Is home entertainment changing?

There is a lot to consider when your client is deciding between a dedicated home cinema or a media room. Amy Wallington looks at some of the differences to think about when designing a media room over a dedicated cinema.

For most people, the home is their sanctuary, safe haven and comfort zone. Nowhere is more familiar to us than our homes. Since the start of the pandemic, they have become even more important to us, and despite lockdown restrictions easing across most of the world, this is something that is not likely to change anytime soon.

Investing in the home is a trend set to continue. A large part of that investment is home entertainment. Some film companies have bypassed commercial cinemas entirely due to consumers being reluctant to return to the cinema as they did pre-pandemic, and many homeowners are looking at ways to bring the big screen experience to their homes.

However, not everyone has a dedicated space for a home theatre. Or they would just prefer to utilise their space in the best way possible by having a multifunctioning room to fit a variety of needs. This is where the media room comes in.

“To me, a media room suggests a lounge or living room space where typical day to day living happens with the enjoyment of TV, Netflix, movies, radio, streamed music and the like,” explains Wayne Hyde, technical manager, sales and marketing support at Custom AV Distribution. “This space isn’t tucked away like a typical home cinema room. In the UK, it’s often open, and probably has some hard surfaces, which have a negative effect on acoustics. It’s also typically decorated in light colours, which detract from the immersive experience from the display. Cinemas are often closed off, dark, have some control over acoustics and feature larger screens.”

When the space and budget allows, a dedicated home cinema room is often the preferred choice. But if a home doesn’t have a suitable spare room or space, a media room is a great solution and allows the room to be multi-purpose. “A media room is usually designed to cater for a variety of different activities, with watching movies being just one of them,” says Thorsten Köhler, managing shareholder of German integrator, Die Zwei.

“These activities can be playing games using a games console, watching sports events or even doing media supported indoor sports activities, as well as listening to music and having parties. Besides all that, of course you can watch movies and series like you would in a dedicated home cinema room.”

“You may need more budget to deliver equal performances in a multi-use space…”

It’s not just the use of the room that differs to a dedicated home cinema. Typically, home cinemas are dark with no windows, have a big screen with projector, fixed rows of seating, and not a lot of furniture. However, this is not usually the case in a media room, as Köhler continues: “To support these activities, the room design, lighting, furnishings, etc usually differs largely from a home cinema. Most of the activities do not take place in darkness but within a well-lit room or even utilising daylight. Hence the whole room design is usually brighter and more colourful than a home cinema room. Ideally, seating and tables are mobile so they can be arranged according to the current activity.”

A fixed TV display is usually chosen over a projector for a media room to ensure a clear, high-quality picture is delivered even when there is a lot of ambient light. Audio requirements often change too with the amount and placement of speakers needing to fit within the constraints of a normal room. The informal seating layout will also mean that audio will possibly sound differently depending on where the person is in the media room compared to a dedicated theatre room where the sound experience should be the same.

UK integrator, SONA, says that they often install media rooms in a communal area, as Simon Fulstow, design and technical director highlights: “A media room is generally a much more multi-purpose space, often sharing functionality within the same room or area, and often used for multiple activities at once. We regularly carry out media room installations in an open plan kitchen or family spaces where someone might be watching TV at one end, while cooking, homework or gaming is happening within the same overall area.”

Informal seating can affect speaker positioning. Image: CinemaWorks

Making choices

We’ve covered some of the key differences between a dedicated home cinema and a media room, but how can you assist your client in choosing which would fit best into their life? Sometimes it’s an obvious choice, especially if they don’t have the space for a dedicated cinema room but sometimes it can depend on their home entertainment requirements.

“The decision should always be driven through dialogue with the client and ideally the family or whoever will be regularly using and enjoying the space,” says Fulstow. “It’s critically important that we understand what’s important to them and what their requirements are, which they might not actually know and that’s where our experience and examples of real life solutions can assist in creating a brief and determining the most appropriate solution.

“How do they enjoy consuming content? Do they have family movie nights or regularly put on the latest sporting events? This is all vital information to help guide this decision. The way in which they actually want to interact with the system also has a large influence on this. Do they want a more social atmosphere that can encourage interaction and communication, or a space that feels more intimate and personal, where attention is purely on the experience?”

Hyde agrees with this and stresses how important it is to ensure the client understands the differences between the two experiences. “How much do they want to be immersed into the content?” he adds. “A home cinema should give maximum immersion and the best experience, better than the local cinema. Enjoying content in a media room can be fatiguing in comparison as you subconsciously struggle to follow dialogue, the storyline and to appreciate all the colours on the screen.”

A dedicated cinema has a fixed purpose so generally gives the better big screen experience. Image: SONA

Cheaper & easier

It’s easy to see why clients might believe a media room is the cheaper and easier option when choosing between that and a dedicated cinema room, However this isn’t always the case.

Owen Maddock, owner of CinemaWorks, admits: “Media rooms are definitely harder to do really well. For cinemas, there’s a defined script to follow. It’s already dark so you will get a better picture performance, fabric walls are normal so you hide the speakers and acoustic treatments, and it’s normal to put your seating in rows, away from the back and side walls where you’re less likely to get bass problems or issues with being too close to other speakers. A media room makes it more challenging to get a bright picture and good bass and convincing surround sound when you’re more likely to have one row of seating that spreads out between both walls.”

Regarding a media room being the cheaper option, Maddock says: “Even more of a challenge is that a media room is sometimes considered as the budget option. Actually, the opposite can be true. You may need more budget to deliver equal performances in a multi-use space; you have to think harder about acoustics when there are windows and hard surfaces, you’ll probably need automated window treatments to control the light levels and prevent hard echoes from the glass, and the display needs to be brighter.”

However, it can also be viewed that a media room can give a client more for their money. “Media rooms are inherently flexible,” highlights Fulstow. “The nature of the systems tends to mean they can be enjoyed in more ways than a dedicated cinema, which may only feature a few ‘modes’. Customisable lighting, motorised curtains/blinds, and a range of screen sizes allow us to create rooms that can be completely tailored to different activities or requirements at the touch of a button. Clients tend to be less concerned about outright performance in a media space, so this can mean that equipment selection results in potential savings compared to an equivalent sized dedicated cinema space.”

Fulstow also sees the other side of this. “The flip side to potential cost savings is that reproducing high-quality audio and video in a media room can actually be more difficult due to the acoustics of the room itself alongside having to work with rooms which are often irregular shapes, and usually have windows. This can mean reproducing good quality audio and video for an amazing client experience requires more design work and more expensive equipment or room treatment to achieve the very best result.”

Glass makes it very hard to get the acoustics right in a media room but it can be achieved with window treatments, which is not usually needed in a dedicated cinema room. Image: SONA 

More opportunity

To a certain extent, integrators get more freedom when designing a media room compared to a home cinema. As Maddock mentioned earlier, a dedicated theatre room has a script to follow, whereas a media room is varied and doesn’t follow standards so much.

Köhler says: “Although there are lots of examples for really breathtaking home cinema room designs, I’d say there are more opportunities in a media room. Since it’s usually not operated in total darkness, colours, textures, room design and furniture are much more visible than in a home cinema. Integration of AV into the room is more challenging as it’s usually requested to be low-profile or ideally invisible, at least when the AV systems are powered off. However, this also creates the opportunity to stand out with clever and unusual solutions for specific problems.”

Maddock recognises this isn’t always the case because interior designers and other members of the team often have more involvement in a media room than a home cinema. “I think a media room is more constrained in terms of opportunities,” he explains. “In a cinema room, there’s a sense of ‘leave it to the experts’ and that’s us. In a media room, everyone has a voice, which is completely right because it’s often the main lounge in that home, so everyone’s input is valuable. But it is a trickier, narrower path.

“We have seen more interest in dedicated home cinemas – I think the opulent luxury of these spaces is the appeal here.”

“The other design trades are happy to defer to your expertise in a cinema whereas in a media room, the interior designer or architect sometimes tries to weigh in and override. Why do you think so many screens end up ridiculously high causing neck strain on some projects? Usually, it’s not from the client; there’s a designer who needs to take some training on this element.”

Having a dedicated cinema room is usually just for movie watching and sometimes gaming. As media rooms have multi-uses, it can often require compromises, as Fulstow points out: “Whilst almost every dedicated cinema or media room will always have an element of compromise in the design, equipment specification or installation, media rooms tend to require more compromise because you are not working within a room dedicated to a single task.

“Screens, speakers and electronics all have to be woven into the design of a room and a result of this is that media rooms tend to contain more compromises with regards to outright performance and the recreation of that truly immersive experience and quality. However, this does also make it more rewarding to work on because of these challenges.”

A media room can still be transformed into a high-performance cinema room with the right equipment, as seen above. Image: SONA

Pandemic effect

The home entertainment market has certainly grown since the pandemic with more people choosing to invest in their homes and having the budget after spending a year at home with nothing to do.

Köhler says: “Despite the fact that Covid restrictions are slowly lifting in most parts of the world, I think the high demand in home entertainment installations will remain. Although we as a company expect more home cinema installations than media room projects due to the nature of our business, I’d expect in general more media room style installations than dedicated home cinemas.”

Fulstow is also expecting the market to continue growing: “Over the pandemic we have seen a general increase across the board, no matter the value of the property, or home improvements. As part of this, home entertainment has been big on the list, because it was the thing everyone was turning to in order to meet the fundamental need for variety we all have as humans. We haven’t been able to get it as easily from travel or events outside of the home, so people used home entertainment as escapism. We have seen more interest in dedicated home cinemas – I think the opulent luxury of these spaces is the appeal here. It’s an immersive escape.”

However, Maddock isn’t so sure this will continue. “2020 and 2021 were good for our trade and construction in general. People spent their holiday budgets on home improvements and especially on keeping themselves connected and entertained. However, it may ease off in the next little bit, as people can go out again and travel overseas, they probably will. Also, there’s a side problem that all the good builders are booked up for months in advance!”

Main image: A media room is generally brighter with a more relaxed layout when compared to a dedicated cinema room. Image: CinemaWorks