We recently chatted with Susan Begg of Tri CUSTOM about their work designing and building custom home theaters. From smaller spaces to full cinemas to installing cinemas on yachts, they’ve seen it all, and so are a natural fit for this installment in our series.
The theater we’re highlighting happens to be in a Scottish Castle and features seven of our custom theater seats. Susan shares plenty of tips about how to keep a room looking refined and traditional, while managing to install the best lighting, sound, controls, screens possible.
If you’re hoping to build a custom home theater, then you’ve come to the right place. The blog provides plenty of insights that will help you navigate some of the trickier aspects of custom home theater design and avoid some of the pitfalls designers can fall prey to when renovating.
The secrets to building a beautiful custom home theater
1. Can you give some background about how this project came about?
Sure, it is a little different from our usual projects, we’re mostly involved with selling Elite Home Theater Seating to trade, so not all our projects are complete home cinemas. Of course, we do our fair share, and the lady who hired us is someone we’ve worked with before. The first project we completed for her was cinema seating for one of her homes on a Scottish island. She was so pleased with the results that she asked us to handle this project.
Because we’d already built up a relationship, she knew the standard of our work and was happy to entrust us with putting a full cinema in the basement of a small castle she was renovating in Scotland.
2. What was the scope of designing this particular custom home theater?
The first thing we had to do was look at the space; you can’t progress until you’ve got a good idea of the acoustics, existing electrics, ambient lighting, and layout. Once you’ve got the lay of the land, you can start to plan accordingly.
Part of the scope for this job was that they wanted everything hidden — no speakers or equipment out in the open, so that was something that informed some of the choices we made.
Luckily for us, the room was in the basement of the castle, and there was only one window. It was clear to us that this was the perfect place to house the equipment. We built a small room around the window, to block the light and store the AV equipment. The window allowed for excellent ventilation of the AV equipment. Covering the window in this manner also helped the room’s acoustics as we weren’t losing sound. People often overlook small details like this, and you can end up letting sound leak if you’re not careful.
In many ways, the project grew arms and legs as we went. Because they didn’t want anything showing, there were lots of opportunities to be inventive with how we hid speakers and lighting. For example, we built out an AV wall to conceal the speakers and used the stage as a case for the subwoofer.
In many respects, the room was laid out in a way that made it easy to convert into a home theater.
3. What features in the room made it “easy” to put a home theater in?
There are a few things that stand out in this particular project, if I were to list them, I’d say:
- It was a nice sized room, so there was plenty of space to accommodate a home cinema.
- There was only one window, so ambient lighting wasn’t difficult to manage.
- The acoustics were good. We weren’t losing much sound.
- No building or construction needed. The room had good bones. There was no reconstruction required to make it fit for purpose, and also no pillars or other features to build around, which can be an issue in older buildings.
- The door was ideally situated so that those entering the cinema would be facing the seating and the back wall, rather than the screen.
- Well-proportioned wall for the screen. It wasn’t too far left or right, which made arranging the seating simple.
4. What inspired you when designing this home theater?
The room had been carpeted before we started the project, so that informed a lot of the design choices we made. It was a black and green traditional Scottish tartan carpet, so we knew immediately that the rest of the room would need to match that; the chairs had to be black, and the walls navy to complement that traditional feel. You could say that the carpet set the mood and tone of this home theater.
Every project is different, and some designs are harder than others. It’s usually best to try and go with a tone that makes sense for the room. It was a traditionally carpeted castle, so nothing ultra-modern was going to fit the bill.
5. Is there anything particularly interesting about this project that you could tell us about?
One of the things we enjoyed about this project was getting to be creative with how we approached the acoustics and lighting. Because nothing was meant to show we had fun concealing lights and devising clever mouldings to hide the fixtures. We hid LED lighting everywhere!
We used our partners at Elite AV to source acoustic panelling for the internal walls to soundproof the room and stop noise leaking into the neighbouring room. They ended up using double skin Kingspan acoustic panelling that was then painted to match the decor.
We were given a blank canvas and total control when it came to the sound and light design.
6. What factors did you need to take into consideration (budget, space, sound, lighting, furniture, etc.)?
The budget was definitely a concern, it always is. Usually, we’re dealing with a generous amount, but we still had to use the budget wisely, and build the best possible theater for that amount of money.
We prioritized sound and made sure we allocated enough money to get them the best possible system in place. Prioritizing sound over the picture is a controversial topic in the industry. We focus on sound first, but there are others who would turn that on its head. Both are important, and both will eat up a good chunk of your budget.
One of the other major considerations in any home cinema is ventilation for the AV equipment. We were lucky in this case that we could build a separate room around the window. If you’re designing a home theater make sure you factor keeping the equipment cool into your plans.
Once you’ve got all that right, it’s time to start worrying about custom seating, lighting and all the other bells and whistles.
7. What are some things you need to get right when lighting a custom home theater?
The room needs to be dark but easy to navigate, so lighting the edges of steps or stages to make sure nobody trips up trying to get to their seat is important.
There were many different elements to the lighting in this home theater. We had dimmable brighter wall lights, a curved LED strip along the steps (it was barely visible, kind of like emergency lighting) as well as a simple to use control system.The control side of lighting is essential. We also used the Lutron light control software to program the lighting. You pick up the iPad, and it’s easy to understand what to do. Basic functions like “all on”, “cinema dim” and “cinema off’ are clearly marked for end users.
8. Why do you think it’s so important to get sound right in a home theater?
It has a lot to do with the emotion of the movie. A silent horror wouldn’t be nearly as tense without an eerie soundtrack, and the swell of emotion in a romance wouldn’t be the same without the build-up of music in the background.
If you’re trying to get the sound right – don’t put all your money into flashy speakers. You could have the best speakers in the world, but if you’ve got a substandard processor, the sound will still be weak. Get the best processor possible, then the best amplifier, and finally invest in the speakers. Plugging poor quality sound into a fantastic speaker won’t improve the sound, so you’ve to try and get all the elements of sound aligned.
9. Do you have any advice when it comes to choosing a projector and screen?
Similar to sound, if you want to get the image right, don’t just focus on the screen. The projector is critical. You can only get the quality of image out that you put in. If you’ve got a weak signal, no matter how good your screen is, it will be hard to showcase the full magic of the film. Many people find this counterintuitive, and we see them putting the bulk of their money behind the screen when they’re better off flipping this assumption and investing in the projector first.
10. If someone was to ask you for advice on designing their own home theater, what would you say?
We work a lot with designers, and one thing I always try to impress upon them is that the “look” of the cinema is secondary to the functionality. It can look lovely and chintzy and still be a terrible cinematic experience.
The details of the decor are essential in these spaces; nothing should be used that will interfere with the functionality of the room. Anything that reflects light is a no-no. There’s an element of common sense to it, but it’s important to educate yourself properly before approaching a project like this.
Design criteria will have to come almost last in the list of priorities. Some of the elements that designers like so much are just not suitable for these sorts of rooms. For instance, anything that dangles or is loose will rattle from the vibrations caused when a proper sound system is in place.
It’s not that it can’t be themed. We work with designers all the time to fit their criteria or theme. It’s possible to make the room a Batcave, country woodland or under the water theme, while still taking care not to get in the way of the cinematic experience.
11. What can you tell us about some of the products/brands that you used in this custom home cinema?
Some of the brands we worked closely with were Linn Product for loudspeakers, subwoofers, and power amplifiers, Onkyo for the A/V receiver, Panasonic for the 60” screen and projector, and a Bitwise control system was used to control all the electronics and lighting.
12. What differences do you notice between different custom home theater projects?
We work on so many different types of home theaters there are a lot of differences from project to project. One project could be a tiny little three-seater in an attic, and the next might be a 30 seater cinema on a super yacht! Tastes also vary widely, so it tends to come down to personal preferences and budget.
13. What is the most important thing to consider when choosing home theater seating?
That’s simple! Comfort! If you’re wriggling about in the chair, you’ve got a problem. I use Elite custom home theater seating because the quality works for me. I don’t just sell them either; these are the chairs I use at home. They get the heart of each chair right. It doesn’t matter what arms, backs, fabrics or colours my clients choose, because I know that the base of the seat and the recline function will always be the standard I’ve come to know and trust from Elite. That flexibility, coupled with that quality is unique to Elite, it’s the reason I’ve worked with them for so long.
14. What is working with Elite chairs like?
We’ve worked together for a long time, and it’s always been a joy! These are people who know how to get the job done but can still have a laugh. Elite has an almost family-like atmosphere, and they treat each project as if they really care. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous my questions are; they always come back with answers. In all the years we’ve worked together, I’ve never had a seat rejected or a warranty issue with Elite, which says everything about the quality of the chairs that needs to be said.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the rest of our custom home theater series.
About tri CUSTOM
tri CUSTOM designs and manufactures a wide range of bespoke audio/visual and automated products, including the world’s first true corner loudspeaker. Founded in 2001, tri CUSTOM started with just one product at our Scottish based facility. The simple philosophy of our unique form, function, and quality has continued to this day with all our new products.