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How to Build a Home Movie Theater Room on a Budget

By Jason Steele

movie room basementBack when I lived in a high-rise condominium, I had a simple television and a decent sound system – nothing special. After I got married, my wife and I moved to a single-family home and wanted to take the opportunity to create a truly remarkable media room in our basement.

We ended up spending plenty of money renovating our seventy-year-old house, so we had very little left over for a state-of-the-art movie room. Despite the tight budget, we built an incredible entertainment center.

There are plenty of companies ready and waiting to build your dream room, and they charge you tens of thousands of dollars to do it. However, if you want to save by taking on the project yourself, consider these five key elements of creating your media room, and the ways to exceed expectations without exceeding your budget.

Acoustics

Have you ever noticed how high-end audio stores always demonstrate their speakers in a special room? It’s no trade secret; the acoustics of your room have about as much to do with your perceived sound quality as the speakers themselves.

When you keep acoustics in mind for your room design, you can help contain sounds and minimize the penetration of outside noises by building a space that absorbs sound rather than reflecting or transmitting it. The key to incredible sound is how you cover the space, top to bottom.

Ceiling

Acoustic tiles are the ideal surface for your room’s ceiling. Visit any movie theater, and you will notice that their ceilings are covered with fiberglass panels much like the ones in the dropped ceilings you see in most offices. Fortunately, using these drop systems is the least expensive way to cover an unfinished ceiling.

Because of the low ceilings in my basement, I had to remove the existing ceiling first. Within the structure of the floor above, I added two layers of common fiberglass insulation. Two layers of insulation won’t retain much more heat than one, but packing in a second layer really helps to contain the sound. Though insulation is messy, it’s inexpensive and easy to install.

Next, I installed all of the hardware and wiring for the lights, speakers, and ceiling mounted projector.

Finally, I installed the drop ceiling made of standard fiberglass tiles. Most media rooms are black, to create a theater-like experience, and the hardest part was finding all of the tiles and hardware in black. I finally found a home improvement store that would special order it for me. If you are unable to find black panels, you can coat them with spray paint before installing them.

I completed the ceiling first so as to minimize the chances of damaging the walls or ruining the carpet. The total cost of our 150-square-foot-room was under $200.

Wall Surface

Most modern homes have walls made of drywall, while older homes like mine have plaster walls. Both materials have terrible acoustics.

To fix the problem, I added inexpensive, lightweight acoustic boards that almost any home improvement store will carry. I then had my carpet installer cover them with thin, indoor/outdoor carpeting, like the kind you’d find covering the walls of many movie theaters.

Again, you will want to complete the walls before you start on the floor in order to avoid ruining your floor’s carpet. My total cost was under $500 for the acoustic panels, the thin carpet, and the installation.

Window Coverings

If you have windows in your movie room, try to cover them to block out light. Room-darkening shades are a great option, especially combined with standard curtains. Alternatively, you can purchase heavier curtains that are lined to keep out light.

You can install room-darkening shades for about $30, and more expensive drapes can cost $100 to $200 per window.

Floor Coverings

For acoustic reasons, the floor of your movie room should never be wood, concrete, tile, or linoleum. Use a plush carpet if possible. I was able to have my carpet installer re-use carpeting that we removed from another room to expose wood floors, which kept costs at a minimum.

Colors

Most theaters use colors to control reflections of the light off of the screen and to make the room feel larger. We went with a black ceiling, dark navy blue wall covering, and an off-white floor carpet. This not only helps with optimal viewing but also has the effect of making a dark space seem larger than it actually is.

home movie theater

Lighting and Furnishings

Professional theaters invest a lot of time in creating the proper lighting system and seating plan to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. You’ll want your room to feel just as comfortable as a movie theater, if not more. As you plan your project, consider these five points:

The Right Balance

While you’ll want to be able to turn up the lighting before and after watching your movies, too much lighting during the film will hurt the picture quality and diminish your room’s overall ambiance. A windowless room may sound ideal, but you will probably still want just a little bit of light while you are watching your movie. The ideal solution is a dimmable lighting product.

Light Direction

Position your lighting equipment such that it lights up the room indirectly by shinning primarily on the walls and the floor. Avoid lighting the ceiling, as its darkness will make the room feel larger.

I found low-voltage lights and strung them on cables along each side of the room. These were available for under $100 at a home improvement store.

Remote Control

Once we are all comfy and ready to start the movie, it is nice to dim the lights without getting up. Likewise, it is no fun to stumble around in the dark looking for the light switch when you have to get up or when the movie is over.

To avoid this inconvenience, I wired my lighting to a dimmer switch with a remote control. Lutron makes these systems that are available for under $100.

Furniture Options

Specially-designed home theater seats are luxurious, but they come with a hefty price tag. The economical options are reclining chairs or a couch you already own. If you’re lucky enough to have the space and want to include two rows of seating, build a wooden platform six to twelve inches high to elevate the second row. Cover the platform with carpet and you’re all set.

Other Touches

We took the additional step of adding red curtains on both sides of our movie screen for about $100. They are strictly decorative, but it’s a great effect. Other people decorate their home theaters in the theme of a favorite film, while others decorate with a series of posters from popular movies.

Video

The video system is the heart of the movie room, and it’s the focal point of your building plan. Still, you don’t have to blow your budget on the latest electronics.

Television vs. Projector

In our movie room, we replace the harsh light of a television with soft glow of a ceiling mounted HD projector. A projector is less expensive than a large flat-screen LED television, and you can easily get an astounding image of 100 inches or larger from an inexpensive model. You can find simple HD projectors for between $500 and $1,000.

Projector Screen

If you decide, as we did, to use a projector instead of a television, you will need a screen. Some people spend hundreds of dollars on a dedicated screen, while others save using their existing drywall. I chose the middle ground and built a 100″ screen for under $100 using off-of-the-shelf materials.

Video Source

Unlike a television, a projector does not necessarily include any means to tune programs, so if you want to watch regular TV in your media room, you’ll need an additional cable or satellite box. You can also enjoy free HD digital broadcasts with an antenna and a tuner. We use DVDs and Blu-rays as well as digital content streamed from our home media network. These days you can find a DVD player for under $50, and entry level Blu-Ray devices start at under $100.

Video Cables

To transmit the video signal from the source to the projector or television, you will need to buy cables. The best quality signal is transmitted by HDMI or DVI. Other standards include component video, composite video, and S-video. Just make sure that the formats used by your source are the same as that of your projector or television. Do not pay extra for premium versions of these cables: You can find low-cost cables that do the exact same thing from many distributors on eBay for just a few dollars.

Audio

You do not need to purchase the most expensive sound system for your home theater. In fact, the small size of most home spaces and their custom acoustics better lend themselves towards a small system rather than a larger one. You don’t want to overpower the room.

Speakers

When you’re getting speakers, you might as well get a surround sound system, rather than a pair of stereo speakers. The most popular format is referred to as 5.1. This means there are five small speakers: two on either side of the screen, the center, and the two rear corners, plus one larger sub-woofer mounted in the corner to reproduce the lower frequency sounds.

There is a newer format called 7.1, which adds two additional rear speakers, but I find the difference to be negligible. Expect to pay $300 to $500 for an entry-level 5.1 speaker set.

Receiver

Your receiver will allow you to accept audio from all of your sources and amplify the signal sent to your speakers. You will need a receiver that can play back surround sound in your chosen format. Fortunately, now that surround sound technology is mainstream, this capability is be standard on most receivers. Surround sound receivers are available for $200 and up.

Speaker Wire

Lastly, you will need to purchase wires to connect your receiver to your speakers. Do not waste your money on specialized wires sold as “speaker cable.” Simple electrical cords called bell wire are the exact same thing. Any hardware store you visit will sell these wires by the foot.

Installation

Once you have chosen all of the pieces of your system, you will then have to construct it. It doesn’t take expert skill, but some aspects will require professional help.

I wired the speakers and the lighting before I got to work on the ceiling. Then, I needed to hire someone to install the carpeting on the floor and as wall coverings for around $150. Finally, I connected the audio and video components myself.

Final Word

Our final total cost for building our movie room was approximately $3,000, split almost evenly between remodeling costs and electronics equipment. In the end, it was worth the investment for us. As parents of a young child, we do not have many opportunities to go out to the movies. While $3,000 seemed like a lot up front, it cost us about as much as it would have to buy movie tickets and hire a baby sitter every couple of weeks for the past few years. Plus, we use our theater far more often.

We end up saving in the long run, and furthermore, visitors who enter our movie room are so blown away by it that we are confident that it has added value to our home. If you have a space in your house that is suitable to a home theater, you can build a pretty impressive room for less money than you may think.

Have you built a movie room in your home? What components did you go with?

For more examples of home movie theaters, check out HGTV and Steve’s Home Theater.

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Jason Steele
Jason has been writing about personal finance, travel, and other topics on blogs across the Internet. When he is not writing, he has a career in information technology and is also a commercially rated pilot. Jason lives in Colorado with his wife and young daughter where he enjoys parenting, cycling, and other extreme sports.

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  • Nan0meter

    Nice article!

  • Blushcarnation

    Thank you for these wonderful tips. We have a huge extra room overseas. There are no theaters here, so I want to have a theater room. I can use your ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  • Miranda

    Wow You have covered almost everything. I thought you have forgotten the video cables but you have mention them in your list. Most people ignore video cable as important part of home theatre system but they are vital too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.waterstram Stephen Waterstram

    I have a very big pipe dream that I create a business of an 8 genre room theater plus a “great room” for other events like music,movies and many other social occasions. I would like to show in the eight rooms ALL of the Movies that have ever been made. It’s “okay” to watch movies on TV’s and a “home theater” but a movie should be experienced in a theater and that goes for the classics too. The difference is that I would have all of my screens in a 16*9 wide format. I love your seats and would use something like them.

  • T-Bones

    Jason, You got it right on…so much for my Macintosh system…have to slum it with my surround sound marantz receiver and 60 inch plasma Samsung..Small area 10 by 12 will function as office and theater AREA not theater room.

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