show displays. With our new house, we have very tall ceilings, and we've invested in new plants that are right-sized from a very good provider in Culver City called Rolling Greens. They aren't the least expensive solution, but they have excellent plant material, they have good customer service, they have a ton of very slick looking planters in many different sizes and styles, and they deliver. There are also excellent options online for both plants and planters alike.
I can't believe how far window treatments have come--especially how mainstream they've become in recent years. You still can spend a ton of money on window treatments, but it is no longer a necessity. IKEA, Lowes, Home Depot, and even places like 3 Day Blinds can outfit your AV room with automated solutions that can help make your room pitch black (when needed) as well as possibly offer some acoustical treatment too if you use a more traditional drape solution.
Not only is there an aesthetic improvement, but cutting down on external light results in better performance from your monitor or projector when it is game time--and yes, that's even true of the newer, ultra-bright models. I used a product called Power Shades in my new theater, and they have solutions that are affordable in the pantheon of roll-down shades and come with a ton of options for colors, textures, light blocking, etc. With that said, I couldn't help but to be impressed with sub-$500 options at Home Depot that were automated, customized in terms of color, and pretty nice looking for a 14-day custom-order product.
In the end...
Gear upgrades get a lot of attention around here for obvious reasons and will continue to be our primary focus. But there are simply so many other topics worthy of consideration as you work to make your media room the best AV experience it can be. Some are expensive and some aren't. Some are DIY and simplistic while others require professional installation and specialized product solutions. In the end, each tweak that you can make is likely to help you get to the next level of performance, comfort, design, and enjoyment of your AV system. And isn't that the whole point of this hobby? We think so.
• My Home Theater New Year's Resolutions at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• AV Bliss Is About More Than Merely Audio and Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Getting Started With Basic Home Automation: Control4 Edition at HomeTheaterReview.com.