The worst home cinema design mistakes

We've been working in home cinema for over 20 years, and most of the time it's been great.

But we've also seen some major blunders. Here are the worst, so you can avoid them:

1) Designed by non-designers

What you want is probably pretty simple - a big screen, great sound, and comfortable seats.

But if you let someone or something else drive the process, it could get hijacked.

For example:

Design by Spreadsheet

Design by Excel - a mistake if you don't understand what you can have at the price point

You can't decide what your budget should be, if you don't know what things cost.

Larger spaces need more speakers, more amplifier power, a larger screen and a brighter projector, just to give the same performance as a smaller space.

Sound levels vary with distance, according to the inverse-square law - the levels drop dramatically as you get farther away from a speaker. Where a projected image looks great on a 3 metre wide screen, it could look faded and underwhelming if you increase the size to 4 metres (which has almost double the screen area).

It's important to understand what a given spend gets you - and we can help, we have several demo cinemas we can use, and in 2022 we built our state-of-the-art demo facility. For more detail please see What Does a Home Cinema Cost?

Design by Google

Google is incredibly useful, of course.

But SEO is a bit of an arms race; so unsuitable products could end up at the top of your search, while the ideal choice for your needs ends up lower down.

Broadly, companies with bigger budgets and a bit of SEO-savvy get to the top of the list, regardless of engineering merit.

Design by Sales Target

Sometimes you see exactly the same brands and products used in every project a company does. Are they really the best in their class, for every size of room and budget? Does one size really fit all? Or is something else going on?

Some suppliers give their customers eye-watering sales targets - which installers need to hit to make a good profit, so they use that supplier wherever they can.

We're fiercely brand agnostic - on recent projects we've used speakers by Artcoustic, Klipsch, Meridian and Origin Acoustics - because that was right for each client and their space.

Meridian High Power Array - a fantastic blend of high SPL and high resolution sound, incredible value
Meridian™ High Power Array (HPA) screen speakers

2) Ignoring or denying the standards

Chatting with an industry colleague recently I was shocked when they referred to industry design standards as a 'technicality' - as if this guidance is somehow pedantic, or like a loophole for a clever lawyer to take advantage of.

Actually, these standards only exist because the sounds and pictures they create are more realistic, more compelling, and more enjoyable. This has been tested on hundreds of normal, everyday people in studies. Years of rigorous research by the likes of Dr Floyd Toole, Dolby, THX, the BBC, Trinnov, NHK and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), have all contributed to the standards we work to in our designs. 

That's how and why the standards were created in the first place! Working to the agreed standards creates better studio playback systems, commercial cinemas, and home cinemas.

Nonetheless, some install firms ignore them - or argue the toss and deny them.

Owen is a volunteer member of CEDIA Working Group R10 - creating the forthcoming guidelines for home cinema design, Recommended Practices RP22 (sound) and RP23 (picture) for modern entertainment spaces.

3) Out of balance

Every home cinema system has three main elements - sound system, picture system, and all the other stuff like seating, control, rack, cables and so on.

You might be surprised to get a system proposal where the picture system is less expensive than the sound. As long as your designer is good, things are probably in balance.

We're not saying that either sound or picture is more important - both are critical - but it costs more to do sound really well. Projectors benefit from massive economies of scale, thanks to applications like digital signage, whereas a high-dynamic high-resolution home sound system is fairly niche.

A really common mistake is to put more than half the total budget into the picture system. You'll probably find that the sound system doesn't deliver the emotional impact it should do, and you're not drawn in to the action as much as you'd like.

4) Squeezing too much in

Too many seats:

Don't squeeze too many seats in.

If you're sitting too close to a side wall, firstly the picture will end up looking strange, but crucially, the surround speakers on that wall will completely dominate the sound field and spoil the illusion. Back walls can also be problematic, but there are solutions to this - using diffuser room treatments, or even using the control system to switch off the back speakers when the second row is in use.

We've all seen rooms where a back row of recliners has been 'shoehorned in', causing the front row to be too far forward. The result is that both rows end up worse.

A '4+4' or '3+3' arrangement is often better, especially if the back seats are used less often. Here all the listeners are closer together, which means everyone gets better performance, and you spend less on the more occasional secondary seats.

Meridian High Power Array - a fantastic blend of high SPL and high resolution sound, incredible value
'3+3' seating makes sense if space is tight

Too many speakers:

The quality of a sound system can be defined as 'budget divided by number of speakers'. High channel count surround (with 15 or more main loudspeakers) can be incredible, but only once you get past a certain quality threshold of dynamics and resolution.

It's always better to have five good speakers with enough power and headroom, than nine speakers underpowered and underspecified.

5) Screen (far) too high

TV too high - 3D sketchup model

15 degrees from horizontal to screen centre is uncomfortable

A sensible TV height - 3D sketchup model

3 degrees from horizontal to screen centre is about right!

Or any other poor ergonomic choices - but too-high screen height is by far the most common mistake. 

Think about it this way. If you're working at a computer, or driving, the screen is right in front of you, you're looking straight ahead, or even down a little. That's about right, to be comfortable and not suffer neck or back pain (or have a car accident).

Watching TV and home cinema is no different, you need to be comfortable. And yet, because no one was thinking about it properly, people put screens at 15 degrees or higher up from horizontal, causing neckache.

In a cinema room, or even your main TV room, it's best to make sure you can view comfortably for a long session, rather than shoehorn in a fireplace and make the screen height badly wrong.

We can build you a better home cinema. Let's talk about it.