The Best Seat in the House

Grab some popcorn and snuggle up with the family on the sofa - home theaters with huge TVs and mega-sound systems are becoming popular with 'cocooning' Americans

THERE'S nothing like a good movie on a Friday night. With hot popcorn in hand, you settle into your seat and the lights fade. Soon the soundtrack of "Dances With Wolves" thunders through your body from all directions, and the giant screen engulfs you in Hollywood's fantasyland.

When the flick ends, you won't have to hurry home to pay the baby sitter.

You're already there.

Sprawled on sofas and wearing their favorite fuzzy slippers, more Americans are beginning to discover the attraction of home theaters - one of the hottest coming attractions in home entertainment. Consumers are finding that today's audio and video products are increasingly able to reproduce the experience of commercial theaters within the cozy confines of the family room.

Twenty-seven to 70-inch television screens, audio/video receivers with "surround" sound, laserdisc players, and hi-fi stereo VCRs are among the typical components of home theaters. For enthusiasts with deep pockets, automatic light dimmers, mechanized black-out curtains, and deluxe sound systems complete the experience.

The availability of videocassettes and a growing menu of television fare such as cable, HBO, and Cinemax are fueling the home theater trend.

"I especially wanted [a home theater] to watch sports - to watch football and have Super Bowl parties," says Jeff Johnson, a retired businessman who had a 70-inch rear projection screen and satellite dish installed last month at his home in West Lebanon, N.H. His home theater is a "special room," he says, where friends can congregate and socialize.

A national survey released this month by the Electronic Industry Association showed that 67 percent of the adults polled preferred to rent or buy a movie and watch it at home, whereas only 22 percent would go out to a movie theater. Respondents said that renting a movie was a better form of family entertainment and offered greater value for the money.

"Cocooning," or the impulse to stay at home, is behind much of the interest in home theaters and media rooms, industry observers say.

"Pretty much no matter where you live, you're fighting the traffic, and you come home from work and it's going to take a lot to get you out of the house again," says Maureen Jenson, executive editor of Audio/Video Interiors magazine, which follows the high-end home theater market.

"Why spend $5 or more in a crowded theater when you can have an excellent picture quality and sound in your own living room?" she asks.

The home theater concept "fits in very well with current lifestyles," adds Russ Herschelmann, a home-theater designer and installer in Marin County, Calif. Last year, he saw a 35 percent increase in his business, he says.

"As the yuppies grow older, they want to spend more time at home with their families."

Improved quality of video equipment is attracting consumer interest, too. Traditional direct-view TVs (the biggest have 35-inch screens) are known for superior clarity, while the quality of front- and rear-projection TVs (which use red, green, and blue cathode ray tubes and can go up to 15 feet in size) has jumped dramatically in the past few years.

"In projection today, not only have you got improved camera and lens technology and improved screens, but the side-angle problem [in which the picture was visible only when sitting in front of the screen] is gone," says Martin Holleran, president and chief executive officer of sales and marketing for Thomson Consumer Electronics Inc., which makes RCA and GE brands of TVs.

Though the recession has eaten into overall television sales, Mr. Holleran reports that industry-wide sales of large-screen TVs (25 inches and up) increased 16 to 17 percent last year and projection TVs by 11 percent.

"With televisions, bigger is better," he says.

ARGE-SCREEN TVs are considered less exotic than they used to be. Last year, Thomson Consumer Electronics began offering its "RCA Home Theater Series," which includes a 27-inch direct view set (suggested retail price of $600), 35-inch direct-view sets ($2,350 to $2,800) and projection TVs in the $2,900 range.

"As the technology improves and sales increase, prices tend to come down," adds James Harper, manager of news and information for the Indianapolis-based manufacturer. "A few years ago, the only time you saw a large-screen TV was in a commercial outfit like a restaurant lounge. That's no longer the case," he says.

Audio equipment has progressed even faster in its ability to reproduce - and even improve upon - commercial theater systems. Sophisticated decoders "lift" the soundtrack off of video tapes and steer different parts of the sound (such as dialogue and sounds associated with onscreen action) to certain speakers in a room.

"Filmmakers ... utilize the soundtrack to create a whole new level of emotion and to draw you into the film," says Mitchell Klein, owner of Media Systems, audio/video designers, in Boston. His firm installs home theaters typically in the $10,000 to $30,000 range. Decoders vary greatly in price, he says, but with "good equipment, the right speaker locations, and the right room acoustics, you can have the same aural experience the filmmakers did in the post-production studio when they laid down the soundtr ack."

Media Systems offers home theaters with the Lucasfilm THX Sound System, which Klein calls the "Mercedes" of sound systems. The level of that performance system is the de facto standard for post-production in the movie industry, he says, and runs from $8,000 up to $17,000. The majority of commercial theaters don't even have this level of sound, he says.

Despite advances in technology, the home theater movement is still "in its infancy," Klein says. Architects and interior designers are just beginning to take advantage of the boom in high-end installations. "It's becoming a design issue."

"It's in a big upward swing," says Tom Doherty, president of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) in Palos Hills, Ill., a service organization for home theater designers and manufacturers. For people building homes or remodeling them, installing a home theater is becoming less of an after-thought, and more of a given, he says.

Holleran at Thomson Consumer Electronics envisions home theaters and media rooms growing in appeal in the next decade and becoming more available to more people.

"When people built a new home or refurbished an old home in the 1970s and '80s, the first place they spent their money was in the kitchen," because "there was an ability to put that cost on their mortgage," he says. They also found ways to put luxuries like whirlpool baths on their mortgage.

"The equivalent of that in '90s will be the media room," Holleran says. More people are "going to figure out how to put that on their mortgage."

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