The terms “home theater” and “media room” are used interchangeably by many, and maybe you’ve wondered if there is a difference. Well, there is, and here is your guide to learn the differences between the two so you can show off your new found audio video wisdom at the next cocktail party. First, let’s discuss the definition of a Home Theater.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, know that what we refer to as a ‘home theater’ goes by other names, too. They are also known as “home cinemas”, “screening rooms”, and if you are in the UK, you can call it a “home theatre”. Yes, the terminology can be confusing. No matter what you prefer to call it, the key differentiator is that this room is a dedicated space, devoted to the best possible reproduction of picture and sound. It is a room with a door that can be closed to ‘seal it off’ from the rest of the home. Since this room is not serving double duty as a Family Room, Living Room, etc, it can be optimized in many ways that serve the goal of delivering the ultimate home entertainment experience.
Home theater optimizations may include:
- A large video display located at the correct viewing height and at the optimal distance from the seat(s)
- Noise-isolating construction
- Acoustic treatments
- Row(s) of dedicated comfy home theater seats/sofas
- Seating risers
- Ability to darken the room to pitch black or nearly so
- Lighting design specific to the needs of watching movies
- Special noise-reducing treatments of the hvac of the room (climate control)
- Speakers located at precisely the best locations for accurate playback of multi-channel soundtracks.
Often a home theater’s dimensions are carefully calculated, too, as certain room dimension ratios (length, height, width) help better bass reproduction. When done right, the audio and video performance in such a room is simply stunning. Now, let’s move on to the Media Room.
A Media Room, on the other hand, is usually a much more casual entertaining space that not only serves as a place to watch movies/TV and listen to music, but also may be the Living Room, Family Room, etc. The audio video performance in these rooms can often approach the no-compromise performance of a dedicated high-end home theater, but due to the dual-purpose nature of the room there are usually compromises.
Media Room compromises can be:
- A smaller video display
- Compromised seating locations (think of the common ‘l-shaped’ sofa configuration)
- Limited number of seats that faces the video display
- Compromised locations of speakers (especially surround channel speakers)
- Usually not acoustically treated for the best sound reproduction
- Lighting fixtures and locations not idealized for specific av lighting needs
- Open floor plans that cause sound to ‘leak’ into adjoining spaces
- Noisier hvac ducting
- Exposed ceiling projector if using a front projection system
- Usually more difficult to hide an component rack
Usually, life isn’t so black-and-white and you’ll find dedicated home theaters without all of the idealized features mentioned or media rooms where many of the potential compromises have been creatively solved. Designed right, either a dedicated home theater or a well thought out media room will most likely become one of the favorite rooms in your house.
Which one is for you? It depends on your goals first, but sometimes the lack of an available room you can dedicate to become a killer home theater will make the decision for you. No need to despair…engage a home theater designer early (hint hint) and a good one will have all sort of tricks up his or her sleeve to minimize or engineer away many of the compromises of a typical media room.
A few quick tips for a high-performance media rooms: use high-quality in-ceiling and in-wall speakers, the quality keeps getting better with time and they are nearly invisible when installed and paint-matched correctly. You can hide a large flat screen behind motorized artwork to hide your media room’s theater aspirations, and/or have a large retractable projection screen from seemingly out of nowhere.