Long gone is the day when the TV and accessories hid behind the armoire's doors.
Now they've got their own room.
Today's home theaters offer a return of sorts to the movie mogul's screening room, but high-tech, comfortable and outfitted for the family.
Although they're often thought of only in terms of expensive rooms for the house that has it all, more affordable technology has increased the number of homeowners turning a room into a home theater or finding a space that can double for home theater use.
Several factors have heightened interest in an upgraded television experience.
The Consumer Electronics Association reported last month that more than half of American households have a digital television, which provides higher resolution than analog TV.
The association's study last year, being updated now, said that 13 percent of high definition TV owners bought their television because of the Super Bowl, said Tim Herbert, senior director of market research. Increasingly, consumers are buying panels that are 40 inches or larger.
Among people who've had a new home built in the past two years, 12 percent installed a home theater of some sort, whether a full-blown dedicated room or a cost-efficient package that met the definition of home theater: a 40-inch screen and surround sound.
Driving the trend are more TV shows in high definition, large rectangular home TV screens - plasma, LCD and projection - that take advantage of the new visual acuity, enhanced audio capability, better DVD players, downloadable movies, and a quick turnaround from movies' opening weekend to home availability.
Dedicated home theaters can be equipped and built for $20,000 and up.
More consumers want a big high-resolution screen, cushy seats and surround-sound immersion for watching TV dramas, sports - such as the Feb. 3 Super Bowl - and movies. They don't want strangers' chatter, cell phone chirps and drink slurps in the sports bar or movie house.
"It's the new family room. What's happening now is that when people start looking at the world, the dangerous world, the high cost of gasoline, the cost of vacations - more people want to cocoon, they want to be home with their kids," said Stuart Lamb, president of @ Home Theater Rooms in Columbia, a company that works with electronics dealers to create theater rooms with customized components.
But it's not all just for pleasure. People also do dry runs of PowerPoint presentations in their home theaters, he said.
Dedicated home theaters should be visually and acoustically correct, high-tech but simple to operate, said Art Cuevas, owner of Silver Screen & Sound in Towson, who has designed award-winning home theaters.
"The room design is so integral to the performance of the system," he said.
Anne Stone installed a home theater less than two years ago, when renovating her Ruxton house and finishing its lower level.
"I just thought it would be a wonderful way to have friends over casually," the retired librarian and teacher said.
The room features a 110-inch projection screen, five speakers plus a subwoofer, and two rows of stadium seating with motorized recliners, plus a popcorn machine and a kitchenette. One touch on the remote dims the lights and starts the show.
The decor includes a night sky designed by a friend's husband to depict the alignment of the stars on the night Stone was born, and it can be made to twinkle. On the way in, painted walls depict a marquee and movie posters.
Her home has become a regular venue for Super Bowl and other sports-linked parties, and for frequent movie-night gatherings.
"If you are at a football game, you hear the cheers coming from wherever you are sitting - you hear the cheering as if you are right smack in the middle of the game," she said.
Ditto for movies. "You could feel the boat rock" watching Master and Commander, she noted.
The theater is occupied at least several hours a week, and on some weekends it keeps her, her family and friends in the dark for much longer.
What's not seen is the tower of electronics that includes a power center, digital processor, cable box, synthesizer, distribution system, control center and amplifier. A backup power supply saves all the programming in case of an electrical failure.
"More people are chasing the ultimate, and the ultimate comes closer every year," said Jeff Hudkins, sales manager for Gramophone's Timonium store, which did Stone's six-figure theater.
"If you don't have dedicated space, you are going to have a family room, and the family room is going to be used [as a home theater]," he said.
These so-called convertible rooms can include a wall-mounted plasma panel for regular TV watching in a room that has big windows.
"For a movie or the Super Bowl, all of a sudden a screen drops down and it's four times that size," Hudkins said. Drapes or shades can be used to darken the area.
The wide range in price and sophistication in consumer electronics makes it possible to budget a less elaborate home-theater setup for several thousand dollars at a big-box store.
Experts warn that most homeowners are better off with professional installation for anything much more involved than a theater-in-a-box that costs a few hundred dollars.
Among hot items at this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas were connecting personal computers to flat panels, and wireless speakers that look like clocks and lamps.
"That's a pretty interesting trend for people who want the home-theater experience but don't want their living room to look like a sports bar," Herbert said.
'Not an investment'
Real estate pros say home owners should not view a dedicated theater as a big boost for the house's resale value, though a house with one may win a buyer faster than a similar house without.
"The longevity has not been proven yet," said Linda Braley, a past president of the Washington metropolitan chapter of the Appraisal Institute.
"It's not an investment. It's more of a want," said Georgeanna Garceau, a partner in the Baltimore real estate firm Yerman Witman Gaines & Garceau Realty. She says some clients told her their home theater was used less as their children left the nest, so when building a home theater, it's important to determine how much it will be used.
Some homebuilders offer theaters as options. Stapf Custom Homes has put them into its multimillion dollar homes in Baltimore County, said co-owner Charlie Stapf.
Only last month, Lennar Homes stopped offering them as "turnkey" options in its higher-end new communities - but not because buyers lost interest.
"The technology is running so fast that we cannot keep pace with the latest products," said Charles Lewis, director of sales and marketing for Lennar's Baltimore Patriot Division.
Lennar is among builders that pre-wire houses.
"Persons want the convenience of having it there, but they want the flexibility of putting what I want in my home," Lewis said.
Advance wiring for many purposes is part of a trend to distinguish new homes from their resale cousins, said Jonathan Dienhart, director of published research for Hanley Wood, a family of construction-industry publications.
Bethesda-based Winchester Homes, for example, offers an optional home theater in its upscale Camberley division homes. But advance wiring in its "your home, your way" moderately priced homes allows a homeowner to plan ahead and then install the electronics that suit them when they want, said Cynthia Herberg, director of marketing.
The bottom line, says Scott Tavegia, customer experience manager at the Best Buy in Towson, is:
"People want better performance. They want to be part of the football game without getting dirty."
Thinking about a home theater? Here are some basics:
The dimensions help determine optimal screen size, seating space and speaker power and locations.
LCDs and plasmas are heavier than projection screens, and they are typically the family-room screens -- say, 40-50 inches. The just-unveiled 150-inch Panasonic plasma is not available yet, and probably would fit neither in your house nor budget. Want a 10-foot screen? You want a projection screen and projector.
For a theater-like experience, you want realistic sound coming from around the room via speakers and a subwoofer.
Electronics have to get coordinated through a unit. That includes cable (or however you get television), the speakers, the DVD player -- even the game player and MP3 player, if you want.
If you want the movie experience, you want to be able to darken the room but keep safety lights on. How much do you want it to look like a movie house? Sconces that dim? Floor rope lights? Exit sign?
You can get leather recliners, seats with cupholders, seats that shake in sync with the car-crash scene.
Decide how much you want to spend and which features to spend it on. Include cables and other hardware and, for a dedicated space, the room's build-out and decor.
[ Andrea F. Siegel]