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Home Theater Lighting

As home theater technologies continue to improve, movie fans are rapidly running out of reasons to travel to the local theater. Surround sound has pushed past seven channels and high definition DVD is just around the corner. One often overlooked aspect of home theater design is appropriate lighting. Home theaters present their own challenges when designing lighting solutions, but today’s flexible track lighting systems offer solutions that are both functional and attractive.

Light Requirements
The primary reason that home theater lighting is typically overlooked is simply that most home theater use will be at low light levels and, consequently, people focus on the ‘in use’ state of the space. Realistically, some light is important to allow safe entry and exit from the room as well as the loading of media discs, connecting of wires and pouring of wine. Additionally, a few minutes of forethought about lighting will ensure that your home theater is attractive and inviting.

The home theater is one of few, if not the only, room in your home that will not need some level of indiscriminate ambient light to fill the room. Endeavor to confine your light fixture selection to spot lights and other accent fixtures that produce tightly focused beams. Well placed accent lighting will help you see important areas such as aisles, doorways and coffee tables while ensuring that certain areas stay dark as well. These are ideal applications for monorail, cable and track lighting systems. These systems may also be installed around common home theater obstructions (see installation considerations below.)

Primary Lighting Considerations – Preventing Glare:
To prevent glare, all accent spot lights should be arranged so that they:

  • are aimed at a strong down angle (typically no more than 30 degrees up from the straight down). Aiming fixtures at a flat (horizontal) trajectory is likely to produce direct or indirect glare
  • do not point the fixtures toward the primary image (television or projector screen) as this will cause direct wash out of the image
  • do not illuminate surfaces in the reflective path of a glass-front screen. That is, if your image source has a reflective front (plasma television, traditional CRT etc.), try not to illuminate walls etc. in the reflective path of the screen (relative to the primary viewing / seating area) as these will be visible and cause annoying glare. (This last point is in direct contradiction to normal lighting design best practices. Typically, walls and occupied surfaces should be illuminated first and floors should receive more general illumination. In the home theater, the opposite is true.)

Additional Lighting Considerations:
Serious home theater enthusiasts might also consider the following:

  • If your image is produced by a direct-view or rear-projection monitor, consider placement of a dimmable, ambient bias light behind the display. Adjusting the levels on this light will control the contrast of the image and reduce eye fatigue. Where possible, the bias light should be wired on a separate circuit so that it may be controlled separately.
  • Home theater owners with significant media libraries may want to install two or three separate accent lights over the media library to facilitate finding specific titles etc. These should be on a separate circuit as well.

Technical Requirements (Audio Non Interference)
Given the heavy dependence on accent lighting in home theater environments, low voltage lighting is an obvious choice. When choosing a low voltage system, ensure that you are buying a quality system that has RF noise suppression built in. Electronic and magnetic transformers run at different frequencies and some inexpensive varieties will produce high or low level line noise. These transformers may also produce a physical hum if the wrong dimmer control type is used.

Installation Considerations (Dealing with Common Home Theater Obstructions)
Home theater lighting is often an afterthought. As such, many home theater owners find themselves trying to install lighting at the 11th hour without disrupting acoustic damper screens along the ceiling or without obstructing the image light from a ceiling-mounted single gun projector.

There are two contemporary lighting solutions that are so effective in mitigating these problems today that they warrant specific mention. Cable lighting systems require minimal ceiling support hardware and may be powered from a single point in either the front or back of the theater room. Each transformer will typically power from 6 to 15 accent fixtures (depending on the selected lamp wattage) along a cable run. Cable lighting systemfixtures use low-voltage MR16 or AR111 lamps. Both of these lamp types allow precision beam control and produce crisp, pure-white light. These systems are very thin…they won’t obstruct sound information produced by speakers mounted higher up on walls etc. Cable systems are typically installed to run front to back in a theater room. This eliminates projected image obstruction concerns while allowing ideal lighting down each side of the home theater room.

Another popular home theater lighting solution is low voltage monorail lighting. These systems may be mounted close to the ceiling or suspended at almost any height below it using simple wire supports. Monorail systems offer many of the same lighting benefits as cable, but may be shaped into gentle design elements such as ‘S’ curves or longer arcs and may easily be powered from an existing ceiling junction box.

The lighting in your home theater may never be as important as your choice of speakers, but proper lighting will help to ensure your home theater is enjoyable, attractive and easy to use.


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