- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Harry Wiggins never considered himself a big movie buff. The Lake Ridge, Va., resident says he used to watch a few movies a month, nothing more.

Now he’s looking into a Netflix membership.

He has discovered that having a dedicated movie room makes a world of difference.

Falling prices on big-screen televisions and home stereo systems means any Joe can reproduce the theatrical experience in his own home. No cackling teenagers ruining the best parts. No overpriced candy sticking to one’s teeth.

The bigger the budget, the more it feels like a home version of the neighborhood cineplex, but even homeowners on modest incomes can create a reasonable home theater room.

The percentage of U.S. households with a home theater system more than doubled during the past nine years, to 36 percent in January, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. In January 1998, just 16 percent of homes had such setups.

Mr. Wiggins admits to being confused by all the choices in the home-theater marketplace. So he consulted with a friend in the know, technologically speaking, and ended up hiring a contractor to help him set up his basement theater.

The home theater boasts seven recessed speakers, a barrage of receivers and equipment hidden in an adjoining spare space and a 50-inch plasma television.

“When you put a movie on, with that subwoofer in front, it’s like being in a movie theater,” he says.

A pair of double doors separates the movie space from the rest of the refinished basement, which also features a fireplace and bar.

“Before we did all this, we never spent much time down there,” Mr. Wiggins says. “Now, in the evening, we’re down there a lot.”

With all the talk about plasma versus LCD televisions, not to mention HD-DVD versus Blu-Ray, the “theatrical” component of the home theater experience can get pushed aside.

Gary Yacoubian, president of locally based MyerEmco electronics, says front projector systems can give homeowners the most movielike experience possible.

“Right now, what’s driving the excitement in the market is flat-panel sets. However, for a person doing a dedicated home theater room, … the front projectors can be a great choice,” he says.

The projectors promise the biggest image size possible, as big as the screen installed in the room, and a sharp picture.

A 52-inch plasma set is nice, but try watching “War of the Worlds” on a screen measuring more than 100 inches diagonally.

However, operating a home projector system isn’t as simple as slapping a plasma set on the wall.

The room in question must be completely darkened for the optimum picture. The device must be hung from the ceiling, which likely entails hiring a contractor to complete the project. Plus, an expert can analyze the room and determine the best place for the installation.

“If you’re willing to make that commitment, it’s a great choice,” Mr. Yacoubian says.

He says a perk for today’s flat-panel sets is how streamlined they look even when not in use. Compare that to the giant projection sets of yore, and you have a new, sleek design element in the home.

If the flat black panel isn’t attractive enough, companies such as VisionArt sell screens to place over flat panel sets featuring artwork one can match to a home’s decor.

“You’d never know there’s a home theater there,” he says.

Meghan Henning, a spokeswoman with the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association, says home theater systems cost upward of $100,000 up until recently.

“Now, we’ve seen trends to even make a spare bedroom into a home theater room,” Ms. Henning says.

The association defines a home theater room as one having a 27-inch or larger set, a system to play either VHS tapes, DVDs or high-definition discs, an audio/video receiver with surround sound and at least four speakers.

It might take an expert’s touch to turn all those gadgets into your own E Street Theater.

Ms. Henning advocates hiring a professional for some installation jobs, such as hanging a plasma screen on the wall. Plasma sets are far heavier than their LCD counterparts. An expert also will know how to hide the mess of wires.

Television screen size often gets the most attention, but home theater owners need great sound as well as a giant picture.

Without a stereo system, “You’re only getting half of the experience,” Ms. Henning says.

Consumers seem to be on the same page. A 2006 association survey regarding home theaters found that 80 percent of consumers consider sound quality to be important or very important aspects of a home theater system.

Mr. Yacoubian says more than half of the emotional experience from a film comes from the sound.

“It’s a waste to use the speakers that come with the TV,” he says.

Designing a great movie room takes more than knowing where to place the assembled remote controls.

Alice Fakier, host of HGTV.com’s “Ask Alice” video series and first-season runner-up on “HGTV Design Star,” says a designer should keep the focus where it belongs — on the big screen, that is.

The seating arrangements should be comfortable and fit a variety of groups, Mrs. Fakier says. Big sectional seating could work or even a reproduction of a theater seating chart.

A dramatic design might look great at first, but the room is made for watching movies, not the seating arrangements. That doesn’t mean a home theater can’t have a few fun flourishes.

She suggests scanning garage sales for some old movie reels. Those silver relics hearken back to Hollywood’s golden age, and they would look great on the walls, Mrs. Fakier says. Adding framed movie posters can’t help but boost the mood.

“Lately, we’ve seen more and more homes displaying the television itself, instead of putting it in an armoire. The same is true with the DVDs and media equipment,” she says.

One inevitable drawback to today’s high-tech wonders is the mess of wires they bring about. Mrs. Fakier says carefully arranging the room’s furniture can hide some ugly wires, and others can be camouflaged with small folding screens like you might see near a fireplace.

If those aren’t enough, she says to buy special strips at the local store that are designed to go over wires snaking up the wall but can be painted to match the existing colors. It’s the next best thing to wireless.

— Some companies even sell screens to place over flat-panel sets featuring artwork one can match to a home’s decor.

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