How do you charge?
We work in two basic ways: As Project Designer or as a Consultant.
When engaged on a Project Designer basis, we charge a fixed fee based on our contracted scope of work, plus reimbursement for travel and out-of-pocket expenses. This arrangement typically makes the most sense for projects where the performance expectations are high, and our involvement both broad and deep. In the Project Designer mode, our output takes the form of many comprehensive CAD drawings covering everything from building services design (low-noise HVAC, Technical Power, etc.) to interior finishes and custom-designed acoustical assemblies; we also perform frequent site inspections, monitor the construction, and run tests to keep the project on the “straight and narrow.”
In such projects, our fee typically accounts for 12 to 16 percent of the normal costs of constructing, treating, furnishing and equipping the room with suitable A/V hardware. The fixed fee nature of the arrangement helps homeowners set and stick with their budget.
When engaged as a Consultant, we work on a time-and-materials basis to provide recommendations, specifications, options and critiques in whatever areas the homeowner, architect, builder and A/V contractor feel they need the help. For one current project, that involves recommending what specific acoustic treatments to place where, and how to reduce sound leakage into other areas of the house. In another, it involves specifying the speaker and listener locations, solving a projector noise problem, and testing and calibrating the A/V system after the installer has wrapped up his work. In these arrangements, our output typically takes the form of faxed or emailed memos; basic layout sketches; markups (“red-lines”) of the architect’s drawings; and meetings, site visits and testing as required.
If you’re not sure which arrangement makes the most sense for your project, give us a call or send us an email and we’ll be happy to discuss it.
How much should I allow for the acoustic materials?
As a starting point, take the room’s area in square feet and multiply by $15-40, e.g., a room of about 400 sq. ft. will require somewhere between $6,000 and $16,000 in acoustic treatment (diffusors, absorbers, etc.). The final amount will depend on the performance expectations, the specific challenges of the environment, the loudspeakers’ radiation patterns, the location of the “money seat,” and other factors.
How much “bang for the buck” can I expect in room design and treatment versus, say, spending the same money on better speakers or amplifiers?
Once your system reaches what the industry calls “mid-fi” quality or better, the weakest link in your playback chain is almost certainly your acoustical environment and/or your system’s interface with it. That’s because, if you sit more than 2 or 3 feet away from the speakers, you’re in what acousticians call the “far-field,” where the majority of sound comes to you indirectly, from the room, not directly from the speakers. Because speakers spread sound in many directions, not just directly at you, the room acts like a big filter, selectively exaggerating some sounds, softening others, and spatially scrambling that nice, smooth response you thought you were getting when you first heard them in the dealer’s soundroom.
The upshot is that it’s usually far more cost effective to spend money on at least some room analysis and treatment than it is to upgrade speakers, amps, and the like. It turns out that once your room “behaves” acoustically, you’ll be able to get your money’s worth out of your new audio purchases.
Can acoustic treatment somehow work with my room’s aesthetic design instead of against it?
Absolutely. “Treatment” can be an absorptive panel or diffusor array that gets concealed behind acoustically transparent fabric. But “acoustic” materials don’t always have to be engineered products from acoustical manufacturers. For example, a bookcase with the spines of the books staggered—that is, not “lined up”—can be considered an “acoustic” construction because it can offer some useful lateral diffusion. Almost anything you put in a room—the carpet, furniture, bookcases, draperies, whatever—will change sound patterns in some way. Often an acoustic makeover begins with simply optimizing the location of the existing furnishings, speakers, and listener locations. When specially engineered materials are specified, the acoustic designer will often recommend ways to hide or incorporate them within the room’s interior design.
How big a room do I need to get a real Home Theater experience?
A fair number of our recent projects have been around 18 to 20 feet wide by 25 to 30 feet long and about 11 feet high. But you can get great results with a smaller venue, too.
Bear in mind that, for practical purposes, the room is going to “net down” to a smaller footprint than whatever space you can make for it. That’s because you’ll need roughly 6 inches of acoustic treatment on each of the four walls and ceiling. This treatment—a combination of devices designed to absorb, scatter or reflect sound—is typically concealed behind panels of acoustically transparent fabric, giving the room a nice tailored/upholstered look.
I have noticed other projects have that classic, old-time theater look. That’s great but it doesn’t fit our style. Is there some reason a high-quality home theater absolutely has to look that way, or can I make it blend with our existing home?
Working on miniature versions of ornate 1920s movie palaces can be a lot of fun, but when the lights go down, getting powerfully immersive movie experiences from them is often an uphill battle. Those columns, pilasters, arches and other classical elements must obey an inner logic, which is sometimes at odds with the requirements of good acoustic design. There’s sometimes a deadly “double-whammy” here, as the architectural theatricality can raise your performance expectations and lower the performance quality actually delivered—a classic prescription for a let-down.
In the last few years we’ve noticed a slackening interest in grand mini-movie palaces, and a growing interest in home theaters that are simply an extension of the architectural style of the rest of the house. These “livable” venues are often more successful acoustically … which means that they foster that “willing suspension of disbelief,” or forget-who-you-are immersion that’s the proper goal of all moviemaking.
If you want a truly theatrical venue, by all means retain an architect to give you exactly what you want. Just be clear on where you want to be: In a movie theater, or in a movie? If it’s the latter, you’ll need to make sure that the architect and the acoustic consultant get on the same page and stay there.
The “treated” showroom I heard sounded dead, even a little weird. Are you sure acoustic treatment is a good idea?
That’s a common defect in rooms treated by persons who lack experience and/or basic training in psychoacoustics. The “eeriness” that many people feel in these rooms comes from the fact that your brain is getting deeply conflicting reports about its environment: The eyes say you’re in a normal-size room, but the ears can’t find any of the usual room-type reflection patterns or ambience or reverberation. This lack of correlation between the visual and auditory inputs makes no “sense” to the brain. A well designed room doesn’t have this defect; in fact, it can, and usually should be the most inviting, sonically optimized place in the whole home. That’s why you’re building it!
Your scope of work seems to emphasize the low-noise aspect of the room, the way the framing, doors, HVAC, electrical, plumbing etc. issues get handled. Is it really necessary in a home environment, which is a pretty quiet place to begin with?
Being able to understand dialog is critical to grasping a movie’s logic or narrative thread. If you’ve ever said, “Huh, what did she say?” and had to back up the video and replay the passage, you know how a small problem with speech intelligibility can create a big disconnect in the movie’s flow. Speech intelligibility depends on two factors: room acoustics and signal-to-noise ratio (that is, the relative strength of the speech vs. the background noise); S/N is actually the more important of the two*. Building the home theater as a little “fortress of silence” will increase S/N and allow you to follow multiple on-screen conversations effortlessly.
But there’s something beyond that basic can-you-follow-what-they’re-saying issue here. The steady noise of the HVAC system, the occasional whooshing of water through plumbing in the walls, the sound of footfalls overhead, the faint honking of horns down the street, or conversations down the hall—all of these things conspire against your being able to register the little soundtrack details—the squeaking of a door hinge, the rustling of leaves, the chirping of crickets in the distance, faint footsteps—that give a movie its texture and believability. Directors often use the softest parts of the soundtrack to “set us up” for what’s to follow. For example, if the crickets stop chirping in a night scene, it probably signals that something’s not right: there may be an intruder lurking. If you don’t catch this little cue, even subliminally, you’re not properly primed and ready for what’s coming up next.
Remember, in a movie the most dramatic, spine-tingling, oh-my-gawd moments are the quietest ones, when you can hear a pin drop. That’s why even faint background noise is usually a bigger spoiler than a fuzzy picture or mediocre speaker system or an uncomfortable seat. And that’s why we handle it the way we do: comprehensively.
* If interested, see “On the combined effects of signal-to-noise ratio and room acoustics on speech intelligibility” by Bradley, Reich and Norcross in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, vol. 106, no. 4, pt. 1.
Will thick carpeting cure bass problems in my Media Room?
The notion that carpeting has some salutary effect on the bass has been around so long you have to wonder if it hasn’t been hatched and fed by the National Carpet Dealers Association. Bass notes have wavelengths so long that they can’t “see” something as thin and insubstantial as carpet; what they “see” is the wood or concrete floor immediately under the carpet. Even a thick carpet on a thick pad is still largely invisible to bass waves, that is, frequencies below a few hundred Hz. In fact, ceteris paribus, there is a distinct possibility that all that carpeting will make the bass sound fatter and sloppier, i.e., worse. That’s because carpeting is a frequency-selective absorber: By soaking up treble and upper midrange energy, carpeting has the subjective effect of making the bass sound relatively prominent, often perceived as a fatter, looser and less controlled sound—the opposite of the advertised effect.