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Three Common Home Theater Layout Mistakes Even the Pros Make

Even the “pros” make basic home theater layout mistakes. As an enthusiast you’d think that someone who works day in, day out in the industry should know better but the sad truth is that many are not well versed in the intricacies of home theater layout and design, even if their retail store sells high end equipment. Here are three we come across with all too frequently…

1) Too many seats

If you are aiming for a “Individual Cinema Experience” then each seat should be as good as all the others in terms of audio and video performance. That is extremely hard to achieve. Even “No Bad Seats” is difficult to achieve.

Why? Because you need to put seats away from walls and surround speakers. Seats too close to walls end up with boomy bass. Seats too close to speakers will result in incorrect localization and the infamous “screen door effect”.

To do things right you need 4′ minimum from any seat to any speaker or wall. If you are using proper home theater recliners that means a two row theater will end up about 23′ long. A 12′ room will have a three seat row across the room, and add 3′ for each additional seat across.

For more see home theater seating layout article!

Home theater seating
Way too many seats!


2) Image too small

This is one area where we see enthusiasts and pro installers making mistakes. Enthusiasts tend to want a screen that are too big, and installers seem to specify screens that are too small.

If you follow the CEDIA standard CEB-23: Home Theater Video Design then you’ll end up with a 43 degree viewing angle from the prime seats for a 2.35:1 Cinemascope image. If you look, however, at the viewing angles in commercial theaters (and don’t we all basically want a commercial cinema in our home at the end of the day?) then you’ll see that 43 degrees is actually on the low side relative to the angle you’ll get when you are out at the movies.

I think most home theater dealers are using screens that are too small because they are afraid (wrongly) of using acoustically transparent screens. Really when you look at your layout, once you get over a certain size screen (about 90″ wide) using a non-acoustically transparent screen puts the center speaker in completely the wrong place in a multi-row theater. Most end up below the screen, resulting in the heads and seat backs of the first row being in the “line of fire” from the center speaker to the second row. And, to top it all off, the installer usually ends up using a horizontal format center speaker, of all travesties! (see here for more).

Home theater projection screen viewing angle
Erm, hang on. First row viewing angle of 40 degrees?! 84″ wide screen?!


3) Subwoofers in the wrong places

Picture this: a modest two row dedicated theater with 6 seats total. How many subwoofers does the typical home theater installer / dealer / enthusiast specify? One, or two if you are lucky. How many do you need? Actually four.

As per recommended practice CEDIA CEB-22: Home Theater Audio Design the following rules apply:

  • One listening position – one sub
  • One row – two subs
  • Multiple rows – four or more subs

The science behind this “subwoofer number rule of thumb” is called room mode cancellation. See this guide to subwoofers to learn more.

Furthermore, even if you have enough subs (which hardly anyone does), then you also need to put them in specific places for room mode cancellation to work. The most well known work on this topic was done by Todd Welti at Harman Group , who analyzed many different subwoofer placement strategies.

For a square or rectangular room it pretty much comes down to some simple rules of thumb: wall mid points are best, 25/75% of width are good, corners are ok.

For non-rectangular rooms (or even rectangular rooms with large soffits, baffle walls or risers) all bets are off (as Floyd Toole likes to say).

The only way to know is to do some boundary element modeling (BEM). To our knowledge very few home theater designers do this. Acoustic Frontiers uses BEM to predict frequency response at individual seats for different subwoofer numbers and placements. JBL Synthesis also have a service called FLO which does a similar thing.

Here’s a nice video which shows the folks at Martin Logan teaching you how to use their “Perfect Bass Kit” to optimize a multi-seat home theater with only one sub. If you’ve read the above paragraph you’ll be laughing with me. What are they thinking? You need multiple subs, not one. No amount of single sub DSP trickery is going to provide even, consistent and smooth bass across all the seats in that theater!

Know any other good layout mistakes that even the pros make? Please leave a comment below with your favorites!

15 thoughts on “Three Common Home Theater Layout Mistakes Even the Pros Make”

  1. Great article. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in home theaters where they didn’t have enough subwoofers. I’ve even been in a couple showrooms where because of room dimensions and sub placement they literally cancelled each other out. Not a fun problem to have to correct when it involves running new wires etc.

  2. I have yet to see an acoustically transparent screen that is optically acceptable to me for a high quality home theatre. This causes a conundrum for front centre speaker placement and I am still trying to find the right answer.

    1. Hi Grant, thanks for your reply. Have you seen the Seymour Screen Excellence 4K woven screen? There are many woven screens that are color neutral and some like the SSE 4K screen have no appreciable texture.

    2. Here’s a thought. Simply bring the front/center speaker forward from the non-acoustically transparent screen. Then flip it around to project at the screen and bounce the audio to the right spot. I’ve found this to work perfectly allowing for larger screen height (and therefor larger screen) and I picked it up by watching a live symphony performance that was blended with a multimedia show. 😉

  3. I like how you mentioned that a home theater with one row of seats should have two subwoofers. My husband and I have decided that we’re going to finish our basement and turn it into a home theater, so we’re trying to plan that out right now. We’d like a single row of seats, so we’ll make sure to get a couple of subwoofers so the sound is set up correctly.

  4. Yes I do agree with you. Too many seat make it more clumsy. I must say, this is very informative blog for a newbie interior designer. Keep up the good writing.

  5. Screen on short wall vs long wall: In a rectangular room 14’x18.5′, are there functional (audio/video) reasons why you should opt for 1 long row of seats facing the screen on the long wall vs 2 rows of seats facing the screen on the shorter wall?

    1. If you orient on the long wall with 1 row of seats then the outer seats will be a long way off the system centerline, and therefore off axis from the screen, center speaker, etc. Orienting seats across the width of the room, you keep more along the centerline of the system. Generally you will end up with better sound for the main seats with orienting seats across the width of the room, as you can get the speaker placements for the rear tops and rear surrounds at the correct angles.

  6. I’ve been doing this in the DC area since 2004. You are quite correct that multiple subs are needed to get all the seats the same. But getting them all the same doesn’t mean getting them right. It just means that if you can fix one, you fix them all.

    Put in 4 subs at wall midpoints. Equivalent bass everywhere (except near the walls) but low energy efficiency and non-linear response.

    Plan to use great room correction or spend a long time on manual EQ with some serious equipment.

    Getting the bass right is never easy or cheap.

    1. Per the article – it’s not about how many chairs can you fit, it’s about how many good chairs! I’d say two main options a) you could fit 3 seats across with maybe some bar seating behind b) you could put 3 seats on a small riser and have bean bag seating on floor in front.

  7. Nyal, I have 14’ x 19’ home theatre room dimension. I have two questions a) What is the max size screen that I can fit b) How can I fit 4 good seats plus 4 other seats? Thanks

    1. Lot of variables that go into figuring the screen size. I’d first look at the seating layout – check out our home theater seating layout blog for some tips. Fitting four seats across is tight in 14′ but do-able. Then you’d probably end up with bar style seating behind – not really enough room to do another row of seats. Another option to consider might be a single row on a riser and then low bean bag seating in front – this works well for younger families.

      You can save room at the front of the room by using in-wall speakers and shallow format subwoofers, like our custom designed ported 15″ subwoofer system.

  8. Hello and thank you for the information. I have a question regarding the style of rear surround speakers in my particular room configuration. Should I get standard single facing bookshelf speakers or the dual-facing dispersion bookshelf speakers.

    My room configuration is 15’x16′ with 9 foot walls on the east, south and west sides, and a cathedral ceiling. The north side of the room is open to other rooms. The couch we sit on to watch TV is against the east wall.

    I am worried that placing a dual-facing dispersion style speaker in the south-east corner will just bounce frequencies off the walls creating more of an acoustic mess in an untreated room.

    1. Hi Joseph, hard to provide advice without understanding more of the specifics of the room and layout.

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