Like most of the world during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic we found ourselves stuck at home for much of the year. We quickly ran out of things to do and with no cinemas open we decided it would be fun to renovate an out building on our property, and convert it into our very own home cinema. Not only was this a fun project to take on but the idea was to provide a welcome distraction to the family during an uncertain time.
You might be picturing some fancy setup with mounted projector and speakers, fixed screen, velvet seating, and lighting effects but that was never on our minds. This was is an easy to setup, easy to clear away budget home cinema solution.
Whilst the building is secure and covered by Blink it is mostly used by our kids and their friends, let’s just say it’s not uncommon for an impromptu game of indoor football to start up spontaneously! A key constraint of the project was to keep the budget down and ensure the equipment was robust, or could be removed.
We wanted an affordable home cinema room that was easy to setup, could be cleared away, but was also good enough to enjoy. It didn’t have to be perfect, and would never compare to anyone who had spent £1000s, but I wanted it to be good enough to get everyone excited about home cinema screenings with homemade tickets and popcorn.
Here’s how we did it.
There was some debate over whether to get a screen. Early research found them to be expensive and bulky. You either had to work out how to attach it to the wall with various wall fixings or balance it on a shaky looking tripod. Other solutions such as mechanical screens seemed a bit overkill for our scenario and would end up taking up space or risk getting damaged if it couldn’t be stored safely. Every screen that interested me was too expensive, the wrong size or just didn’t fit into our plans.
The free, but not ideal, alternative was always sitting there in the background. Yes, the wall.
Eventually I happened upon on a simple solution. A projector screen that had two rings at the top to hang it up and simply rolled up when done, and very reasonably priced too. It was all I needed.
I went for a 16:9 ratio in the end, this does mean cinema screenings will have white space at the top and bottom, the infamous letter box effect, but if you can live with that it works great for sporting events and video games.
The screen is simply held up with 3M Hooks stuck directly onto the wall. It’s easy to pull the screen off and roll it up when not in use and seems to hang without issue for weeks on end when I leave it up.
Please check out my dedicated post on home cinema screens for more information.
I believe that sound is a massive part of the home cinema experience. My initial compulsion was to dive into the world of AV Receivers. Now, if you want the best, this is the way to go. There is no debate here, an AV Receiver with a suite of speakers is going to give you the best results, every day of the week. It’s an expensive outlay but you can mitigate the cost by building up slowly. Start with entry level kit and upgrade over time.
Unfortunately there was one big constraint hanging over me that prevented me going down this route (aside from breaking my budget), I didn’t want a set of expensive speakers sitting around in an out building that was often going to be occupied by rowdy kids. I also liked the idea of quickly being able to sweep things aside or bring things into the house.
Enter the sound bar.
The sound bar does not have a great reputation amongst home cinema aficionados, yet they seemed to be everywhere. I quickly became aware of a wide range of models all at different price points with a variety of technologies. Someone must be buying these things, they can’t be that bad, right?
I asked around on a couple of forums I participate in and the verdict seemed unanimous. You will just end up regretting the purchase of a sound bar they said. So I went and bought one.
I went for an LG-SL7Y, paired with the LG SPK8 rear speakers. I chose the LG because is came in at the right price, came with a wireless sub and had the option of wireless rear speakers. If you are going to do home cinema, you need at least 5.1 sound, right? The professional reviews seemed fairly mixed, none were that sparkling but I didn’t want to spend more and no one said it was terrible.
So when I eventually got it all set up, I was pleasantly supplied. The sound was clear and filled the room perfectly, space ships rumbled and when the rear speakers kicked in for the first time we found ourselves looking behind us to see what was there.
I have a decent enough HiFi set up in my living room so I know that the sound bar isn’t the same but it beat my expectations, it still makes watching films fun and my less fussy family were suitably wowed. It manages to give a cinematic feel that our living room TV just can’t compete with and that was my goal. I think it sounds great and OK, I accept that a HiFi system will sound better, but I still get a feeling that I could be in a cinema when spaceships fly overhead and the sound swirls around us.
I also love that the sound bar is solid and sits tucked away by the wall, relatively kid proof. The joy or small wireless rear speakers is that they can be swept up and shut in the cupboard after use.
Light is going to an issue for any projector based home cinema setup. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a windowless room in the house, a basement for example, you’re going to have to find a way to limit light levels if you plan to use a projector during the long summer days. Winter won’t be a problem, it’s dark by 4pm, but we set this up just as we hit British Summer Time.
If you’re doing it properly, you’re going to get a professional in to fix some quality blackout blinds and heavy curtains. We have them in the kids’ bedrooms and it works well. But this wasn’t an option for the budget approach. I needed something that was affordable and also temporary.
Fortunately there are a number of solutions out there aimed at travelling parents who want to darken a guest room. The first option was to stick on black out film, I was all for getting this when I read in the small print that it wasn’t suitable for direct sunlight, I think these are designed for use at dusk / night time. I wanted something I could put up on a hot summer’s afternoon in direct sunlight and I didn’t want it to melt and make a mess of the window.
Further research uncovered a company (Easy Blinds) that sold black out material that could easily stick up with Velcro. Perfect. I went for the suction cup option which actually works better than I expected. You stick up the cups and then the black out blind sticks to it. Despite my initial reservations I’ve not had a single instance of one coming loose so far! It works really well.
The cups aren’t ideal for making a perfect light seal, the Velcro strips would probably give you a better result, but the overall effect was to darken the room sufficiently to let the projector shine. I could also get a better result by taking more time and using more of the suction cups but I find placing one in each corner good enough for me.
There’s no point having a home cinema and nothing to watch on it! Fortunately I already had a couple of options in the house already. Both are easy to setup and able to supply HD images and surround sound.
- Firestick. This is my streaming device of choice at the moment, largely because it comes with a remote control! With access to Disney+, Netflix and Amazon Prime it covered most of my needs.
- Chromecast. There are still a few apps that aren’t available in the Amazon ecosystem, so Chromecast is there to pick up the slack.
Unfortunately my home WiFi network was very poor at this distance, it just didn’t reach over the garden and into this building. To get good network coverage I dug out a spare Powerline network plug that I happened to have waiting for just such an occasion as this. Plugged it in, did a speed test and found I was hitting a good 25Mbps. Not great, but good enough to stream HD.
When I was researching, it wasn’t clear to me how to connect up a video source so that the images and sound were in sync. The trick is to plug the streaming device directly into the sound bar’s HDMI in socket, this then extracts the audio and passes out the video to the HDMI out socket that connects to your projector.
Buying a projector can be a daunting task, there are a lot of things to consider. If you’re having trouble finding the right one, we recommend this site.
I wanted to buy a projector that pitched itself as a good quality entry level model that was affordable but would give a good HD image that could be enjoyed. I didn’t have the budget for a 4k laser projector, and whilst the cheap low resolution non-branded imports have their place, they weren’t for me this time round.
I ended up opting for the Epson EH-TW650.
I needed something that was a good all rounder, capable of reasonably short throw projection, it had to be HD, a decent enough lamp life and bright enough to work in a darkened (but not light controlled) room.
I was very pleased with the result. The picture quality is superb, clear bright images do justice to the big blockbusters. And it works will with PC games played over a Steam Link too!
We’ve been running with our home cinema for a fair few months now and it has proved a big hit with parents and kids. With cinemas closed and big blockbuster films like Scoob! and Mulan going straight to streaming services it’s never been a better time to have a home cinema setup.
When we were stuck in the house during the pandemic lockdown, it was a welcome relief to host movie nights. We couldn’t go out, but the change of scene and escape into our cinema room was a massive source of relief for everyone. Hopefully in the future we’ll be allowed to invite people over, screen a world cup or host a kid’s party. Until then, it will be our own private cinema.