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Should You Add a Media Room or Home Theater? – Costs, Pros & Cons

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Having a private cinema in your home was once considered the ultimate luxury, available only to movie moguls, film stars, and industry titans with access to restricted film libraries. Joseph Cali, a theater designer and installer for actors George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Tom Cruise, estimates that the minimum cost for a top-of-the-line home theater is upwards of $500,000 — and it can reach millions of dollars depending on amenities.

While such extravagance is beyond the desires and checkbooks of most people, advances in technology have expanded opportunities for middle-income Americans to enjoy the experience of a private video and audio entertainment space.

Today, private media rooms are designed and constructed to replicate the experience of viewing movies and TV shows in a commercial theater in a smaller, more comfortable environment. Most have viewing screens of 16 to 18 feet long with elaborate sound systems and comfortable seating. If you have gamers in your family, a media room can also enable them to play their video games on the big screen.

Is it time for you to consider adding a media room to your home? Let’s take a look at what it entails and how to decide if it’s right for you.

Benefits of a Media Room

Smart Tv Remote Control

The decision to add a media room is rarely based on financial benefits, such as its expected financial return when the house is sold. While these things are a consideration, the real benefit of a media room is the pleasure that you and your family will receive from it.

Of course, this can be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. A four-member family spends almost 1,785 hours annually watching television; is the additional comfort and control of a home media room worth $1 per hour or $5? It’s hard to say for sure.

What we do know is that for most people, viewing films, playing video games, or listening to music is more pleasurable in their own homes than in a public venue. Poll after poll indicates that the majority of Americans prefer video entertainment in their homes due to their control over the following factors.

1. Content

A home media room allows the viewer to pick what to watch and when to watch it, including giving them the ability to pause content for bathroom breaks or rewind if they missed something. The plethora of available content providers means that viewers can select from a wide variety of content, including old and new domestic and foreign films, TV shows, sporting events, and documentaries.

2. Environment

Room temperature, sound levels, and seating arrangements are set by the homeowner to meet their specific comfort. There are no “bad” seats in a home theater. You never have to worry about other people talking, stepping on your toes on the way to the bathroom, or distracting you with the lights and sounds of their smartphones.

3. Audience

A video room allows a homeowner to choose those with whom they wish to share a TV show, movie, or video game. You can provide your friends and family with a great experience or have a private showing for one on your own big screen.

4. Amenities

The decor of a media room is whatever the homeowner’s taste and budget allow. Some spaces are designed like small theaters and arcades, complete with ornate fixtures, plush recliners, and exotic sound systems. Dillon Works! constructed one home theater to resemble the interior of the Nautilus submarine from Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Other setups are simple and versatile, often serving as a social space in addition to an electronic entertainment center.

Is a Media Room Right for You? Things to Consider

The decision to construct or convert a room for diversified media use depends on the following factors.

1. Intended Use

The flexibility to watch TV and movies, listen to music, or play video games in the same room requires more components and connections than enjoying these activities simultaneously in separate rooms. Most people don’t want to limit their space to a single use, such as movie-watching. A multipurpose room ensures that the systems installed are used more frequently and by more members of the family.

2. Available Space

Theo Kalomirakis, a veteran home theater designer whose clients include Eddie Murphy and Kelsey Grammer, notes in The New York Times that “you don’t need to have a big space or a big budget.” He recommends a room that’s at least 10 x 16 feet, with space for two rows of seats to accommodate friends and family.

3. Cost

Adding a new room is considerably more expensive than converting a basement or family room into a media room. Prices for components are also higher in larger spaces due to soundproofing and lighting requirements, larger viewing screens, more robust sound systems, and additional furnishings. Before beginning a media room project, consider the maximum number of guests that will be present at a single time to avoid overspending.

Money Crashers contributor Jason Steele converted the basement of his 70-year-old home into an attractive and fully functional media room for around $3,000. The average customer pays about $132 monthly, or $1,584 annually, for programming and Internet services, according to NBC News. Using these averages, the estimated cost for Steele’s media room comes to about $2.57 per hour of use in the first year and $0.89 per hour of use after that.

Steele’s expenses were on the low end of the spectrum thanks to his DIY abilities, use of existing space, and judicious purchases of media room components. A person relying on contractors to do the work and selecting high-end features could easily spend ten times as much, not including the cost of elaborate fixtures.

4. Effect on Home Resale Value

These days, luxury home buyers are becoming much more tech-savvy, and they’re demanding more networked or “smart” homes than ever before. Since they’re looking for a house outfitted with the latest in technology, a modern home theater is a desirable amenity. If you’re targeting your home to this luxury market, a media room could give you an edge over the competition.

It’s difficult to determine how much your home value will be affected when you add a high-tech home theater, but most real estate professionals agree that when there are many houses for sale at any given time, the one with an impressive media room will be more likely to sell first. According to Karen Benvenuto, an associate real estate broker with Brown Harris Stevens in East Hampton, New York, “We are seeing a lot of new construction that includes home theaters as a feature because that’s what the public is looking for.”

Some real estate experts claim that the only situation in which a media room could detract from the value of a home is if it overpowers a medium-sized or smaller home that barely has enough space in the first place. If your home doesn’t have room to spare, taking up a lot of space with a home theater will mean fewer bedrooms or living spaces, potentially decreasing its resale value.

Creating a Media Room: What You’ll Need

Media Room Equipment Chairs Speakers Surround Sound Large Tv

Media rooms, whether designed for the sole purpose of watching movies or the full range of video and audio experiences, require specific electronic components.

1. One Screen or Multiple Screens

Multiscreen systems are popular, especially with sports enthusiasts who like to watch several games simultaneously. Video gamers are also increasingly employing multiple screens that give each player a personal perspective of the game.

Some owners create a video wall that includes security cameras and baby monitors. Others prefer one large screen configured to handle different feeds that are presented simultaneously in different areas of the screen.

The key to an enjoyable experience is seamless source switching and simple controls that are correctly configured and installed. Experts suggest that a complex, custom installation, exclusive of the cost of hardware, can run several thousand dollars.

2. Smart TV or HD Projector

Television screens are available in sizes greater than 100 inches, but they can cost more than half a million dollars. By contrast, 80-inch HDTVs are available for under $4,000 and 55-inch HDTVs for less than $1,000. HD projectors — similar to the projectors used in commercial theaters — are often preferred for viewing on a large screen (100 inches and up) and can be purchased for around $1,000.

A critical factor in deciding whether to opt for a TV or a screen is resolution, or the number of pixels per unit of area. For viewers with 20/20 vision, the number of pixels affects the ideal distance between the screen and the viewer for maximum detail. The lower the resolution, the closer the viewer must sit to the screen.

Digital Trends compared HD projectors with HDTVs on quality factors such as size, brightness, contrast, and screen resolution and opined that an HDTV was a better option for most people when adding a media room.

3. Surround Sound System

Movie directors understand that big sound is more important than big picture in making a viewing experience memorable. The minimum components for a media room sound system are a source (cable box or satellite system, DVD, or game system), an audio/video receiver or preamplifier/processor with a multichannel amplifier, and five or more multichannel speakers.

A standard 5-to-1 sound system consists of left, center, right, surround left, and surround right speakers with a subwoofer for the bass response. A 6-to-1 or 7-to-1 system adds one or two speakers on the rear wall behind the listener.

Audio system installer Audio Advice recommends spending at least $400 per speaker for each of the front three, $400 for each pair of rear and side speakers, and $500 for each subwoofer, especially if you’re an action movie fan.

4. Computer or Game Console

Video game enthusiasts can use either a beefed-up computer or a specialty console such as an Xbox One, PlayStation, Apple TV, or Nvidia Shield to play a variety of different games. Most gaming zealots prefer a PC-based system if they have the funds to afford one — a specially fitted gaming PC can cost $1,200 and up versus a console, which is typically in the $250 to $450 range. Both sources can utilize the TV and sound system installed in a media room.

According to Tom’s Guide, a website dedicated to reviewing electronic devices, a PC provides better graphics with greater detail, a more extensive selection of games, and online multiplayer capability. After examining the pros and cons of PCs and consoles, the site ultimately decides in favor of PCs.

5. Ancillary Equipment

Other equipment needed to make your media room complete include:

  • Universal Remote. One of the more frustrating consequences of combined electronic components can be the need to use multiple remote controls. Having a single remote that turns the electronics on and off, changes source inputs, adjusts sound levels, and controls your smart home technology is a necessity.
  • Game Controllers. While a single joystick may be sufficient to operate many games, players can choose from a variety of control devices to maximize their experiences. Steering wheels and flight yokes, gear shifters, switches, and foot pedals can be combined with a variety of flight panels and dashboards to replicate the feel of driving a Grand Prix race car or flying a Warthog aircraft. Headsets that track your head or eye movements, as well as haptic gloves with tactile feedback, are also available.
  • Surge Protectors. Surge protectors are crucial for expensive electronic equipment since you never know when a power outage might occur. Most devices work by shifting excess voltage to a ground circuit, often with a built-in resistor that breaks the circuit as the last option. Buy protectors with warranties that reimburse you for the cost of equipment if the protectors fail.
  • Wiring or Wireless Connection. Few people want the appearance and risk of unseemly wires throughout a media room, so plan on installing low-voltage, 14/4 or 16/2 speaker wire with a CL2 or CL3 rating between each speaker and the sound source. Before drilling holes in your walls, consider which wireless system will meet your needs. Sonos is a popular system for media rooms and can be expanded to include every room in the house. HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cables are necessary to connect video sources to TV screens and audio/visual receivers. Experts recommend Premium High-Speed HDMI Ethernet cables due to the increased use of 4K video transmissions. While they cost more, Ethernet connections will provide better speed, lower latency (length of time required for a signal to move from one device to another), and more reliable connections.

Other Considerations for a Media Room

Media Room Lighting Purple Ceiling Lights Floor

Simply connecting a set of electronic devices does not make a media room. Interior design, including layout and furnishings, is crucial for a fully functional home entertainment space that creates the desired ambiance, whatever the activity. Before investing in a media room, consider the following.

1. Room Size

Designers recommend a minimum area of 10 x 16 feet for a media room. The size of your screen and its resolution affect the ideal distance needed between viewer and screen to get an immersive effect similar to a theater, while still allowing viewers to see most of the screen without moving their heads. The Guidelines from the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers recommend sitting at a distance where the screen fills up a minimum of 30 degrees of your field of vision for an enjoyable experience.

For example, the ideal viewing distance for a 60-inch, 1080p TV is slightly less than 8 feet; viewers who sit more than 12 feet from the screen will not be able to benefit from the higher resolution. According to Patty Wagner of the University of Georgia, the optimal viewing distance from the screen is between 1.2 and 1.7 times the size of the screen. In other words, viewers should sit 5.5 to 8.5 feet away from a 60-inch, 1080p screen for maximum benefit.

2. Acoustics

The right acoustics and ambiance are the difference between a good experience and a great experience. Soundproofing your media space is also essential to maintain peace with spouses and neighbors, especially in apartment buildings, whether you’re enjoying a battle between the Autobots and Decepticons or the explosions in “Grand Theft Auto 5.” HomeAdvisor estimates the cost of soundproofing an average-sized room ranges from $1,022 to $2,533 depending on materials.

3. Lighting

Joseph Rey-Barreau, associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Interior Design, notes that light variety is crucial in media rooms that will be used for different activities. For example, you need one level of lighting for watching a movie, another for watching TV, and another for entertaining friends.

He suggests a combination of recessed lighting around the ceiling perimeter and 18 inches above the floor. Wall sconces add style and ambiance. Avoid table and standing lamps, which create a glare on the viewing screen. An integrated, preset dimming system eliminates the need to manually readjust the lights to fit a new activity.

4. Furnishings

Furniture, wall and floor coverings, and window treatments create great first impressions and are an opportunity for you to show off your distinct style. For ideas and a sense of possible designs, visit HGTV’s 20 Must-See Media Room Designs. When deciding how to decorate, keep in mind your budget, the uses of the room, and the comfort of those who will use the space.

DIY or Hire a Contractor?

Construction Worker Ruler Wood Gloves

If you’re handy with tools, have the spare time, and possess a basic knowledge of electronics, consider the possibility of doing some or all of the work necessary to create your media room. The Internet is full of DIY sites  including DIY Network, HGTV, MakeUseOf, and Instructables — that provide soup-to-nuts instructions for the design, construction, and furnishing of home theaters and media rooms.

That said, most people prefer to use a specialty contractor to design and build their media rooms. A home conversion project can take weeks, and connecting and coordinating the operation of multiple devices is complicated, especially if equipment is being added or upgraded. Many homeowners begin such projects only to find they’re in over their heads.

When Patrick Bogan of Indianapolis installed a home theater system, he chose to rely on professionals to handle his upgrade. Bogan suggests that if you choose to use a contractor for some or all of the work, you should:

  1. Define Your Expectations and Budget First. The cost of a media room varies significantly depending on its size, furnishings, and capabilities.
  2. Call at Least Three Contractors. Be sure you check each one’s references and, if possible, visit some of the homes where they’ve completed installations. If this isn’t possible, ask for photographs of some of their finished projects. Get their estimates in writing and be sure you understand what tasks or equipment are included in the estimate and what would be considered add-ons.
  3. Insist on a Contractor Site Survey. This survey should identify room measurements, the locations of electrical outlets, and any special conditions that might complicate the installation.
  4. Make Sure Electronic Equipment Is Documented in the Proposal. Documentation should include a full description of the electronic components, including manufacturer name, technical capabilities, and applicable warranties. It should also include who will purchase the equipment (homeowner or contractor) and any additional markups.
  5. Establish a Payment Schedule. Don’t make a full payment for the project up front. While a deposit is likely to be required, insist on tangible milestones to be reached before making any additional payments. Apart from equipment cost, a deposit or down payment should be no more than 20% of the total cost. Withhold 10% of the contract amount as the final payment until the work is completed as contracted.
  6. Read and Understand the Contract Before Signing. If you’re unsure of the language or your liabilities, have an attorney review it before you sign.
  7. Learn How to Use Media Room Components Before Making the Final Payment. There’s nothing worse than having a brand-new media room you don’t know to use. Before you make your final payment, make sure you’re familiar with how to operate your new equipment, including how to turn equipment on and off, change audio/video sources, and set sound levels.

Final Word

In 1974, the TV series “Star Trek” introduced the “holodeck,” a room where participants could interact in virtual reality (VR) environments. Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that replicates a lifelike experience through the use of headsets with a small screen, audio outlets, and haptic devices such as gloves and bodysuits.

While a holodeck is still a thing of fiction, there are some Computer Assisted Virtual Environments (CAVEs) in the academic and industrial worlds. Though the costs of CAVEs are prohibitive for home use today, commercial hologram centers like Euclidon’s Holoverse Entertainment Center in Australia are making VR available to the public. As technology improves and prices come down, home VR systems become more available as entertainment media. Imagine being able to visit the depths of the ocean, see the magnificent art in the Louvre, or patrol the foggy streets of turn-of-the-century London in search of Jack the Ripper as if you were there, without leaving the safety and comfort of your media room. That experience might be closer than you think.

Do you have a media room? Are you adding one in the future? Would the emergence of home VR systems influence your decision?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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