This feature originally appeared in Sound+Image magazine, one of What Hi-Fi?’s Australian sister publications. Click here for more information on Sound+Image, including digital editions and details on how you can subscribe.
The owners of this Western Australian home, Darren and Sabrina, had a long-held dream of installing a state-of-the art home cinema. When the house was built, some 15 years ago, they had included a dedicated cinema room within a sunken double brick construction usefully located at the back of the house, away from all the bedrooms – and the neighbours.
But for a decade and a half this blank canvas – with white walls, a large open window and a concrete step ready for raised seating – sat empty and unused, save as an extra storage area of the home. The reason, as anyone who has been through a home build or big reno will know, was that some things just have to wait until funds allow.
“Yes, we chose to wait,” Darren tells us. “I wanted a great system in there; I didn’t want to just put in something basic. So we took the time to save. The problem was that over that time, the more research I did, the more expensive things got...”
All their research eventually led Darren and Sabrina to Perth’s Hifi Hunter, designer and installer of audio, visual and smart technology. We spoke with director Josh Grondal.
“After researching for quite some time – years, actually – Darren approached me to discuss his ideas for the room and we talked for months about different ideas and options for the space. I think our concepts and vision for his space resonated with him, also that we handle the complete process from design through to installation. He liked that we have an in-house interior designer and that we consider the look and feel of the room, not just the equipment in it.”
Darren and Sabrina initially engaged Josh and his team for a room design service, and it went from there. Eventually the brief extended beyond the home cinema, with Hifi Hunter engaged not only for design and installation of that room, but for wider smart systems and distributed entertainment for the whole home.
“It did end up being a particularly busy site, with the rest of the home being automated at the same time,” admits Josh. “Our team put in many long days and late finishes to ensure the job stayed on track in time for calibration and opening night.”
And as both Josh and Darren emphasise, the process of building and installation throughout the home was able to proceed smoothly because of spending those earlier months of consultation developing the plans.
Planning the dream
The planning stage took around three months as Josh and Darren discussed options for the home cinema.
“Our design service considers everything that’s required to bring a complete cinema experience into the home,” explains Josh. “From the room layout and positioning, the acoustic calculations, all the equipment specifications and the build documentation, through to the room’s interior design finishes and elements, custom cabinetry, lighting and automation, and how all of this contributes to the theme of the room.”
The owners were already clear on key aspects of what they were after, telling Josh they wanted a modern, clean and concealed high-end theatre system that would exceed reference cinema standards for both audio and video. Darren had done his research, and wanted a high channel count including height for Dolby Atmos soundtracks.
“The brief was to create a fully immersive experience,” confirms Josh. “But not only from the equipment – it’s far more than just the boxes in the room. Darren and I discussed the look and feel and the theme of the space as a whole, then we developed the ideas with the help of our interior designer. I’d say this is the main point of difference for a designed space by Hifi Hunter – every element of the space is functional, considered and designed, from the flooring to the furniture, from the equipment to the smart controls and the way it works for the client.”
Once the full brief was established, the Hifi Hunter team began developing initial 3D models of the space.
“The 3D models are great for the clients; it lets them visualise the room in detail,” says Josh. “It helps confirm the important decisions on room layout – the image size, seating and speaker configuration, and it shows all the interior design elements to scale.”
Every home cinema, of course, begins with the room. The main restriction on any system is the physical size of the space, and here there was also the pre-existing concrete step, which effectively pre-defined the position of the main row of seating.
The decision was made to optimise the system for the owner’s two middle seats, since the other two would be used relatively rarely. For the same reason the owners opted not to have a second row of seats, sensibly preferring the option of a bar against the rear wall.
With the overall vision being to have all the equipment, speakers and cabling hidden from view, this cinema needed significant custom cabinetry design for both the front screen area and the rear bar area, along with fabric wall panels and acoustic treatment.
The front wall cabinet had to fulfil multiple purposes. Clearly the owners wanted the screen size as large as possible, but there was also equipment to fit on either side, with custom cabinetry to conceal the large AV racks, with provision for their cooling and cabling, and also storage for for the owners’ Blu-ray collection.
The custom 126-inch Cinemascope acoustic screen was then flush-mounted with the front face of the cabinetry, concealing the huge Krix Theatrix LCRs – three-way speakers with double horns and 15-inch bass units – raised on plinths to the required height behind the acoustically transparent screen. The system uses four REL Predator subwoofers, two of these also within the front cabinetry, with cut-outs allowing them to sit on the floor itself. The side walls also needed to be well-designed yet functional.
“We proposed and quoted several different designs for the side walls,” says Josh Grondal, noting also that the walls, ceiling and window had been pre-treated with carefully-calculated acoustic products. “The requirements were to have a premium modern look, streamlined from the front to the back walls, but also to conceal the surround and front wide pairs of speakers, and to integrate acoustic treatment as well. The reference speaker positions needed 200mm depth when angled to work within the width and depth of the room.
“The final design incorporated a wall frame system using acoustically-transparent wall panelling in a grey acoustic fabric to contrast with the black room. We designed acoustically-transparent black columns to conceal the surround and wide speakers, and highlighted those columns with feature wall lights – it adds a sense of depth to the room.”
The wall panels conceal the acoustic treatment at the reflection points, while everything was designed to be fully serviceable for future access to cabling and equipment.
After three months of planning and designs, Hifi Hunter had its complete set of plans, and was ready to start on pre-wiring of the room and installation of the cabinetry. As the team was also working on the wider house, this involved a whole-home electrical re-wiring and retrofit for smart operation, along with a dedicated and isolated circuit for the cinema’s AV racks.
Meanwhile the bulkhead of the cinema room was built out, with a trough into which LED strip lighting would fit, and sufficient depth for the planned acoustic star ceiling and Atmos height speakers.
The entry door was replaced with a heavy solid one, and an existing window was acoustically insulated and filled in. Once the main walls and ceiling were complete and patched, Darren and Sabrina had the room carpeted and painted according to the team’s advice.
Stage two of the installation started with installation of the acoustic star-light ceiling, and the building of the custom cabinetry at the front and also at the rear, where it incorporates the custom bar and bar fridge, as well as the two rear subwoofers.
With the AV rack wired up, and cooling fans installed, the room was ready for the electronics to be installed and connected.
Video and audio
There was one unusual challenge: this project took place after the pandemic’s sell-outs of some equipment during 2020, followed by chip shortages and supply delays in 2021.
“Yes, we had to navigate some tricky stock and supply issues,” admits Josh Grondal. “But with some tidy project management we didn’t hit any delays to installation.”
The selected projector is BenQ’s 4K X12000H, a DLP projector using two hits of a DLP panel to deliver UHD resolution, here with processor-optimised HDR. This is paired with a Panamorph anamorphic lens.
“The BenQ produces incredible colour, brightness and detail with its LED light source,” says Josh, “and the Panamorph lens retains its full resolution and brightness. The real hero is the Lumagen video processor, which handles all the video switching and automatically handles changes in aspect ratio. It provides first-class HDR tone mapping and allows ISF image calibration.”
Sources for the system include a Panasonic 4K Blu-ray player, an NVIDIA Shield media player, 4K Foxtel, and one source which is unusual in a home cinema, but for our money, extremely welcome.
“We also added the Rega Planar 3 turntable,” says Josh. “And it’s connected to the Control4 audio distribution system, so their vinyl can even be played on speakers throughout the home.” Nice.
“Yes, I was into my records from teenage years in the 1980s,” Darren tells us. “I still
have my records from that time – some 400 albums brought all the way from the UK when I emigrated in the 1990s. I hadn’t played them for 30 years, so I spoke to Josh about incorporating a deck in the room.”
The audio for all sources, analogue and digital, runs to Storm Audio’s ISP Mk2, a modular (here 24-channel) DSP-based processor built around a versatile preamp. It handles Dolby Atmos, DTS:X Pro and Auro 3D. Josh says this was selected to deliver both the number of channels required for a 9.4.6 channel system, and the quality of processing and upscaling required for a system of this calibre.
“It was actually the active crossovers and processing power in the Storm that led us towards using the Theatrix as LCR speakers,” Josh tells us. “The end result really exceeded our expectations.”
The power is provided by a set of Emotiva power amplifiers from the Tennessee company’s Gen 3 XPA range ,which won a 2021 EISA Award for Best Home Theatre Amplifiers. These multichannel amplifiers provide from 200W to 275W per channel to the room’s 15 front/surround/height speakers.
Four REL Predator HT/1508 subwoofers bring up the bass, each with 800W of power and a 15-inch long-throw driver.Vinyl aside, the cinema’s immersive audio is a 15-channel system, operating in a 9.4.6 configuration – so that’s the front LCR channels plus six surrounds on the walls, six height speakers, and four subwoofers. Apart from the four REL subwoofers the system uses Krix speakers throughout, with the height speakers mounted to the surface of the acoustic star-light ceiling.
Control and automation
As Hifi Hunter was also bringing smarts to the whole home, the Control4 automation system goes beyond just the cinema room for both lighting and audio, with four additional music zones fed by a Control4 processor and Anthem 8-channel multizone amplifier.
This allows four independent music streams to play anywhere in the home, controlled using the available touchscreens, wall key-pads, or the Control 4 app on their smart devices. Other rooms have their own local sources, all integrated to work seamlessly together under the Control4 system. In this way the home’s smart lighting, security, CCTV and climate control were all brought together under a single control system.
“We upgraded the lighting in the whole home to Control4 smart lighting, including the theatre,” says Josh. “So when you enter the room, motion sensors set the lighting scene with the wall lights and star-light ceiling, and then when a movie is selected the lights dim slowly, drawing the focus to the image on screen. Likewise, when you pause what you’re watching, the lights turn back on, so there is illumination if you need to leave the room.”
For control of the system, the cinema room has a Control4 Neeo touchscreen remote control (a Sound+Image award-winner), with this remote and a Control4 keypad on the wall providing one-touch access to various activities and ‘scenes’, such as playing preset favourites, or powering everything off as you leave. There’s full lighting control and preset scenes combining the wall lights with the downlights, star-light ceiling and colour feature lighting.
While emphasising how the whole process of design and installation is a team effort and a collaborative process with the home owners, Josh also admits to a dose of perfectionism in his work.
“My main consideration was delivering the highest quality build, with extreme attention to detail,” he says. “I have a need for an install to be perfect in both form and function, and the end result here was a truly amazing room. The design and the acoustics make the room itself feel comfortable, calm and inviting. As soon as you enter, the theme is set with automated lighting ready for a movie. When you create a fully-immersive bespoke cinema experience like this, it becomes a place when the owners can relax and forget about the world outside.”
And that’s before you even start a movie, for which Josh also points to one final piece of preparation – calibration of video and audio systems using the Dirac Live audio calibration available on the Storm Audio processor, and a full ISF/LUT calibration for the video across both High Dynamic Range content and standard Blu-ray/DVD content.
“The video quality after ISF calibration is remarkable,” says Josh. “It lifts things to a level comparable with projectors costing substantially more. We have HDR tone mapping and video processing with the Lumagen, which keeps the image perfectly aligned to the screen no matter the source or aspect ratio.”
The Storm processor keeps all speaker channels active, upscaling to the full system to maintain fully immersive audio. Josh Grondal describes the transition from floor speakers to the height layer speakers as seamless – “the most immersive Atmos I’ve experienced”, while he describes the post-calibration sound as powerful, punchy and dynamic, “but without being fatiguing,” he says. “It stays comfortable at any volume level, easily reaching reference levels with the speakers running incredibly efficiently. But as well as having the headroom to deliver when you turn it up, this speaker configuration was designed so that it’s still dynamic at lower normal listening levels.”
In a nice final touch, the Hifi Hunter team presented Darren and Sabrina with a hamper including some UHD movies for their grand opening night.
“Hifi Hunter has been amazing, and the sound has been amazing, better than expected – the acoustic treatments really make the room come alive,” says Darren.
“I could not be happier with the room; there is not one thing I would change. I practically live in the room now...”
Panasonic DP-UB9000 4K Blu-ray player
NVIDIA Shield TV Pro media player
Foxtel iQ4 4K
Rega Planar 3 turntable
BenQ X12000H projector
Panamorph Paladin XMB lens
Lumagen Radiance processor
Hifi Hunter 126-inch Cinemascope acoustic screen
Storm Audio ISP Mk2 24-channel processor
Emotiva XPA-3 power amplifier x 2 (biamping front speakers)
Emotiva XPA-5 power amplifier (surround/height)
Emotiva XPA-7 power amplifier (surround/height)
Krix Theatrix loudspeakers x 3 (LCR)
Krix Hyperphonix x 6 (surrounds)
Krix Hyperphonix x 6 (height)
REL Predator HT/1508 subwoofer x 4
Anthem MDX-8 8-channel amp (multizone audio)
Thor PS10 Powerstation
Custom balanced XLR interconnects
RowOne Evolution seating
Control4 automation (complete home)
Control4 Neeo touchscreen remote (Theatre)
Control4 wall keypad
Control4 smart security system
Control4 smart lighting
Design & installation: Hifi Hunter, Perth, WA