A Hidden Home Theater

Reader Thomas Grounds shares his media-room challenge

I wanted to build a home theater in a multipurpose room that occupied the downstairs level of a duplex built in 1923. The construction is pier and beam, and all the walls and ceilings are ship-lap. There was no place for a TV. With the fireplace on one wall, bookcases on another, a picture window on another, and a closet at the other end, I had no idea where I would put a TV and all the speakers.

Because the entire house is ship-lap, running cables was a challenge. Luckily the ceiling molding was very ornate and we were able to surface-mount the speaker wire around the upper molding. Once it's painted, you won’t see the wires at all.

Back of Room
At the back of the room is a closet that gives access to the space under the stairs. All the equipment is located in this closet. To the right is the doorway that leads to the stairs for upstairs access. To the left is the desk where the media PC is housed. The monitor is mounted to the wall and the keyboard and mouse are housed in the desk. The left wall is all bookcases and a door to the music room.

Speakers are distributed throughout the downstairs through the B speaker channels, and a four-pair switch box (Music Room, Garden Room, Kitchen, Outside). The rear speakers for the surround sound (7.1) are mounted above the desk and the door to the upstairs.

Front of Room
The front of the room has a fireplace and doors to the entry hall. I selected a drop-down screen so that the room would not always look like a single-use room. I mounted the drop-down screen to the ceiling. The front pair of speakers is to the left and right of the fireplace, and the center speaker is on top of the fireplace molding.

To the left of the fireplace are the doors to the entry hall. The entire left wall is a window on the front of the house. The surround speakers are mounted halfway through the room over the bookcase and over the front window.

Equipment Closet
At the top of the closet is a Dell MP2200 DLP projector. The projector is mounted to the underside of the stairs using the ceiling-mount bracket from Dell. Cables to the projector come from two directions. The power and PC connection are mounted on the inside of the doorframe and connect to the UPS and the Media PC. Three additional cables come from the back wall behind the A/V equipment—Composite, S-Video, and Component Video. All three cables are connected directly to the A/V receiver (second shelf). All video and audio is switched using the receiver. The projector is set to sense the appropriate connection to use based on where it is getting the video signal. Cable management is done on the wall behind the shelves. At each shelf is a strip of Velcro that holds all cables in place.

A cable running along the doorframe is for two infrared (IR) buds that are placed in two places so that the pyramid IR receiver can blast all of the A/V equipment with the IR signal from the remotes. The other pyramid is placed on a bookshelf to the right of the front screen and is used as the aiming point for all remotes.

Sitting on top of the DirecTV box on the top shelf is a four-channel speaker switch box. This is connected to the receiver's B channel. This box controls the speakers to the Garden Room, Music Room, Kitchen and Outside. In the future, this switch box will be connected to a second receiver, which will be connected to the main A/V receiver’s 2nd Room output connections. The A/V receiver in use doesn't allow for both the A and B speakers to be on at the same time. This results in the inability to hear music in the Media room and the rest of the house simultaneously. By adding the second receiver, it will also enable the ability to watch a movie or play X-box in the media room while still playing music (or some other source) through the rest of the house.

The top shelf houses the HDTV DirecTV DVR (Tivo) receiver. Two satellite cables run under the house and into this closet. The DirecTV box is cabled to the receiver using Optical Audio and Component Video. An additional cable runs up to the satellite dish area and connects to the Over the Air (OTA) HDTV antenna.

The A/V receiver allows for the mapping of video inputs to the audio outputs as well as the renaming of the devices. I used the TV input for HDTV and Xbox (to use the Component connection, coming from the component switch box) and DAT for the Media PC (optical in, RCA out) so that I can digitally record from any source (including the audio mixer). All other inputs are used as marked.

I used a combined DVD/VCR. The DVD connections are made to the receiver's DVD connection. For some reason, the receiver doesn't offer an Optical connection, but only a Coax connection; therefore, Coax, S-Video, Component Video, and Composite Video are all connected to the receiver. The VCR connections are also made to the receiver (Composite only).

I opted for the HDTV connector for the Xbox. This enabled the use of an Optical audio connection as well as Component and S-video connections. These run into the Component audio/video switch box. My network isn't cabled into the downstairs of my house, so I rely on wireless for my PC connections and my Xbox connections. I purchased the Xbox wireless modem, which connects me to Xbox Live.

Due to the limited number of Component Video connections on the AV receiver I selected, I had to add a Component Video switch box. The nice thing about the box is that it senses where it has a source and automatically selects it. If more than one source is sending a signal, the box switches to the most recent new source that it found. You can manually override the source by pressing the buttons on the front of the box.

I use this four-channel mixer for recording projects. That is the reason I used the DAT connections for the media PC so that I can record either on the PC or on a cassette deck. Four microphones plug into the mixer for that purpose. The mixer is connected to the A/V receiver to the AUX port. The mixer is on a rolling stand that lets me roll it into the adjacent music room, where the piano is.

My media room is wired to my A channel on my main receiver. In the past, I had receivers that enabled me to have both the A and B channels on at the same time. My B channel runs to my speaker switch box and supplies sound to the other sets of speakers around the house and outside. Because I can’t play both A and B together, I use the second room out on my main receiver and run to my second receiver to manage the sound in the rest of the house. This works well if I'm having a party and have music playing in the other rooms and want to play Xbox or watch TV or a movie in the media room without changing the sound in the rest of the house. A gotcha that I discovered is that the second receiver only passes on signals that are analog. Because I have an Optical connection from my media PC, DVD, XbOX, and HDTV to my main receiver, it doesn't pass these signals to the second receiver. I had to install a second audio card in my media PC and connect directly to the second receiver to pass that signal.

The media PC is on a rack on the floor behind the wall where the desk and monitor reside. I drilled two holes through the wall—one for the keyboard and mouse, and the other for the monitor and its power cord. The Media PC is connected to a UPS and all the A/V equipment is connected through the filtered power outlets on the UPS. The Media PC is connected to the A/V receiver with an optical OUT and RCA IN connections, allowing playback of music through the A/V system and the recording from the A/V system (e.g., mixer, radio). The Media PC is connected to the rest of the computer network via wireless. It is part of the domain.

The PC runs the Media Center software from J. River. This software allowed me to rip my entire CD collection to the hard drive. The software is also able to serve up all of the music over the network to all PCs running the Media Center software as well as over the Internet. I keep five index card file boxes on the shelf to the left of the desk, and I file all of the CD Liner notes in that box. This way, I don’t have to furnish space to store all of the CDs, and I still have all the liner information available. I have three 400-CD players connected to another system, where I put the CDs once I have burned them.

The PC also runs the Active Home software, which controls all of the X10 devices (lights) and allows for macros to be run that change the lighting in the room (fade down to watch a movie, fade up when it's over).

The IR Pyramid receives the IR signals from the remotes from a partner pyramid, which translates them to RF and reproduces the signal in the closet. This is the device that the IR buds are connected to.

I just purchased the MX-3000 universal remote and wireless base that I'll be incorporating into my setup. The MX-3000 uses both IR and RF to send signals. I will replace the IR Pyramid in the closet with the wireless base and run all the IR buds through the closet. I will no longer need the other pyramid that currently sits on a shelf in the media room. The remote will allow me to set up all the remotes that I currently use—receiver, HDTV, TiVo, DVD, x10 (for the lights), and projector remotes all into a single remote.

Because of the size of the room, I didn’t want to take up any space with the subwoofer. I elected to put the subwoofer in the closet with the media equipment. It's placed against the common wall between the closet and the room. Because the house is on pier and beam, the hardwood floors under the carpeting help pull the bass frequencies into the media room. The subwoofer has been adjusted for this setup and seems to be working well. I'm planning to add room shakers to the configuration and am still figuring out where they will be placed. If I get my courage up, I may crawl under the house and mount them between floor joists under the room.

Controlling the System
In the media room are the control elements of the media PC. The keyboard and mouse are housed in the desk and when the drawer is closed, they're not seen at all. The monitor is mounted to the wall, and when music is playing, the J. River software shows the track information as well as the album cover (or selectable visualizations).

The x10 system allows for the use of a wireless remote to control all the light levels (including the lamp on the desk) from anywhere in the house. Two macros were developed and assigned addresses so that when the On button is pressed, the entire room fades up to about 75 percent. When the Off button is pressed, the room drops to 20 percent.

A remote monitor from ViewSonic allows me to use the ‘remote workstation’ software in XP to connect to any of the PCs on my network, including the media PC, and walk around the house with the monitor. The monitor allows for touch entry on the screen (with a supplied stylus) or a mini USB keyboard. While in the dining room or even outside, I can control the music being played or surf the Web. Or, I can do work on any of my other PCs while in the media room. I store the unit in the media closet where it recharges when not in use.

I purchased the MX-3000 remote to control my entire media room. The remote is a bit pricy, but it will do everything I need it to do. I program it using my PC and then download the programming to the remote. The software also downloads the IR codes from a database that's maintained by the manufacturer, so I can get all the functions of newer equipment without having to go through the Learn mode. This remote also allows me to control all my x10 lighting. I plan to build macros that will let me touch one button and have the room dim, equipment turn on, and start playing. The remote is both IR and wireless and allows me to put the wireless base in the closet, connect the IR buds, and then get rid of my current IR pyramid. The remote is rechargeable and sits on its charging base when not in use. There goes the need for all the new batteries.

Once all the equipment was installed, I added the cosmetic elements. We didn’t want to have to look at the pull-down screen hardware at the ceiling when we weren't using the projector. So I mounted a drape cornice in front of the screen hardware to mask it.

I removed the ceiling fan and built a chandelier. Since two circuits were wired to the fan (one for the fan and one for the light), I assembled the chandelier in two pieces. The first piece was a simple ceiling-mount light fixture which was wired to one circuit, and then four additional lights were constructed from a disassembled fan-light kit, which was assembled with new wiring and chain (with hooks mounted in the ceiling), and then encased in the same fabric as the drape cornice. These four lights were wired to the second circuit. At the wall, x10 wall switches were installed to control the two circuits going to the chandelier. This enables the center and outer lights to be dimmed separately.

Two alcove lights were added to the right and left of the screen and put on their own circuit. These two lights work independently, and the brightness can be raised and lowered as required. An x10 switch was installed so that these can be changed using the remote. Each section of bookcase had been previously lit. An x10 switch was installed so that these can be changed using the remote.

We found some battered antique doors that fit the door opening. We added new antique hardware (door knob, latch) and repainted the door. We opted to paint the glass panes with a contrasting color. The extra paint helps block out the light during daytime viewing.

The entire 17’ wall was draped to cover the window. Heavy tapestry fabric was used to block out the light. The drapes are 9’ tall. To balance the size of the drapes, two rows of heavy fringe was used at the bottom. A cornice was added to the top in a contrasting fabric and uses a single row of the heavy fringe. The drapes are functional and can be opened to let in natural light. Due to the weight of the drapes, two 1” dowels were mounted at the ceiling using banister hardware (to support the weight). Metal rings ride the dowel to allow for manual opening of the drapes.

Eight surface-mount lights were mounted to the ceiling between the drapes and the cornice. These eight lights are on their own circuit and have an x10 switch installed so that they can be controlled using the remote.

For seating, I purchased five recliners. When we're not watching a movie, we have them arranged in a conversation setting. The coffee table is simply four cubes put together into a single table. Each one has either a set of drawers, shelves behind a glass door, or simply shelves. These are used for storage of all the remotes and other items. When we rearrange the seating in the room, we don’t have to deal with a large piece of furniture—we split the coffee table into four separate tables that can be moved next to any of the seats to provide a table for drinks.

Two cheap metal floor grates were in the room. I replaced the grates with iron grates that I found at a restoration hardware store. The drape lighting creates a nice glow on the drapes and also provides a nice dramatic effect while in the room.

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