Ask LH: How Can I Build A Home Theatre In A Small Space?

Ask LH: How Can I Build A Home Theatre In A Small Space?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m moving into a small apartment and I don’t have a lot of space for a big TV or huge living room speakers. I also don’t have heaps of extra equipment to hook up. Even so, I want the things I do use to look and sound good when I use them. Do you have any tips to help me make the most of my space without spending a lot of money? Thanks, Slightly Cramped

Title photo by Luca Vanzella.

Dear Slightly Cramped,

You don’t have to have a large space to experience great home audio and video. In fact, there are some things about a smaller space that will work in your favour, such as the fact that you won’t need super-loud or powerful speakers to fill your living room. On the other hand, smaller viewing distances may mean that you’re closer to your screen than you would like, which can make poor-quality video stand out more than it otherwise would. Still, there’s a lot you can do with not a lot of space, so let’s get started.

Plan Your Attack: Map Out Your Living Room

Ask LH: How Can I Build A Home Theatre In A Small Space?

Small spaces aren’t horribly forgiving. The first thing you should do is make a map of your living room and plan out where everything is going to go. It would be best to do this in an empty room, but if you’re already moved and settled in, you may need to shuffle your furniture around to get the best placement for all of your gear. A number of things can have an effect on how well your home theatre looks and sounds when it’s all connected and powered up; here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Measure out your space. Specifically, measure the distance between where you’ll be seated and where your TV and speakers will be. If you have an idea where everything will go, take those measurements too. Now, compare those measurements to this helpful TV viewing distance chart. It will show you where your optimal viewing distance is based on the type of video (720p, 1080p and so on) you’re watching. Then compare your speaker placement against this Dolby guide and this guide from Crutchfield. The right distance and angle matters a lot. Make sure your speakers are angled towards the seating, too.
  • Pay attention to light and sound. When you turn out all of the lights and sit down in front of the TV, do you still get a lot of light from elsewhere in the house? Is your TV opposite a window with streetlights outside, or the setting sun? You might consider some blackout curtains to help shield the screen from glare, or TV placement that cuts down on that excess light. The same goes for your speakers — if the room is too empty or the speakers too far away, they will echo unpleasantly. On the other hand, if the room is too packed, they may be muffled behind furniture. Look around for places to set them up or mount them so there’s a clear line to where you sit that isn’t too far away.
  • Don’t hesitate to use your walls. Mounting a TV to the wall has never been easier, and even if you’re renting a space and don’t want to put holes in the walls, there are plenty of ways to do that without damage (Just don’t put it over the fireplace.)

    The same goes for your speakers. If you have a very small space, putting box speakers on the floor may not be a good option, but on the wall — angled down to your couch — is a great idea. The same goes for any surround-sound speakers you may have. They can go on the wall behind your couch. Both options save you valuable floor space, and help you make use of vertical space you may not otherwise use.

Taking care of these simple things can make a huge difference in your home theatre, even if you don’t change anything or buy anything new at all. The right placement of speakers, attention to viewing distance, and a little light and sound isolation can transform a subpar viewing experience into something much better.

Make Sure You Have The Right Gear

Ask LH: How Can I Build A Home Theatre In A Small Space?

If you are looking to invest in some space-friendly home theatre gear, you’re in luck. There are excellent screens and speakers available regardless of size. In some cases, you can always buy small and upgrade later if you move to a bigger place. The important thing to remember in a small space is to buy small as well. Look for speakers, receivers, and screens that work for your home, not your ego. If you can snag a deal on them, even better.

We walked you through the process in our guide to setting up a home theatre from scratch, but here are a couple of other things you might want to keep in mind:

  • Consider ditching the TV for a projector. If you’re really crunched for space and you’re in the market for a new TV, consider a projector you can mount from the ceiling. The benefit here is that you can just use a wall as your screen, and while there’s more to building a good projector screen than just turning it on an empty wall, it’s a solid way to get started. Just make note of your viewing distance, and factor in the cost of replacement lamps to your projector budget.
  • Invest in bookshelf speakers and a modest receiver. You mentioned you didn’t have a lot of stuff to hook up, so you’ll probably want a modest receiver for the gear that you do have, plus anything that might come later. Your TV may be enough to handle all of it, but if you’re looking for futureproofing and expandability, a receiver is the way to go. Speaker-wise, consider a set of bookshelf speakers that are powerful enough for your space, small enough to mount, and expandable if you want to add more.
  • Consider a soundbar if you need space over expandability. Soundbars can offer excellent sound, especially in small spaces, and they don’t take up a lot of space. They’re usually slim, self-powered, and amplified, so you don’t need a receiver. If your room is small, it may be more than enough for you, no wall-mounting required. However, what you get in convenience you lose in expandability and customisability. Soundbars aren’t designed like receivers to handle multiple devices — you’ll probably plug everything into your TV, then your TV into the soundbar. That means you’re limited to the ports on your TV, and you (usually) can’t add more speakers to your setup. Still, they’re cheaper, easier to set up, and great for small spaces. We look into them (and their drawbacks) in more detail in this article, but they may be a great fit for you.

When you do go shopping, take your measurements with you, and see if you can try or listen to any of the equipment you’re thinking of getting before you buy.

Set It All Up And Enjoy

Ask LH: How Can I Build A Home Theatre In A Small Space?

If you already have equipment you want to shoehorn into a smaller space, the first part — mapping everything out and paying attention to viewing distances and angles — will be most important to you. However, if you’re looking to buy for a small space, the second part — making sure you have items that work well with your space and finding ways to save space while still getting high quality sound and video — will be critical. Don’t toss out a beautiful 65″ screen because your living room is now only 7 feet across, but do recognise that if that screen is only 720p, you’ll know it (whether you care is a different matter!) Similarly, don’t blow the budget on a pair of massive Polk or Klipsch floor speakers only to find out that you don’t have the floor space to set them up.

We hope these tips will help you make the most of your small-space home theatre, or at least shop with your living room in mind. You don’t have to have a huge space or deep pockets to build a quality home theatre. Just shop smart and buy wisely, then set it all up with attention to detail when you get home. Good luck!


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