Cozy Tales: 48. Home Theater

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In December of 2005 I was making excellent money designing and installing networks for large companies, so I decided to take some of that money and make a home theater for the family. As much as I would have loved to be able to make something as wonderful as the magnificent rooms I’d seen in magazines, our house was pretty small, so I added home theater functionality to our existing family room.

Being an obsessive nerd, I spent weeks researching every aspect of the new project, from large screen HDTVs to receivers to speakers to the wire that connects it all. I was in my element, and since Lauren had agreed to a complete makeover for the room, I had all sorts of leeway with the design.

Our house was built over a giant alien spaceship that was buried under our entire neighborhood. In theory, the impenetrable substance encountered a foot or two under the surface could have been rock, but no matter where I dug around our house I encountered the same slab of perfect resistance. Simple rock? I think not. Cozy knew the truth thanks to her numerous excavations but she wasn’t talking.

Regardless of the material comprising the massive alien structure under my house, it was apparently impervious to the original builders as well, so our house sits on a giant slab of concrete instead of a basement. The slab of concrete on the bottom floor had only tile on top and so acted as a giant heat sink. That meant that no matter the time of year or the temperature in the house, the tile floor downstairs was cool, and the dogs loved it. The downside of not having a basement for this project was that I had no under-floor access in which to run and hide wires.

Lauren had put forth the idea of installing crown molding. Since this type of molding would slant between the walls and the ceiling, there would be a new hidden gap behind the molding where I could run my wires. Brilliant! Since 5.1 surround sound was the new standard, I needed to install 7.1 surround sound so I could be smug in my superiority when discussing home theater with other men for a few years. I briefly considered installing 7.2 surround sound, but decided that I was once again teetering on the abyss and slowly stepped away. Experience has taught me that giving in to obsessions requires a certain amount of control lest I lead myself down the path to madness. Actually, I’m pretty sure I can see that path in the woods if I look carefully from the deck.

From a sound system design point of view, the family room had all sorts of problems. It was a long rectangle with a huge opening in one corner that led to the stairs which meant sound would leak out that corner. The room also had a big reflective sliding glass door on the other side, and on the opposite end from the TV, a stone fireplace. It was an acoustical nightmare, but it was the only room we had so we got to work.

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The first order of business was to remove the existing wall unit. Lauren and I had bought a giant five piece, remarkably heavy wall unit when we lived in our apartment before we got married, godless heathens that we were. It was so heavy that when the delivery men first brought it up to our second floor apartment, we thought one of them was going to have a cardiac episode right there on the stairs. Now we had to get it from the downstairs family room to the upstairs living room by ourselves. We removed all the knick-knacks from the shelves, left the room in disarray, and promptly went to bed. I had a commute in the morning and sleep was somehow more important than home theater, or at least more inviting than lifting heavy things.

When I got home from work the next day, all but the heaviest pieces had magically made their way to the living room. Lauren was so proud of her  accomplishment that she didn’t hear a word of my telling her that she shouldn’t move such heavy things on her own. Naturally, she was mad at me for not appreciating her impressive feats of strength and ingenuity. Somehow we managed to get the final piece upstairs and Lauren set about replacing all the stuff. I went back to designing the crown molding.

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Installing crown molding is a royal pain in the ass. There were angles and reverse angles and inverse reverse angles and all sorts of math. I’m pretty sure some Latin was also involved. Luckily, I speak nerd, so I got my measuring tape and set to work. I put together a complete scale model of the room, measuring every inch to determine just how much molding I would need and how it would need to be cut. I even came up with a plan to label the pieces so I could put them together for testing before actually nailing them to the wall. Of course like any man with a new project, I needed new tools. I managed to score not only a pneumatic nail gun, but the compressor to go with it. A man with new tools is a happy man.

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Throughout all this measuring, higher math and swearing in Latin, Cozy was there to help. Wherever I would try to work, Cozy would lay in just the right spot to make whatever I was doing as difficult as possible. I tripped over her more than once, and any time I would sit down for a break, she would be right there for some love, begging for ear scritches aplenty.

After I’d spent an inordinate amount of time selecting and measuring molding, Lauren painted each piece with whatever perfect color she had come up with. While she painted I worked on determining speaker positions. The front speakers were easy with one in front of the TV and one on either side, both of those on stands. The subwoofer would sit on the floor, but the remaining four speakers I wanted to hang on the walls. I had one goal, which was no visible wires. I settled on the positions, measured at least 138 times to make sure there were no mistakes, then drilled a hole in each position. I then drilled a hole in the top of the wall so I could snake the speaker wire up into the area where the crown molding would go. I tacked down all the wires so they wouldn’t move and left lots of slack for the inevitable mistakes. My plan was coming along nicely.

With the molding dry and the wires installed, I then set out to install the molding having carefully marked the position of every vertical stud in the room. As I put in the last piece of molding (# 32-E/5) I was horrified to discover that the wall was curved. Lots of Latin ensued, and I brought Lauren in and showed her how the entire corner of the house was curved a good three inches off of true ninety degrees. How could this be? Wouldn’t we have noticed? I pulled out my super cool laser leveling guide and measured again. Sure enough, the wall was straight.

Wait… what?

I checked again; the wall was straight!

One of my favorite experiences in life is discovering that the universe isn’t what I thought it was. Imagine picking up a large pail of paint. You reach down to pick it up, and expecting it to weigh 40 pounds, you flex your muscles with the anticipated strain. Then you pick it up and discover that it’s empty. Your entire view of the universe has shifted. What you thought was heavy was in fact, light. What else isn’t the way you thought it was? I love that feeling, but here, I felt madness encroaching as my fundamental understanding of spatial relationships was brought into question. If the wall was curved, why did the laser follow it? Had I discovered a black hole in my family room? Clearly  there was a naked singularity in the corner capable of bending both space and time. It was the only plausible explanation. I started mentally formulating my Nobel acceptance speech right there on the ladder.

Lauren interrupted my descent into madness with a simple question. “Are you sure the molding is straight?”

“What?”

“The molding – you checked it all?”

“Of course I did!” Nothing gets my perfectionist knickers in a twist like alluding to the idea that I might possibly have done something wrong.

I picked up the last piece of molding and held it in place again. I could see clearly see the curve in the wall. Unless…

I got down from the ladder and placed the molding on the floor. The entire six foot piece of obviously curved molding rocked gently back and forth on the perfectly flat tile floor. It would seem that the laws of physics had not changed and there was no spatial anomaly in my family room. I had once more proved that bastard Occam right. While I was quietly disappointed in the sudden lack of black holes in my house, Lauren laughed at my stupidity while Cozy joined in with a happy wooo wooo wooo. Leaving them to their derisive laughter, I left to get more molding, images of my acceptance speech having disappeared into the dimensional rift that wasn’t there.

After we got all the molding up it was time to configure the system. A proper surround sound system is tuned so that the primary audience (that would be me) has the best experience. This involved setting digital delays on the receiver to compensate for any acoustical shortcomings (such as black holes and the like) in the room. My nice Yamaha receiver included a small microphone that I could place on my chair, and having done so, I ran a calibration program on the receiver that sent out strange sounds from the speakers. The receiver’s computer would then calculate the distance to the listener and compensate for whatever the hell it compensated for. Yeah, it was pretty cool.

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I set up the microphone and fired off the program. A series of rumbles, squeaks and screeches emanated from each speaker in turn resulting in a cacophony of noise that was too much for Cozy’s sensitive hearing. For the first time that I could remember, she decided that she would rather be somewhere other than in the room with me. She got up, plodded over to the stairs, climbed up to the landing, and slumped to the floor with a snort. After watching her in amazement since she had never before voluntarily left my side, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t much like the obnoxious sounds either. Realizing that I didn’t need to be in the room while the receiver calibrated itself, I went over and sat with my Cozy on the stairs to wait it out, but not before snapping a picture of her in all her graceful glory. When I sat with her she lifter her head up and jammed her nose into my lap demanding ear scritches. I was happy to comply.

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Once I was sure that the infernal machine was done with its demonic cacophony, I got up from our spot on the stairs and went back to working on the rest of the system. Cozy dutifully followed me and lay in the middle of everything. The speakers were calibrated, the walls were straight, Cozy was in my way once again and all was well.

Order had returned to the universe. For now.

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