I am going to come right out and say it: I am angry at fireplaces! This isn’t one of my rants about pollution, although the gas fireplaces seem to burn cleaner than the toasty-crackly wood ones. My anger toward fireplaces is centered around what they do to our collective audio/video experience–i.e., nothing good. Builders construct and renovate homes today to have massive mantles and gaping fireplace openings that are the visual centerpiece of the living room, leaving nowhere for the HDTV to go but up. Safely mounting an HDTV above a traditional brick fireplace is no easy task, nor is running a network connection or AC power to said location. This type of work really shouldn’t be in the DIY realm, even if you are pretty handy. Too many TVs fall from the wall and can destroy the TV or, worse, seriously injure people and animals.
Even today’s best HDTVs are not meant to be viewed at an upward angle, yet the way many fireplaces are designed, specifically the mantle, requires the viewer look up at their beautiful, new Ultra HD TV like they are sitting in the first row of the movie theater, even though all they want to do is watch Chris McKendry and Jay Crawford on the morning edition of Sportscenter. Forcing a large TV to be mounted too high in a room makes the room look cramped and limits the reasonable size of your TV. And for those who say that bigger isn’t better when it comes to HDTVs, I scoff in your general direction. Owning the biggest HDTV you can justify in your theater/living room is your right as a home-theater-loving American (or Canadian, or wherever). Today you can buy a 70-plus-inch set that is simply superior in every way to those original 50- to 60-inch panels for a tiny fraction of the cost. However, because of where the fireplace is often positioned in a living room, you’re forced to either park the big screen in front of the fireplace (and thus abandon its use) or mount the TV too high on the wall.
When you look at fireplaces from an audiophile perspective, things get worse…a lot worse. Fireplaces are where bass goes to die. They create all sorts of maladies, often right on the front wall where your music playback system resides. We all love the glow of a fireplace on a cold day, but even the crackling sound of the wood competes with the finely tuned, ultra-quiet, ultra-resolute HD-audio-based system that you have built. What’s the point of paying for the Nth degree of excellence (for instance, trying to get the lowest THD in an amp) to then introduce noise right back into your system right between your speakers.
Don’t believe me about the negative effects of a fireplace on your audio system? Here’s what some of the world’s best acoustic experts have to say.
President, Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis
“The biggest problem with fireplaces is that they can act like a bass trap and suck desired frequencies right out of your room. The best you could hope for is that the fireplace is centered on your back wall where it might actually help. If it’s off to either the left or right side, that is the worst, and the hearth size also introduces no-symmetry between the side walls. I usually recommend a piece of 0.75-inch MDF cut to fit and inserted into the opening to minimize the problem.”
President and Founder, Acoustic Sciences Corporation
“The fireplace is a hole in the wall, most usually located on the front wall, halfway between a pair of powerful speakers. Audiophiles generally make an effort to plug up the fireplace. They will cut a piece of sheetrock to fit snugly at the edges and stuff it into the front of the opening. This creates a vibrating panel between the speakers, which also is somewhat undesirable. Using two layers of sheetrock is better. Adding damping between two layers of sheetrock is even better. Others get a sheet of two-inch-thick sound panel material and have it cut to size and covered with fabric in order to turn the fireplace into a bass trap. Bass traps don’t work very well when the fiberglass panel is free to vibrate, plus they make tonal noises. Reinforcing the fiberglass panel so it does not vibrate is important. Also, remember to close the damper in the flue, otherwise the duct will turn into a 20-foot half-wavelength organ pipe that goes into resonance at about 30 Hz.”
Founder and Creative Director, Keith Yates Design
“Building a fire goes back a couple hundred thousand years. People who study it point out that it’s how our ancestors got warm, cooked food, avoided predators, saw each other in the dark, and swapped stories. No wonder the fireplace has such an entrenched place in the human psyche: It’s where we gather to pull up a chair (or stump) to get warm, swap stories, and be a family.
In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan famously termed the television the “cool fire.” The fireplace and the TV have been wrestling for pride of place in our homes ever since.
You can try to persuade customers to ditch the fireplace altogether. That would open up the AV layout possibilities. But if you lose the argument, you might want to consider the fireplace not as spoiler but as useful organizing tool: Wherever the architect plops it, the architectural layout, seating, traffic circulation, etc.–what architects sometimes refer to as “massing”–will usually be organized to make it the room’s cynosure or centerpiece. Ignore the massing, and you’ll end up with an entertainment system that’s architecturally out of sync with the room itself.
Piggy-back the video monitor above the hearth, and you typically have both varieties of fire– hot and cool–where architects and homeowners judge them to be logical and right. If you can conceal the screen behind a framed artwork that motorizes out of the way during viewing, so much the better. Your challenge then comes in finding suitable speaker locations. A soundbar above or below might be adequate for some installations; others may require separate LCRs, surrounds, and subwoofers. In such cases the outcome is typically shaped more by the locations chosen, the speakers’ radiation patterns, and post-installation testing and tuning than the devices’ intrinsic “quality” per se. By now it should be obvious that the center should be slightly above or below the screen, with the left and right speakers slightly beyond the edges of the screen and at the same height as the center.
In non-dedicated room applications like these, we find that good outcomes don’t just happen; they arise from a process that includes with discussions and back-and-forth “napkin CAD” exchanges with the architect and homeowner regarding basic room and AV layout options; thinking creatively about locating in-wall subs and compact freestanding types; some reasonable acoustic and ambient light management; and getting both the video and audio gear professionally tested and calibrated.”
I am in the early stages of building a new home, and we are about to start a pre-wire for a highly imperfect yet audiophile-grade, Atmos-ready 4K theater. Our architect, our AV installer (Simply Home Entertainment), and our contractor started looking at the solutions needed to work around putting an 85-inch 4K UltraHD TV over the fireplace in our main living room. As we weighed the costs of all the work-around solutions, we found that it was much cheaper to rip out the fireplace than to keep it. So you know what? We had the demolition man (sing it like Grace Jones, not Sting) demolish the living-room fireplace, and we simply framed over the hole and prepared for AC power, network connections, and the mount needed for a monster, cutting-edge TV placed at the perfect height–all for less money and grief.
Don’t get me wrong, the glow and ambience of a nicely designed fireplace is pretty luxurious. The smell of a wood-burning fireplace can be intoxicating. With that said, we are going to have one remaining fireplace in the room that will be my office, plus a fire pit by the pool and a wood-burning pizza oven and smoker outside. We can get caveman whenever we want; but, in the room where my Atmos theater will live, the fireplace had to die. It just did.
What about you? What creative solution did you use to work around a poorly placed fireplace? Which would you sacrifice first: the optimum AV performance or the fireplace? Let us know in the Comments section below.
• Check out our Racks & Stands category page for information on HDTV mounts, AV furniture, equipment racks, and more.
• See our writeup on the ComfortVu Motorized TV Mount at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• The Five Best Ways to Upgrade Your AV System for Under $500 at HomeTheaterReview.com.