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Homes

Coming to a theater extremely near you

More homeowners in need of a cinematic escape with a fridge close at hand turn the corner to media rooms.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003


BRANDON -- When it comes to home theaters, Ray Vanabel has found the Holy Grail. Dozens of times.

He has seen home theaters decorated as spaceships, jungles, beaches and Mediterranean villas replete with cute little Romeo and Juliet balconies. In a couch-potato homage to the Tampa Theatre, one client even painted the ceiling with faux clouds and installed fiber optic stars.

Vanabel, sales manager for Advanced Audio Design in Carrollwood, installs custom home theater systems for some of Tampa's wealthiest residents. Clients with money to spend and room to spare typically long for that real movie house feel: theater seats, velvet curtains, a miniature stage, motorized screen and serious surround sound.

For the rest of us, a home theater typically occupies precious space, often a spare bedroom or "bonus" room that needs to also function as a den, library, playroom or sanctuary for the weekly poker game.

"In Florida, we consider it the upstairs basement," says Chuck Frenz of David Weekly Homes. "Home theaters are often in a room that is separate from the family room, a place where there's a pool table or air hockey, where the kids can go watch Barney and make a mess that you don't see when you open the front door."

The David Weekly home model at FishHawk Ranch in Brandon includes a fully equipped home theater, accessed by its own staircase, that features a rich masculine decor and upholstered seats.

About 80 percent of customers buying new homes from David Weekly request prewiring for home theater surround sound, in part because the cost of installation is significantly cheaper if it's done during construction.

"A large population who buy from us are families who get a lot of movies and want to watch them with the kids," Frenz says.

Advanced Audio Design installed the theater system in the Weekly model at FishHawk Ranch. It is as technologically smart as it is comfy: Vanabel switches on Stuart Little with what he calls an "intelli-control" -- a light Frisbee-size device that serves as a one-touch command system.

Call it the ultimate remote. This one's worth fighting over. It sends commands to a concealed microprocessor that talks to the DVD and VCR players as well as to a ceiling-mounted front projector that displays the movies on a 72-inch screen.

It also signals seven strategically hidden speakers that envelop the listener in sounds like thundering jets or bullets whizzing past the ear.

Although it can be rigged for less, the cost of installing this customized wizardry -- and doing it right -- can run about $20,000. It's a choice more and more of Vanabel's clients are making over other luxuries, he says.

"We're doing a lot of media rooms," he says of a trend that picked up about three years ago but became even more noticeable after Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's the whole world situation. I hate that over-used word 'cocooning,' but it really is the right description. People want to feel secure. They want to feel comfortable. They want to have the control to stop the movie and get something to eat or drink."

For a real theater experience, Vanabel explains, a good designer will take acoustics into consideration, especially in Florida where tile, glass and other commonly used hard surfaces can distort sound. They will use acoustic treatments and materials to minimize sound "reflection" caused by distortion from speakers.

A climate-control system dedicated solely to the theater room is also important, Vanabel says, "because when you get five or six people in a room watching a movie, it can get hot. I made that mistake in my own house."

Tampa interior designer Ginger Tarr Shea, who has designed numerous media rooms, recommends that anyone thinking of installing a home theater should consider several things. First, she says, make sure the seating is comfortable and durable.

"Leather is wonderful because you can spill soda on it and it won't show popcorn grease," she says.

Tarr Shea advises her clients to consider an upholstered ottoman instead of a cocktail table so they can kick up their feet. Tables for snacks and drinks are best placed on the sides of sofas and chairs.

And pay attention to the size of the screen and seating distance so you don't feel like you're in the front row of a movie theater.

"I try to design them around the family and what their needs are," she says. "The room should be multifunctional, with good lighting for clients who might also want to do some reading or a game table for those who might also like to use the room to play bridge."

Jennifer Winchell, an interior designer in Lutz, thinks a good home theater is all about atmosphere. A beautiful, low-lit room that beckons you to come in and curl up is ideal.

"I think of plush, fluffy chairs in a space that is cozy and cavelike," she says. "More than anything, I just want to get lost in my movie."

* * *

If you're not going all out and swinging for a custom movie screen and projector, here are some options and tips from Southern Living magazine:

The display device. It's the most critical decision you can make when installing a home theater. The clearer and larger the image, the better your viewing pleasure. If you've purchased a TV in the last decade, there's a good chance it's DVD compatible. High-definition, or HD TV, displays up to four times the resolution of a regular TV. But remember that many networks are displaying only some programs in HD, so a better choice might be a television that can be upgraded.

Plasma screens: Think streamlined. Think flat, skinny box. These devices look more like framed paintings than your parent's console TV of the '60s. They are usually secured to the wall and can be viewed at any angle while still maintaining clarity. (They can also double as giant computer monitors.) They are a good solution when space is tight.

Surround sound: A home theater system should have at least three front speakers -- left, center and right. The placement of the center speaker is critical because it is the source of three-fourths of all movie and TV dialogue. The two side or rear speakers are vital to surround sound and should be located parallel to the listener. For a more dramatic effect, you might want to include additional rear, right and left speakers.

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