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The Ultimate Professional Home Theater: The Private Screening Room

The Ultimate Professional Home Theater: The Private Screening Room

One of the more noteworthy home entertainment developments of the past few years may well be one of the quietest: The increasing popularity of the Private Screening Room, a bespoke version of the hushed, purpose-built screening rooms tucked away in major film studios and the nearby homes of directors, producers, actors and sundry moguls comprising the Bel Air Circuit*. Their neighbors and an increasing number of well-heeled but otherwise regular movie lovers around the world have decided it’s the right time to upgrade to “the real thing” in their own home.

The heightened interest has been seen by some as driven by the pandemic era mantra to avoid public spaces and “shelter at home.”
To those who have been serving this niche for years, it’s obvious that there are bigger factors at play than a virus. Here’s what we see:

•    Access to a Better Class of Content: The heavily encrypted, full-resolution DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) content previously sent only to commercial cinemas and movie industry executives has become more readily available. The availability and visual superiority of “DCI 4K” content (4,096 x 2,160 pixels of picture resolution) over the reigning consumer format, “UHD 4K” (3,840 x 2,160 pixels), is especially stunning when sitting relatively close – say, about 21 feet away from an 18-ft wide screen (UHD means “Ultra High-Definition”). Beyond the extra pixels, DCI content includes much higher-resolution video and audio content that is not available from normal consumer sources.

high end dci private screening room

The ability to access and correctly display actual movie studio content, which requires a DCI-compliant video projector is one of the core elements that distinguish a professional Screening Room from a typical Home Theater or Media Room.

•    Another option that does not require access to studio DCI content is Kaleidescape. This is an audio/video component available from top home technology integrators that offers picture and sound quality beyond what you can get from buying physical discs, such as Blu-Ray or UHD Blu-ray. With the ability to deliver UHD 4K, HDR (High Dynamic Range), Dolby Atmos and DTS-X audio (these are immersive surround sound formats), it maximizes what your home theater is capable. It includes higher-fidelity video, better sound quality, and the ability to integrate with professional home automation systems. With such integration, lighting, motorized shading, and motorized seating adjustments happen automatically. In addition, a Kaleidescape system will “tell” a motorized projector lens and specialized movie projection screens to adjust to the correct aspect ratio to match what the movie was originally filmed in. No more black bars and pictures that don’t fit the screen properly. This allows you to have a no-compromise viewing experience!

•    A Better Kind of Room: Another core distinguishing feature of a successful Private Screening Room is that it was never envisioned as a “bigger, more expensive” version of a Home Theater or Media Room. Instead, it was envisioned, laid out, engineered, built and tested as a thoughtfully engineered machine – a machine whose primary purpose is to disconnect the audience from the here-and-now so they can be transported to the times and settings of the filmmaker’s conjuring.

The goal is more than “immersion” in the filmmaker’s story, it is the “You Are There” effect. high end dci private home cinema

•    “You Are There” effect: Referred to as “place illusion” in cognitive neuroscience, the you-are-there effect tends to occur when the fictional cues in the movie are broader and deeper in sensory data terms (and therefore more “persuasive”) than the truth, which is that the audience is not on a battlefield or in a Baroque opera house or wherever – they’re just seated, watching a movie of those places in a dark room in their home with family and friends.

A Private Screening Room is a different experience because its primary job is to suppress the sensory cues that tell the audience they are in a home theater or media room and intensify the cues that tell them they are somewhere else, where the director wants them to be. That is how the suspension of disbelief works. What drives Screening Room designers is not a passion for putting the audience in a movie theater: It’s the passion for putting them in the movie.

This takes specialized immersive audio and video systems, and careful management of room acoustics. The acoustic dimension plays a critical role in the you-are-there effect. Filmmakers use picture to tell the basic narrative – who, what, when etc. As one marquee director told the author, “We use picture to tell the audience what to think. We use sound to tell them what to feel.” 

•    The Discovery of a New Dimension Way Down Deep: New subwoofers (a specialized speaker dedicated to very low frequency sound reproduction) and infrasonic modeling techniques finally enable movie lovers to reproduce soundtrack content that lies below even “deep bass.” (the sound spectrum that’s below the 20Hz point that some consider to be the limit of human hearing). Infrasonic content is typically captured by professional microphones on Foley stages and has been lurking unheard on countless DVD soundtracks going back to the 1990s and continuing on the latest UHD/HDR Blu-ray format. Reproducing that ultra-deep (infrasonic) content at realistic levels and low distortion brings newfound realism to many of the most stirring and iconic moments in modern film. 

For the technically curious, in the graph below, the red starbursts were located on the frequency scale by connecting a consumer DVD or Blu-ray player to a standard consumer surround sound processor whose Subwoofer Out port was connected to a laptop running SpectrumLab analysis software:

the best home theater is a dci private cinema

Life-like infrasonic experiences foster a “you are there” presence that no known commercial cinema can match.

At 5Hz, barely audible happens around 110 decibels (db); at 2.5Hz, where the ground erupts in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, barely audible happens around 120dB. But barely audible isn’t enough. To be sensed as “real-world” levels, we need to generate roughly 10 decibels above the hearing threshold (a decibel is a unit used to measure the intensity of a sound).

To get that level of low bass frequency reproduction takes more than just ordering a truckload of big subwoofers. Engineering, planning and room modeling are needed. Properly planned and installed, the Private Screening Room experience is more grippingly real than the local cineplex!

dci private cinemas can play deeper bass

Taken together, these factors are driving a growing number of homeowners to inquire what it might take to create a Private Screening Room that could rival or surpass the most advanced facilities in the film and television content-creation industry. 

What It Takes to Create a Private Screening Room
The fundamental difference between a Private Screening Room and a well-appointed home theater, is that to be considered successful, a Private Screening Room isn’t organized around basic rules of thumb, general “best practices” or what products are popular with magazines and product reviews websites. A Private Screening Room is organized around a core list of ambitious but achievable – and measurable – performance targets in the 7 areas that count most: 

  1. The successful modeling and optimization of the room’s basic size, shape, dimensional ratios, and the locations of subwoofers (how many, where, and what level, delay and polarity settings) to inhibit the formation of bass standing waves. Bass standing waves cause very uneven bass response in a room, with some frequencies becoming overly loud and ‘boomy’ and other frequencies inaudible. These are annoying and nearly impossible to solve after the room has been built and the subwoofers installed.
  2. The successful management of Intrusive Noise from other areas of the home – doors slamming, people talking, music playing, feet clomping, sinks running, garage doors operating – as well as outside the home (sirens wailing, horns honking, jets flying). The room’s sound isolation and acoustic modeling is tackled early in the initial engineering program. This typically calls for isolated wall, ceiling and floor construction, special acoustically-rated doors, detailed drawings and coaching on the framing, sheathing and damping of the room’s envelope and internal structures (soffits and raised seating platforms), and more.
  3. The successful management of Background Noise generated within the room – HVAC whooshing and hissing, electrical system buzzing/humming, ceiling grid rattling etc. As with Intrusive Noise management outlined above, HVAC elements – oversized ducts, plenums, silencers, air handlers, isolators, filter cages and other indoor air quality enhancements – should be designed by a qualified mechanical engineer with experience in recording studios and other performance-critical spaces.
  4. An HVAC system capable of delivering enough clean, fresh, studio-quiet air to keep a closed room of 20 people comfortable for many hours at a time. The clean and fresh parts are usually not that tricky; it’s the volume of air, noise and space required for appropriate ductwork that need special attention.
  5. A Video system able to decrypt and accurately display studio DCI (movie studio) content with correct focus, image geometry, luminance, color temperature, chromaticity, black level, contrast ratio etc.
  6. An Audio system able to accurately translate Dolby Atmos immersive audio content from each speaker location to each audience head location. Getting even coverage requires the room designer to have a full set of every speaker’s radiation-pattern data. As in major recording studios, the main speakers (left/center/right) are ideally mounted behind the acoustically transparent video screen.
  7. An interior design plan that allows the audience to enter the director’s world, rather than ground them in the here-and-now. Some colors and materials work better than others in cinema and screening room applications. 

The Way it Works:
For decades, standard practice for sizing, shaping, framing, heating/cooling, furnishing, acoustically-treating and equipping a functional Screening Room has been to entrust specification, drafting, detailing, construction, installation and testing to a group of specialists, typically including:

why the best home theater is a private home theater that plays DCI content

        Qualified Engineers in:

  •     architectural acoustics
  •     electro-acoustics (digital management and enhancement of sound systems)
  •     noise & vibration management
  •     low-noise mechanical system design
  •     low-noise electrical system design
  •     testing of walls, floors, ceilings, optical ports, doors, etc. during construction
  •     measurement and reporting of room performance – reverberation, clarity, speech intelligiblity, listern envelopment and other standard metrics

A home technology integration team (such as top HTA Certified integrators) with experience supplying, installing, programming and servicing professional-grade and upper-level consumer equipment in performance-critical installations; designing, programming and de-bugging the control system; and coordinating smoothly with other team members such as your architect, interior designer, and specialty contractors.

Test & Alignment team to calibrate the audio and video systems to professional standards. The Private Screening Room is typically set up with two different calibrations presets: 1 – a true “Reference” calibration so technically accurate that a Director could use the room as part of the film production workflow, and 2 – a modified calibration adjusted for home environments typically preferred by most clients.

DCI private screening room engineering and documentation

Note that the initial layout and engineering work will drive the basic infrastructure of the project – the “shell” and context into which the furnishings, fixtures and advanced audio and video equipment can be installed and confidently expected to produce lights-off magic for the homeowner. It matters little how “good” an audio video system is, if, in a particularly intense, edge-of-your-seat, hold-your-breath scene, the silence is broken by a single foot clomp or toilet flush above. Whatever the distraction – maybe a faint police siren a block away – you are no longer “there.” The spell is broken. The audio video system is powerless to fix it. 

Conscientious home technology integrators acknowledge this problem and are increasingly turning to specialty engineering firms with the qualifications, analytical tools and experience to model and identify potential problems before they occur, then simulate different ways of solving them based on the set of particulars.

As you review your entertainment options, consider that your video projector, surround sound system and even seating may be upgraded over the years, though the room itself will likely not be altered for decades. Since the weak link is often the room, if you are planning to live in the home for more than a few years, it makes sense to have it designed properly from the beginning.


Comparing Commercial Cinemas and Private Screening Rooms





Hundreds of strangers in a strange room.

Friends, family, neighbors in a warm, friendly space.



Comfortable, adjustable, often generously sized and luxurious.


Public space so unknown.

Owner controlled (private space).

Picture Quality

Full resolution (DCI) but limited by ambient light (exit sign, step lights etc. per building code)

Can exceed best commercial venues if equipped with DCI-type projector in well-engineered room.

Sound Coverage

Typically very good. Speakers selected by cinema operator based on how well their radiation patterns match the room and seating layout. Result is very consistent throughout central listening area.

Most consumer-grade speaker manufacturers have historically neither offered, and in many cases, not even had, radiation pattern test data of their products (think of a car manufacturer not having a spec for acceleration time or braking distance!). The vast majority of Private Screening Rooms are filled with speakers from the upper-end of professional manufacturers that supply radiation pattern and other performance criteria needed to deliver the experience the director intended.

Sound System Operating Range

Standard 10-octave “hi-fi” spectrum (20Hz to 20kHz) typically not fully reproduced, esp. deep bass (20-40Hz octave). No ability to reproduce at perceptually meaningful levels any infrasonic (2.5-19Hz) content present on thousands of movies produced since beginning of DVD era in 1990s (and continuing to this day).

All well-engineered Private Screening Rooms can accurately reproduce all 10 “hi-fi” octaves; the best ones can also play 1, 2 or all 3 additional octaves in the infrasonic range below 20Hz, a feat unmatched by any known commercial venue.

Speech Intelligibility

Typically OK to good, with STI** (Speech Transmission Index) values falling into “C” or “B” categories (0.66 – 0.7) per IEC’s internationally standardized measurement protocols.

Especially well-engineered Private Screening Rooms typically produce STI values in the 0.8 – 0.9 range (“A+” category per IEC).

Note that home theaters in general, including many ambitious ones, have scores ranging from 0.62 (“D”) to 0.7 (“B”).  

Sound Consistency

Seat-to-seat consistency generally high in central listening area (typ. +/- 2-3 dB) throughout system’s operating range.

Varies, but especially well-engineered Private Screening Rooms can equal seat-to-seat consistency of the best commercial venues (IMAX, Dolby Cinema) if addressed by CFD*** based simulation & optimization early in design phase.


Little to no ability to reproduce 2-30Hz content at decibel levels far enough above the hearing threshold to be “feelable”.

Especially well-engineered screening rooms are designed to reproduce 2-30Hz content at life-like/feelable levels with very low distortion (<3% THD), and without waking the neighbors.

Intrusive Noise

Fair/acceptable (typ. NC-30**** in empty cinema) or occasionally good (NC-25 in Dolby Cinema and IMAX venues). (For reference, professional recording studios are typically designed to achieve NC-15).

Well-engineered rooms typically achieve NC-15 in empty room (perceptually half as loud as Dolby Cinema or IMAX); ambitious ones typ. achieve even lower (NC10 or NC5).

Background Noise

Increased background noise level due to HVAC and dozens or hundreds of audience members rustling in seats, eating popcorn, talking/whispering, etc.

Much lower than commercial cinemas: HVAC system noise typ. 5-10dB lower, and smaller number of audience members making noise.

Indoor Air Quality

Ventilation rate typ. 5-10 air changes/hour (ACH).

Most dedicated home theaters in US have <5 ACH; well-engineered rooms typ. achieve >10 ACH with strong filtration and neutralization of odors, VOCs and microbial pathogens.

Look and Feel

Designed as a simple commercial box, plain monochromatic dark color, T-bar drop ceiling.

Designed for comfort, luxury, and quality-of-life. Shapes, colors, patterns OK, esp. in rear half of room; for best lights-off movie experiences, color, sheen, and contrast selections in front half of room should be reviewed by a qualified specialist.


Typically, cinema screenings only.

Can be designed to successfully support small home concerts, kids’ skits, TED Talk-type presentations, music practice room, sporting get-togethers, gaming, wellness room, etc.

Guidelines for Creating a Private Screening Room

The following guidelines are informed by those used in many Director Screening Rooms and are offered to help assure that your final product is a bespoke Private Screening Room that will rival or outperform any similar professional venue in the movie and television arena.
•    Focus on the Target. A real Private Screening Room is designed and built to meet performance targets that correlate in meaningful ways with an audience’s perception of quality. 
•    Think ‘Team’. No single person or company has the breadth and depth to do it all – set the right targets, engineer and draft the room envelope and its acoustical treatments, provide the audio and video hardware, interior contents etc. to meet those targets; build it; isolate it; heat & cool it; power it; supply, install, program and service the technical equipment; and conduct and report on the various tests during and after construction. 
•    Vet and select your design & engineering team carefully. The room’s main designers should have at least 10 years’ experience designing low-noise, high-spec movie/music/concert hall etc. facilities, and you should expect the engineers working on your project to have at least a bachelor’s degree in their specialty and 5 years of direct experience (master’s degrees and 5+ years are the norm). You can get names from the Home Technology Association.
•    Look for the letters “PE” after the mechanical (HVAC) and electrical system design engineers’ names, which designate they’re licensed, accredited Professional Engineers.
•    Select an HTA Certified home technology integrator to coordinate smoothly with your design, engineering and construction team, and to supply, install, integrate and service the AV products that meet the performance targets specified by the rest of your project’s design & engineering specialty team. 
•    Engage an interior designer with at least a few years’ experience coordinating smoothly with engineering teams on professional studios, screening rooms and other performance-driven projects.
•    Prioritize comfort, which is crucial in a room where you’ll spend hours at a time in a single seat. Choose a seating brand with a long track record and good reputation for quality, comfort, and convenience options. 
•    Make it Easy on Yourself: You Have Options! 

  1.  Your HTA Certified technology integrator can assist you with the selection of movie content and delivery, including DCI content. Your options include first-run movies, downloadable Blu-ray/consumer UHD/HDR content (ie - Kaleidescape), consumer streaming content, satellite systems, cable TV or virtually anything you choose in your private space. 
  2.  Tell your HTA Certified integrator what was great or not-so-great about any previous system you’ve had so they can tailor their recommendations accordingly.
  3.  Make sure you and your technology integrator have a plan in place to provide prompt and ongoing service for your Private Screening Room. It’s like a fine automobile, keeping it periodically tested and “tuned up”. 

This article was authored by Andy Willcox, in conjunction with critical content provided by Keith Yates of Keith Yates Design (KYD)

Keith Yates is founder of Keith Yates Design (KYD), the California based specialty theater design and engineering firm he founded in 1991. He and his team have designed, engineered and commissioned ambitious theater, screening room and listening room projects throughout the US and abroad. His Connecticut project for cinematographer Rob Hahn was declared ‘Theater of the Decade’ by AVS Forum, the world’s largest internet forum for movie enthusiasts. He is the only theater/media room designer to be the subject of a feature in Architectural Digest (“Making Acoustic Magic”), and has authored over 100 feature articles on acoustics, audio and video for various magazines, including Home Theater, AudioVideo Interiors, Sound & Vision, Custom Builder, Stereophile, Audio and others. He is reachable at

* The “Bel Air Circuit” is a group of studio-connected people that have access to the exact digital movie files as shown in commercial theaters.
** STI stands for Speech transition index, a guideline from 0.0 to 1.0 ascending from poor intelligibility to excellent.
*** CFD stands for computational fluid dynamics. Assists engineers in the measurement and determination of proper acoustic behavior.
**** NC stands for “Noise Criteria” and is a measurement of how “quiet” the room is from unwanted noise intrusion and unwanted room-born sounds.