Home Theater Specialists Give 'Sound' Advice

Broadway WoodWorks has the expertise to ensure that a media room not only looks great, but sounds great, too.

By Helen Kuhl

For the true audiophile who wants to duplicate the ambiance of a movie theater in his home, sound is as important as appearance — and it calls for much more than a square room with speakers at one end. It requires commercial-quality equipment housed in a room that meets specific design criteria. To achieve that takes someone with a good understanding of acoustics, electronics, A/V equipment and, so it all looks good, a skilled woodworker. That’s where Broadway WoodWorks Inc. of South Portland, ME, comes in.

The company started under a different name 13 years ago as a small shop producing standard racks that hold audio-visual equipment, customized with wooden sides so they looked a little nicer than the metal versions widely available. It branched out into more elaborate projects, such as consoles, emergency dispatch centers and video conference tables. It also added employees, including Don Fuller and George Doughty, both experienced woodworkers.

 

     
   
  With many angles and a dome shape, the ceiling handles a lot of acoustical duties in this white oak home theater. There also is fabric on the walls for sound value. Within the ceiling is a projection unit that drops down. In the ceiling in front of the fireplace, some of the wooden modillions drop down and a large screen can be lowered. The speakers also are built into the ceiling.  

Three years ago, when the original owner decided to leave the business, Fuller and Doughty bought the equipment and renamed the company Broadway WoodWorks, keeping the same phone number, location and clients. With one other full-time employee, the shop pursued all types of custom work, with a special focus on the audio-visual market, much of it commercial. Recently, the A/V focus got an additional boost when the company acquired the talents of Gordon Merrick, who brought a wealth of experience in high-end home theaters and recording studios. This broadened Broadway’s A/V scope into the residential arena as well.

Merrick had operated his own 23-man company specializing in “media-based environments” and built a hefty, well-heeled client base. But he decided to close the company, “because I’m a craftsman and I had just become a paycheck,” he says. “I went solo. But I couldn’t build a home theater by myself, and the demand was there. So I started subcontracting with different people, like George and Don.

“I wanted to work with someone familiar with media-based environments,” he adds. “I went to work with George and Don because of their industry experience and also because we have the same mentality about what we’re doing. We share not just the love of woodwork, but also the desire to do good work, so that when a job is finished, the client is often overwhelmed.”

Many of Merrick’s high-end home theaters were collaborative efforts with architects and acousticians who also specialize in such projects. Merrick says that over the years he has amassed a good understanding of acoustics himself.

“Doing a real home theater isn’t just putting the speakers in the right location; you have to consider every possibility, and it’s quite technical,” he says.

The first basic premise is that you never build a room that has angles 90 degrees or less, so there are no opposing surfaces to cause reflection back and forth. The idea is to avoid having parallel walls that create echoes.

“The three factors in developing a good sounding room are reflection, diffusion and absorption,” Merrick says. “With reflection, you have the initial impact of the sound wave, and then it hits a wall and bounces back. So you hear the sound a second time a microsecond later, which creates a kind of pink noise. What diffusion does is bounce the sound waves into each other so they cancel each other out and you don’t hear that echo.”

While walls can be adjusted so they are not parallel, it’s a little more difficult to deal with the parallel surfaces of floors and ceilings. Since the floor must remain flat, adjustments are made to the ceiling by making it dome shaped or by adding “clouds” — reflective panels that hang from the ceiling and face different directions to bounce the sound at various angles.

Absorption involves various factors, such as using fabric-covered walls or clouds, and “bass traps.” A sound system that has, for example, a 500-amp bass speaker requires something to absorb that bass or the whole room will shake and become uncomfortable, Merrick says. Knowing how and where to add diffusion and absorption into a home theater is part of the key to achieving good sound.

“You go into a well done room and clap, and the sound stops; it’s gone and it never comes back again. You just hear the initial sound,” says Merrick. “That’s why it’s important, if someone really wants a home theater effect, to put some time into acoustics.”

For one home theater that had diverse sound requirements and a square space, Merrick, with the assistance of acoustician Vincent Van Haaff, developed his own tuneable acoustical system that adjusts reflection, diffusion and absorption. He calls it Triambiance, and it consists of a series of tall, triangular-shaped pedestals that rotate with nine functional stops. One of the pedestal sides provides diffusion, another provides reflection and the third has fabric with insulation behind it, for absorption. The unique system worked so well that Merrick began patent applications and considered limited production. But the manufacturing costs were prohibitive, so he did not pursue it further.

 

         
         
       
      This home theater, which also was featured on the cover of this issue, was designed by the Walters-Storyk Design Group. It features fiddleback maple veneer. The “clouds” in the ceiling combine fiddleback maple veneer with insulating materials. Two built-in racks of equipment can be seen in the wall in the background. The cost for this home theater was around $800,000.

Another consideration in a home theater is isolating the A/V equipment, because it gets quite hot when it’s running, and the sound of the equipment plus cooling fans can be distracting to someone watching a quiet moment in a movie. As an example, one of the most elaborate residential media rooms Merrick worked on had a rack that was 12 feet long and 7 feet high, full of A/V equipment, including five 200-CD changers and 12 amplifiers. The sound of the equipment running was a significant noise factor in itself.

And then there is the consideration of keeping all the sound being generated confined inside the theater so the rest of the house stays quiet. While there are steel doors and systems on the market to keep the sound isolated, Merrick also developed his own sound door, which has a lead core and can be hermetically sealed. He developed the door so that it can be veneered, looks attractive and fits well in a home environment.

“Our doors can be opened easily, too,” he adds. “Even though they weigh 400 pounds apiece, they are easy for a small woman to open in her home.”

As might be expected, the cost of building this level of home theater doesn’t come cheap. Customers typically spend $40,000 to $60,000 for a projector, $20,000 for a screen and $40,000 for the sound system, which is just a start. Fortunately, clients in this bracket also can afford good woodwork, with budgets sometimes topping $100,000.

“In a home theater environment, it’s the woodworker who creates the ambiance,” Merrick says. “Acoustics without ambiance don’t work. You need to feel comfortable in a room for it to sound good. As woodworkers, we need to make the room both aesthetically and acoustically pleasing.”

Woodworking requirements also include knowing how to accommodate physical needs of the A/V equipment. One key consideration is to provide easy access. That’s where using the standard 19-inch-wide rack system has an advantage. There are no shelves. The equipment is screwed onto inexpensive rack hardware that is mounted on the cabinet side, so it can be removed easily. Pull-out shelves and drawers can be added to the rack if needed, using standard drawer guides.

In addition, cabinets often are built without backs. Or, if there is a back, it is a door or a panel that can be removed by a latch system to provide access.

Home theater casework also requires special cabling systems. “When you get into serious home theater, there can be a ‘snake’ of cables coming out of the back that is 6 inches in diameter, just solid wire,” Merrick says. “You need more than an average grommet. And all the sides of your cabinets need a large cutout in them so that the wires can go between the cabinet walls.”

“You also need space behind the casework,” Fuller adds. “Most people don’t understand how much space you need behind the equipment.”

In addition, ergonomics can become a factor, especially in work-related environments such as recording studios, Merrick says. “Some of the engineers will do 20-hour stints. When they are working, they need things designed around them so that they do not have to get up and down a lot. They want to be able to swivel around in their chairs, pull a back panel off to make adjustments and swivel back around to their station.”

Fuller says that they sometimes have to educate architects about these considerations so that they can be accommodated during the design stage. Not all architects have experience with media-based environments or are aware of such factors.

Although home theaters that start at $500,000 and can top $1 million are only for the very wealthy, there is a good demand worldwide, Merrick says. “Sometimes after the kitchen and bathrooms have been redone, it’s the guy’s turn. He wants to be able to watch football life-size,” he says. “There also are some very wealthy audiophiles who love good music environments.”

In contrast with the state-of-the-art A/V technology Broadway deals with in many of its projects, it uses very basic woodworking technology to produce them. The shop is 3,000 square feet, with offices in the front. Equipment includes Grizzly and Jet table saws, a Delta planer, an old Sprunger drill press and a shaper, planer, bandsaw and drum sander, all from Grizzly.

Most of the finishing is contracted out. “Finishing is a whole other religion, and you need a totally dust-free environment, which we do not have,” Fuller says. “We have two people in the area who are excellent finishers and they handle most of our business.”

Doughty says that the company would like to work exclusively on media-based environments, but has done other custom work in the past to keep a steady work flow.

“We do some media-based jobs every year, but we also end up doing other work. They are interesting projects, but not A/V-related,” he says. “With Gordon’s connections, we hope that will change. Doing the media-based work is always fun.”

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