Home Theater of the Month: The Vortex Theater

When Rob Johnston (ClemsonJeeper) bought a new house in Ashburn, VA, a couple of years ago, it had a finished room in the basement that was billed as a media room. “Originally, I was planning to simply hang a screen, projector, and some surround speakers and call it a day. Then I found the Dedicated Theater Design & Construction subforum on AVS Forum, and I started to completely change my plan.” Yeah, AVS Forum can do that to you, for sure!

Fortunately, home-theater installer Jeff Parkinson (BIGmouthinDC) lives only 20 minutes from Rob’s house. “Most people in our subforum know of Jeff and how valuable a resource he is to our community. Since he lives so close to me, he ended up coming over a couple times and gave me some tips. I probably PM’d him more than a hundred times over the course of the build, and he was always quick to respond and never asked for anything in return—a rarity these days! Having him as a planning resource and being able to bounce questions off him as I ran into bumps along the way was invaluable.”

Vortex-Before-Back
The original media room was fine for a basic home theater, but Rob wanted much more.

“I wanted my theater to get loud, so I decided to do a test with a relatively small 12-inch subwoofer and some speakers I had lying around. I connected everything together in the existing media room and cranked it up. I could easily hear it from outside the house, two floors up in the house, basically everywhere. I knew then that I needed some sound isolation since I wanted to be able to crank up my movies. At that point, I started doing research into DIY sound-isolation techniques, and my build completely changed course—and got more expensive!—but I’m really happy that I decided to go this route.”

Another problem was the sump-pump room with an access door directly off the media room. “The location of the door was going to interfere with my seating or my screen, depending on how I oriented the room. I also knew that once I decided to soundproof the room, having another door for sound to leak out wasn’t acceptable. Luckily, there was a finished closet on the other side of the sump room, so I ended up removing the door in the theater and creating a large access panel in the back of the closet to allow access to the sump room. When I reframed the room, I closed off the hole where the original door to the sump room was.”

Vortex-Before-Front
The door to the sump room had to go.

The first step was to remove the existing drywall and framing. “When I tore down the original framing, I found a large area that was completely empty behind a wall that had been framed in by the builder to make the room rectangular. This space gave me another two feet of width at one end of the room. Originally, I was going to use a 16:9 screen, but I decided to flip the orientation of the room so I could use an even bigger ‘scope screen on the larger wall. Of course, this made the room not perfectly rectangular, which is not the best arrangement acoustically, but I figured a modern receiver with DSP would be able to compensate for it.”

Vortex-Framing-Front
Here you can see the extra width at one end of the room that had been hidden by the previous framing and drywall.

Fortunately, AVS Forum provided a lot of info about sound isolation. “I used the tried and true ‘AVS Forum sound proofing’ approach. All walls that I was able to demo were framed using sound-isolation brackets to the ceiling joists, and the ceiling and wall I couldn’t demo used clips and channels to isolate. The soffit was built using ‘lightweight’ techniques to keep the strain on the ceiling channels down to a minimum.

Vortex-Framing-Back
Rob framed the back of the room to allow space for the HVAC system and equipment rack.

“After the framing was up, I used double-layer heavy fire-code drywall with Green Glue sandwiched between the layers, and the solid-core door includes door seals. The HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) return runs through a dead vent that is attached to my existing HVAC system, and the two supplies in the room use flex duct and mufflers to contain the sound. Finally, the riser for the second row of seats was built as a bass trap, and the front stage has about three tons of sand sealed in it.” The front three seats have Buttkicker transducers installed, while the second-row seats do not. “The rear seats are on a bass-trap riser, so they get plenty of tactile bass from the subs!”

Vortex-Equipment-Rack
In these shots, the cabling is not completely dressed, but you can tell it’s going to be very organized.

In addition to emphasizing sound isolation, Rob decided to build the speakers using DIY kits from diysoundgroup.com. “I absolutely recommend anything from this site. When you build the speakers yourself, you cut down on the cost by a ridiculous amount, and you often get a finished product that sounds better than speakers costing five times as much or more.” He ended up with a 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos system with four speakers mounted on the ceiling with angled enclosures aimed at the seating area.

Vortex-Speaker-Cabinet
Rob built the speaker cabinets using DIY kits, which reduced the cost significantly, but it involved some serious labor.

For the decor, Rob wanted a modern look. “I absolutely love the staggered-wall look of Gary Ngo’s home theater [which was featured as Home Theater of the Month in February 2015], so I blatantly ripped that part off!” He also had Night Sky Murals hand-paint a star-field ceiling that’s illuminated by LED uplights in the soffits.

Other than the star-field ceiling and carpeting, Rob did everything with his own hands, from design to demo to construction, including the framing, wiring, drywall, and finishing. “Learning all the different construction techniques for the build was great. I’m no longer afraid of messing with drywall patching and stuff like that. I learned a lot about electrical wiring as well, which has helped out massively on other projects around the house.”

Vortex-Front-Speakers
The front LCR speakers and two subs are located behind an acoustically transparent screen. The LCRs are mounted on short stands that weren’t yet in place when this pic was taken.

As a software engineer, Rob had no trouble integrating the theater equipment with his custom home-automation system. “I use HomeSeer as the base system, and I’ve written several scripts to tie it all together, along with having an Arduino [DIY microcontroller] that runs the soffit LED strip lights and hush-box vent fan as well as a Raspberry Pi 2 that powers the custom ‘now-showing’ LCD I hung in portrait orientation next to the door of the theater. The theater itself is controlled via custom iRule programming on an old unused iPad 2 I had lying around.”

Vortex-Controller
Rob programmed an old iPad to be the theater controller.

That “now-showing” LCD is especially cool. “It turns on via motion sensor from my home-security system in the basement and turns off if the theater is not in use and there’s no motion in the basement for a set period of time. When a movie is being played, it shows the movie poster from that movie, or if I’m playing PS4 or Xbox, it shows custom graphics based on the selected source in the AV receiver. When a movie is not being shown, it randomly flips through a few hundred movie posters that are on file. I wrote all the scripts required for all this integration.”

Vortex-Entrance
The “now-showing” LCD at the entrance to the theater displays whatever is playing in the theater or a random cycle of movie posters.

Rob originally planned the build for a couple of months, but after deciding to go “all in” with demo and soundproofing, that took a few more months of planning. “The build phase took a little less than a year as I worked on it when I had time on weekends and evenings. I ripped down my first drywall in May 2014, and the room was complete in time for the Game of Thrones season premiere in 2015.” And the cost? “I’d put the total cost around $25,000 to $30,000 or so.” That’s not bad at all, thanks in large part to all the DIY work Rob did.

Vortex-Screen
A 130-inch-wide Falcon Vision Horizon acoustically transparent screen provides a large canvas on which to paint cinematic images.

How did the name of the theater come about? “My friends had nicknamed my old townhouse the Vortex, because they said the parties I had there sucked you in and made you unable to leave. Since I moved into the new house, the name came along, so I figured I’d name the build after the unofficial nickname of the house.”

Vortex-Seating
The front three seats are equipped with Buttkicker transducers, while the rear seats are shaken by the bass-trap riser.

Now that it’s done, Rob can enjoy the fruits of his labor with family and friends. “Watching a movie in the finished room is really rewarding, especially knowing that I built it all myself.” This is one vortex that he—and anyone else who enters—doesn’t mind falling into.

For much more detail about how Rob’s home theater came together, check out the build thread here.

If you’d like your home theater considered for HT of the Month, PM me with the details and a link to your build thread if available.

EQUIPMENT LIST

Sources

Custom HTPC running Ubuntu; Kodi for streaming movies from 36 TB RAID-6 array with bit-for-bit Blu-ray rips (no transcoding)
PS4 game console
Xbox One game console
TiVo Mini (Verizon FiOS)

AV Electronics

Marantz SR7009 AV receiver
iNuke DSP6000 power amp (for subs)
AudioSource AMP-102 power amp (for two of the Atmos ceiling speakers)
Buttkicker BKA-1000N power amp (for front three seats with Buttkicker Advance BK4-4 transducers)

Processor

Lumagen Mini 3D

Projector

Sony VPL-HW55ES (no anamorphic lens, Lumagen Mini 3D used for aspect-ratio control)

Screen

Falcon Screens Falcon Vision Horizon (130″ wide, 2.35:1, acoustically transparent woven, gain 1.0)

Speakers

All DIY from kits provided by diysoundgroup.com

Fusion Tempest 12 (LCR)
Volt 10 (4, side and rear surrounds, angled enclosure)
Volt 6 (4, Atmos ceiling speakers, angled enclosure)
UXL-18 subwoofers (2, in ported Stonehenge cabinet tuned to 18 Hz)

Cables

Monoprice 12 AWG speaker wire
Blue Jeans HDMI cable to projector

Control

iRule + serial & infrared blasters to control equipment
Insteon lighting
HomeSeer HS3 for whole house automation control
Arduino with custom software to control LED strip lights & hush box exhaust vent fan
Raspberry Pi 2 to control the “now showing” LCD outside theater

Power Conditioning

Whole-house surge protector in main fuse box

Seating

Fusion Escape (6)
Buttkicker Advance BK4-4 transducers in front 3 seats (rear seats are on a bass-trap riser, so they get plenty of tactile bass from the subs)

Room Dimensions

14′ wide at screen wall, 12′ wide at back wall
21′ deep wall to wall, 19′ deep from screen to back wall
8’6″ height (floor to ceiling)