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Mapping the perfect home theater layout

As home theaters grow in popularity, everyone from designers to DIY addicts is becoming aware of the nuances involved in designing truly immersive home theater. Gone are the days when you could plonk some prominent speakers, decent chairs, and a large screen in a room and call it a home cinema. The average home theater has come on leaps and bounds, with designers needing to have a firm grasp of control systems, lighting, image, sound and even luxury cinema seating, to succeed. With so many different elements at work, it’s no wonder so many designers are investing time and money in planning their theater layout.  

We’re going to answer some of the key questions we hear when it comes to deciding on a custom home cinema layout, and some of the common (and not so common) things people should keep an eye out for when designing these rooms.

Recommended reading: You asked, we answered. A guide to luxury home theater design

Where should I put my home theater?

It’s popular to use a naturally darker room, which is why there are so many basement home theater layouts. The less outdoor/ambient light there is to contend with, the easier it is to create an immersive home theater experience.

It’s easier to insulate the floors and ceilings of a basement, which eliminates sounds from other areas of the house that might be distracting. There’s also the added benefit that it stops sound getting out, so the neighbours will have nothing to complain about!

Another reason basements are considered ideal is there’s usually plenty of space, as well as fewer doors and windows where light and sound can get in and out.

That’s not to say basements are the only room where a home theater will fit. Most rooms are suitable as long as enough measures are taken to insulate, treat the acoustics, and block out the light.

5 Tips for deciding where to put a home theater

  • A room with enough space for seating and equipment.
  • A large blank wall with no shelving, windows or doors.
  • The fewer windows and doors in the room the better.
  • Naturally dark rooms are preferable.
  • Rooms should be rectangular in shape.

What is the best size for a home theater room?

home theater seating layout

The size of a home theater varies from home to home, and we’ve seen successful private cinemas tucked neatly into tiny attics. It’s less about the “best size” and more about how space is maximized. That being said, rooms dedicated to home theaters are often on the larger side.

The ideal space should leave plenty of room to manoeuver and be laid out so that everything is easy to access. The layout is crucial whether it’s a big home theater housing thirty chairs, or a smaller space intended for a cuddle couch.

Realistic expectations need to be set at the layout stage, like planning screen sizes, seating arrangements, and even the height and distance apart of audio equipment. Failing to lay the groundwork correctly, can lead to glitchy sound, and screens that are too close to chairs.

The right screen size for a home theater

Screen size is one of the essential elements to get right in a home theater layout. It has to be appropriately sized for the space and so it ties into one of the other frequently asked questions which is: what distance should my seating be from the screen?

Steps for determining the right screen size & correct distance from seating to screen:

  • Map out where the front row of seating will roughly be.
  • Measure from the front row to the proposed screen wall in inches.
  • Divide the distance from the screen to the back cushion of where the seat will be by 1.5 or 3. So if the seat were 150 inches from the wall, the screen should be between 100-50 inches. It’s better to err on the bigger end of this spectrum.
  • Ample space needs to be left to frame the screen. If the room is narrow and deep, avoid screens that are wider than half the overall width of the room, i.e. Try not to put a six-foot widescreen on an eight-foot wall.

Projector placement

Not all custom home theaters use projectors but when they do, choosing the right location for the projector is important for achieving a clear image. Some tips to remember when placing a projector include:

  • Place the projector in the center of the room.
  • Projectors build up a lot of heat during use, so making sure there’s proper ventilation helps to keep the projector in good condition for longer.
  • Projectors work best when mounted on a ceiling or wall.
  • Make sure that there are no objects in the way of the projector that might block any part of the image.
  • If the projector will be placed on a table, make sure it is in the first row of seats.

How sound systems impact home theater layout

home theater layout tool

Long before choosing the right speakers or sound system, it’s important to assess the room and map out how audio will sound. Consider the shape of the room, how the sound will bounce, what insulation will be needed, and if there are any architectural challenges to be overcome. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to laying out good sound design and this step often requires a professional consultation because there are so many elements that can impact the way sound performs. 

Some elements that can impact sound layout:

  • The number of seats – more speakers and subwoofers may be needed for optimal sound in rooms that cater to bigger audiences.
  • Architecture – Everything from the shape of the room, to whether the walls are exterior or interior needs to be taken into consideration.
  • Windows and doors – Minimizing the number of windows and doors in the room is as important for sound as it is for lighting when it comes to layout.

Speaker placement

Of course, not every room is going to be a perfect box to place speakers in. Often, rooms will require custom solutions or built-in speakers. In these instances, it’s wise to call in an A/V specialist to make sure the sound is designed appropriately.

As a general rule, speakers should be placed at least 20 inches away from walls. We recommend both 5:1 and 7:1 surround sound systems for a less custom approach. Paying particular attention to subwoofer placement is going to be pivotal to the success of a home theater, and depending on the quality of the equipment, more than one may be required.

How far should the speakers in a home theater be from the seats?

This varies from room to room and depends largely on the seating arrangement and dimensions of the space. If you’re looking for exact measurements, the online A/V Magazine, Audioholics provides a formula that states there should be a one-millisecond delay for every 1.1 feet of distance from the viewer. If a speaker is more than 5.5 feet away, it’s recommended to use a 5-millisecond delay.

Today’s speakers are fully adjustable and often come with features like millisecond delays. This means they come with individual volume controls that can be tweaked to suit the room and seating positions.

The front speaker, in particular, is vital for audio. When a character is speaking, it should feel as if the sound is coming from the centre of the screen. With that in mind, make sure to buy a higher end front speaker. Another thing to note is that the other speakers are not too close to the front speaker to prevent audio overlay.

Maximizing seating in a home theater layout

home theater seating layout

Having the right home theater seating is essential for an optimal viewing experience. Since the seats are going to be used for (on average) about three hours at a time, it’s important that they are not only comfortable but well positioned. With Elite’s layout designs, we’ve provided suggestions on how to design a home theater with a variety of different ways to maximize the potential of theater chairs.

The most crucial aspect when determining the seating layout is the size of the screen. As a general rule, the minimum viewing distance should be two times longer than the size of the screen.

If there are multiple rows, the maximum viewing distance should be five times the size of the screen. A multiple row layout will also require risers to make sure everyone can see the screen clearly. A good basic rule to go by is to make each riser between 6-14 inches higher than the previous. It depends on the size of the room, but this is a good rule of thumb.