The first task that should be done in any home theater design is choosing the number and type of seats. That’s probably surprising to most enthusiasts as they think that equipment is the first thing that should be selected! In fact seating choices end up dictating a lot of other things including room dimensions, acoustic treatment and subwoofer / speaker type and placement.
There are two ways to go about designing seating: from the “outside in” or from the “inside out”.
1. Seating Placement Approach
For rooms with fixed dimensions (such as our demo room which was a remodel of an existing space) the approach to use is “outside in”. This means that you start with the room size and use this to determine the maximum number of seats, their type and arrangement into rows.
For rooms where there is flexibility in dimensions, such as a new home or addition, then the approach to use is “inside out”. Choose the number of seats you want and their type, arrange them into rows, and from there specify the room dimensions.
2. Primary vs Secondary Seats
When determining how many seats are required in your theater it is good to think about the “normal” way the theater will be used. A lot of people try to design their theaters for the extreme use cases such as the SuperBowl or once-a-year kid’s party. Most of the time the theater is only going to be used by you and your close family. In addition it is often true that you, the enthusiast reading this article, are the only person in that group who really appreciates great sound. If that is the case then design decisions can be made that will reduce overall project cost.
As an example consider if you went into the design process saying you wanted 12 seats. This number was arrived at by thinking about the maximum number of people who might be in the theater at any one time – the extreme use case. In reality you only have four in your family and 95% of the time it is just the family in there. A better approach, therefore, than trying to design for 12 good seats, would be to design for 4 good seats. Maybe you end up with 8 recliners and a bar area or maybe just one row of 4 recliners and some large bean bags or a couple of couches for the children’s parties. Consider your options and design wisely!
3. Performance Related Seating Placement Considerations
There are a number of performance related design principles that must to considered when laying out home theater seating:
- Viewing angles should be between 36 and 50 degrees for the display to fill in a viewer’s field of vision. These angles are derived from commercial cinema best practices and are explained more in this blog article.
- All seats should have a clear view of the screen. Risers – a term for a raised seating platform – are nearly always necessary to bring the eye’s of people in rows two and three above the heads of those in row one and two.
- The bass response for every listener should be similar. Bass response typically changes rapidly throughout a room due to the influence of room modes. The design process to ensure all seats have a similar bass response is complex and requires consideration of the spatial distribution of room mode peaks and nulls as well as the influence of speaker and subwoofer placement.
- Listener’s heads should be >4ft away from surround speakers. We want to ensure that the surround speakers are not localized for enveloping sounds. This means that the sound pressure level from the surround speakers should not be significantly louder than the main screen channels. In addition speakers are generally not designed to be listened to nearfield and only give their flattest frequency response in the farfield.
- Listener’s heads should be >4ft away from the back wall. Our opinion is that seats that are against the back wall often suffer from a substantial bass boost and poor envelopment as no reflected sounds are arriving at the ear from the back of the room.
Most of these requirements are simple enough that a DIY’er with a CAD drawing package and some time can can design for them. Others such as ensuring consistent seat-to-seat bass response require in depth knowledge of acoustics and some specialized modeling programs.
Having read and understood these requirements you will be ahead of the majority of DIY’ers whose finished home theaters’ poor seating arrangement and sub-par sound quality bear testament to the mistakes made during the layout process!
4. Practical Seating Placement Considerations
In addition to performance relatd considerations there are also practical considerations to ensure the space is usable:
- Leave 30″+ for walkways so that people can easily enter and exit the theater
- Leave 20″+ between seats at all times, even with recliners in the reclined position!
5. Flexing Seating Type In Order To Meet Design Requirements
There are many types of seats that can usefully be deployed in a home theater. The most obvious, and the one that takes the most space, is the recliner. Other types are stadium seats, like those found in a commercial cinema, bar seats and couches. Careful choice of seating type, number and placement can be used to ensure that the home theater meets the requirements outlined above.
Home Theater Recliners
Home theater recliners take up a lot of space both width and lengthways. Our favorite recliner manufacturer is Fortress who make supremely comfortable and supportive seats in California. Recliners are typically made of leather and come with motorized recline features.
Theater recliners vary in size from manufacturer to manufacturer. As a guideline, however, we can use the following dimensions: 34″ wide including side arms, 38″ deep in their upright position and 67″ deep in their full recline position. Consider therefore that a row of four theater recliners with common arms would be 123″ across (over 10ft). Allowing a 30″ of walkway on either side of the seats gets you to 183″ (or 15.25ft) for minimum room width. Length wise we need to make allowance for walkway in between rows when seats are fully reclined. If we allow 18″ between rows then front to back two rows of seats occupies 152″ (12.7ft).
Because of their size sometimes a room is simply not large enough to fit the number of seats required and in this case other solutions may be more appropriate.
Stadium seats are the type found in commercial cinemas. These seats take up less space than a traditional recliner. Some seats have ‘rocker’ functionality which is a partial recline. As a guideline a stadium seat dimensions can be considered as 26″ wide and 31″ deep. The main advantage of stadium seating over recliners is therefore in seating density – more rows can be fit in less space. Two rows of stadium style seats would fit into a depth of 80″ (6.7ft), which is almost half the depth of two rows of recliners!
Bar seating is typically implemented in a home theater exactly as you might find it in a bar setting. There is a shallow depth bar behind the last row of recliners with a number of high bar stools with footrests used to provide seating. It provides a relatively low cost, space efficient way of fitting a large number of people in your theater for the few times a year when you are having a party or other event.
Couches are great ways to make a home theater more informal than it is with the rows of classical recliners. They are also a good space saver, primarily because of the number of people that can be fit across a couch. Most couches do not have recliner functions so they also take up less depth. Some manufacturers like Fortress make fixed, non-recline-able versions of their home theater seats which can be mixed in with recliners without creating a visually jarring effect.