Late last year, our team in Los Gatos moved into a new space, a former bank building. It is an amazing creative (and affordable!) workplace and we fit perfectly in there. There was one thing that bugged us, what to do with the awesome bank vault? It had 14 inch thick concrete walls and beautiful fluorescent lighting. We tried locking up all our valuables, but it turned out to be lot of wasted space. We instead decided to build an “everyman’s” home theater to showcase our Plex Media Server capabilities, and to watch a bunch of movies – I mean, we are cinephiles just like most of you!
Before, the vault was our “storage room”
After, an entertainment oasis.
To make sure we were getting the right gear at the right price, we had our friends at The Wirecutter—one of our main go-to sites for gear recommendations—help pick out the best pieces for our space. Mat Lindstedt from Silicon Valley Installation Company, pitched in as well. It was a fun project and we decided to share a little of our experience in building it, in hopes you all could benefit from our triumphs and tiny missteps. If you make it all the way to the bottom there is a great little video of our buildout experience.
Scott Olechowski, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer, Plex
Chris Heinonen, Writer, The Wirecutter
Mat Lindstedt, Principal, Silicon Valley Installation Company
Michael Weir, Marketing Guy, Plex
The first question’s for Scott. Scott, why did Plex even decide to do a theater in the first place?
I think there were a handful of reasons. The first is, frankly, that a lot of our Plex users have very sophisticated home theater set ups. As a company, we didn’t actually have a setup where we could test things like Dolby Atmos or 7.1 surround sound or understand some of the needs of the different projectors or even some of the control stuff or home automation components that our users are really really interested in. It gave us an opportunity to get this higher-end gear into a place that we could do development and testing against. That was the first reason.
Second, we actually had a space in our office that we didn’t know what to do with. It was this old bank vault that had 14 inch thick rebar and concrete walls, floor, and ceiling–very, very secure and very, very useless for normal day-to-day business use. We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to put the space to use and create a showcase of our technology, as well.
Awesome. How did you and Wirecutter get involved with this project?
I actually met Mike Berk (Executive Editor @Wirecutter) at CES this year and the idea had actually been forming in my head for a little while because we are huge fans of The Wirecutter here at Plex–one of our main go-to sites for gear recommendations. In the back of my mind I was trying to figure out how to take these three different needs: one, setting up a place for us to QA and Dev against, two, to turn this space in our office into a showcase, and, three, figuring out what gear to use if we did that and possibly turn it into an opportunity for helping our users understand how a project like this could come together. That was the genesis of the idea. I asked Michael and the rest I think Chris knows.
Cool. Chris, when people are thinking of putting together a home theater, what are some of the main budgetary considerations people have to think about? Then, as a follow up, what are some typical compromises that people have to make once they work through some of the budget stuff?
People say, “Well, I’ll buy this extra model because it has this extra feature that down the road I might wind up using.” Whereas most of the time you end up buying that and by the time you want to upgrade that feature and take advantage of it, something new is out or something else is there that you’re not going to wind up using.
I think what people need to do first is just understand the space they have. If you have a big, bright living room with lots of windows and that’s where you’re going to watch, you probably shouldn’t buy a projector. It’s not going to be a good idea for you. You’re going to have to buy a $4,000 screen to make that work and then that’s going to kill your budget.
I think once you realize what kind of space you have, and what you want to do, you can ask things like does the picture matter more to you than the audio? Are you going to be doing lots of music listening? Are you going to have lots of people over or is it just you, because that might impact the TV you want for viewing angles or projectors or anything else.
Sometimes people will go out and contract or work with professionals and that brings us to Mat. Mat, why don’t you talk a little bit about what your role was in this project.
Obviously, the space is pretty unique in that is was a cement vault and so we had some challenges there. I think that the space that we created really is the sweet spot for us. A couple of things, we’re agnostic about equipment. We don’t necessarily, have preferred brands that we like, but we’re pretty open about what works in the environment that we’re given. That was a pretty unique place.
Most places like that, or most homes, they don’t really have a space for a dedicated home theater. What they do is have space for a media room or a multi-purpose room where they may be watching movies and television programming and streaming things. The cool thing with the Plex folks is we got to come in and kind of design and work with Wirecutter on a space that is not only awesome for watching movies, but it’s also a great place to just kind of hang out there and watch some TV or stream stuff from laptops.
I’m just going to jump in with one other comment that I probably should have mentioned earlier. One of our goals with this project was to find something that we thought was, from a budget perspective, in the vicinity of a somewhat normal human being. With that being said, we know it is clearly way out of many people’s budgets, but it’s certainly not on the fantastical side of the theater spectrum. I think that that was one of our goals: the project as more of “moderate” theater, not a “sky’s the limit approach”, which was a big part of what drove us. That’s one of the reasons why the fit with The Wirecutter was really solid.
That’s a great point Scott. Quick question, even though Plex was creating this every man’s home theater based on our special situation, did you have any other special requirements for Plex?
Yeah, I think probably what I would say is the home automation components of what we’re trying to do here, integrating with the different remotes, integrating with Alexa and some of the other technologies that Mat and crew brought to the table was a big part of this. We really wanted to see where we are today with automation, where are we today with integration with these sort of things and it’s been really fun and exciting to see that stuff coming together as well.
Hey Mat, you sort of touched on this about some of the challenges there were to building in a bank vault, can you maybe talk a little bit about some of the specifics and maybe see if there is a way that those relate to any other problems that other people might see in their homes.
Yeah, I think one of the great things that we had with that room was it’s a nice bunker. It’s a relatively sound proof, light proof container in there which really is half the battle when you’re putting together a projector and a screen. Light control is big. Obviously there is no windows in there, so we had that. The challenges were obviously running cable as well as speakers and the projector back to the area that had the rack in it.
With a contractor he was able to build channels and we were able to find a local contractor here in the state that had the fabric materials for the walls so we were able to do a relatively inexpensive cover up all our cabling with the track panels and it made for I think for a nice aesthetic look, but it also hid the cables and give us a good sound reinforcement as well.
It’s about going back to what Scott said earlier, we were able, with Wirecutters help, to create a theater in that space for a budget that would have been two and three times as much for higher end components. I’m not sure at the end of the day you would have really noticed that big boost. I mean it sounds pretty amazing in there. That screen in there is fantastic, the projector is fantastic, and we really did like I said for components that are relatively inexpensive, we got a pretty amazing space.
Chris, speaking about the space, was there any sort of gear selection difficulties that were created by that specific room?
One of the main things that the room influenced, it didn’t influence the screen or the projector because that was easy since it was light controlled in there, the main challenges were with the speakers. We didn’t have a place to push them away from the walls or anything else, so they had to be up against the walls, mounted up on the walls out of the way so we could have more seating and that necessitated ones that didn’t have rear ports in them.
If you look at our gear selection we have the ELAC Debut Series as our speaker of choice typically, but in this case we went with the step up which is the KEF Q Series because it has front ports and it has keyhole jacks in the back so you can just easily wall mount that. Put it up on the wall, can be right up against it, doesn’t impact its quality, it does great.
As mentioned earlier by Mat, we can take your room even and for someone who has a smaller budget easily scale that down a little bit by going to say like the $800 BenQ Projector and getting rid of the Atmos since a lot of people aren’t going to do in ceiling speakers and scale that down a lot and people are still going to get 80% to 90% of that. They can’t do 4K and they can’t do Atmos, but for people who are streaming and don’t have that, they can still save even more and get a huge impact theater for a really good price, put that into any space that they want.
Scott, you’re basically the client here, was there anything about the build out of this theater that was out of left field or surprising to you?
Probably the most surprising thing to me is how much I love the room. I’ll be honest–I really thought this could be a half baked project, that the bank vault and the budget we were working with had the potential to be a total disaster with a disappointing outcome and ultimately a failed experiment might be the way I would put it. I’ll tell you right now, it’s my favorite place to watch a movie. It really is! I’m not just saying that because of the parties involved or because I have to, but because of the quality of the end result. The room, the sound, the screen, the projector, the automation, and the simplicity of the whole thing is awesome.
I really, really thought that we were going to hit some bump in the road that was going to make this a real bummer and it’s been almost the opposite. Kudos to everyone that did the work and actually made this happen. I think it’s a real statement on the state of technology today–that you can really, really make an amazing room and provide an amazing experience on this level of budget. I would have imagined that this would have cost an order of magnitude more to achieve, to give me that level of experience where I’m like, “yep, this is the best place to watch a movie now”. I don’t choose to go to a commercial theater over going to our theater. That’s a big deal.
Mat, I know you touched on this a little bit on the furniture and the wall finishing, I think we ended up coming up with a great solution there, can you talk really quick about that?
Yeah, and you know to be honest with you, we lucked out on that. I mean normally how we would do chairs and the wall coverings are we would work with a local designer, they would show us a thousand different patterns and colors. We’d work with these fabric guys that would stitch in the fabric into the acoustical panels, obviously we didn’t want to do that. I mean I literally found a company in Los Angeles on the web, searching. Actually for the chairs, now the chairs we would normally contract those out to companies that started $1,500 to $3,000 per electric chair.
We just happen to find a company in Los Angeles for I think those chairs were $500 bucks each. They happen to have fabric selections as well for the acoustical panels. We kind of took a risk on that and we just said let’s just do it, let’s try it. We just got lucky on those chairs and I think they’re amazing. I think they’re comfortable, they look good, they’re motorized for less than $500 bucks, which is impossible.
I mean it’s amazing. The paneling on the wall, I think those panels were about $80 each and again we would have spent anywhere between $800 to $3,000 per panel had this been your traditional custom made home theater that we’d done in the past.
Yeah, the other thing I’d mention at this point is that the sound is really, really incredible in there. There’s two pieces that we need to probably understand better and would love to figure out as we go forward. That is to understand how to better calibrate the sound and picture. I even bought one of those $250 Datacolor Spyder color calibration devices for dialing in the projector, even though the experience is pretty incredible already. The geek inside me wonders if could it be even better? Could we dial this in even more? Who knows?
As far as just the last question on the build out and the gear stuff and Chris, this is in your wheelhouse, what are some lessons that we learned from our build and other lessons that you’ve seen other people learn?
I almost always wind up telling people never to buy the best gear, because the best gear usually entails this huge price premium over something that’s good enough. If you look at two and a half years ago that’s when you saw our first OLED TV. That was a 50 or 55 inch curved screen and that was $12,000. It’s been two and a half years, you get a flat 55 inch, ultra HD, high dynamic range, white color gamut, and it’s $2,500. Usually if you sit there and say, “Well I can get a good enough TV now or a good enough usually it’s TV’s or projectors, speakers are pretty much static, they usually don’t adjust nearly as much.”
We try to find what’s the best for most people which is usually going to be something cheaper and might not have some cutting edge feature, but like as we saw with 4K, 4K when it came out was very expensive and now 4K TV’s are really cheap and early ones didn’t even have high dynamic range or white color gamut or HDMI 2.0a, so they are kind of left behind because they were just too cutting edge at that point and people were paying too much money for them.
I’ll say the same thing that we actually tell home owners who are coming in to build their dream media room. If you look at the list of components that we have in the theater for Plex, there’s not really one thing that’s super expensive. I mean they’re all really consumer electronics that you could go into Best Buy or Amazon and buy and it just adds up. Like anything else, they add up quickly. The components themselves on a piece by piece basis are very reasonable.
Mat, all the equipment’s installed, all the electrical, that all has power, everything’s working, what’s that dialing in process look like? What’s important, what’s the most challenging thing?
What was cool about this theater was that we were on a pretty tight schedule and candidly we didn’t have a big budget to do a whole lot. I mean we really had to get in there, install the things, and get out. The cool thing about it was is that we were able to run the cable, hang the speakers, hang the projector, and everything just kind of worked out out of the box. We’ve been doing this for a long time and the great thing with modern technology like the Atmos receiver and the JVC 4K projector is they really do work 95% out of the box ready to go.
I can install calibrators in there, we can talk about doing compression audio and really dial it in, but for my clients and Chris, you can probably adhere to this, you set up the sound and the first thing the client does is he stands in the back of the room and says, “Why can’t I hear the speakers in the rear?” You explain to them well they’re designed to come on depending on the content you’re watching, listening to and they don’t care about that. They want to hear the speakers. They want to hear the speakers for other things.
My point is that system in there sounds amazing and looks amazing, we could probably continue to tweak it and we will tweak it, but the awesome thing with the budget system is you don’t have to bring in hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars of calibration equipment in there to notch it up that extra 5%. Wouldn’t you say that Chris?
Yeah, I mean I’m an ISF certified calibrator, so I go in and tune in your TV or do your projector. Most people don’t need that. Most people will be very happy with their TV or projector if they use the mode that’s the accurate pre-set movie mode or cinema. Like the JVC has cinema mode and then you can choose the type of screen you have that’s supported in there, it will adjust the color based off your type of screen a little bit. That’s going to be 99% of the way there and save you $300 to $500 for a setup fee.
You sit there and do the basic set ups and read a couple of guides that where you should position speakers or how you should set the brightness and contrast on a TV or projector, that’s going to get you 90%, 95% of the way there and it’s not going to cost you a thing. If you want to go the full distance you can and you can spend hundreds of dollars to bring in a professional to do calibration, but for most people it’s not going to be worth it. You could have spent that money to go get better gear and get a better experience, unless you’re building a $100,000 home theater.
Often when we bring in that professional to “calibrate the projector,” it’s often you know people like bright. They want high contrast, so we dial it in to this “reference video quality” and then the person or client says a week later, “No, that’s kind of dark. Can we set it back to the way it was?” Then we’re back to ground zero.
Scott, can you talk about the journey to getting to controls like where did you start? Where did you end up?
From a control perspective, obviously we wanted to have the traditional remote control capability where people familiar with that, could walk in and do that and gets to some of the more advanced features. We wanted something that we could control the entire system from the receiver and projector to the lights, and the actual media interface Plex or whatever client we choose. We installed a number of different ones including Roku and Nvidia Shield, and Apple TV as well as a NUC running our Plex Media Player on there.
We wanted to have that, but we also wanted to be able to control as much of this as possible from Alexa from the Amazon Echo. The hope was to find a way to make all these pieces you know you just walk in and ask the system to turn on, lights come up or lights come down, and everything just kind of works. I think we achieved that.
Scott, anything else about any ongoing plans? Are there any upgrades you’re dreaming about as far as the theater goes sort of above and beyond what we’ve done so far?
Yeah. I think that most of the stuff I’m interested in right now probably comes down more to Plex. We want to get some further automation integration, when you pause it, maybe the lights come up a little bit. Things that are more tied into the Plex experience, so those things are on the road map, we don’t have dates, but when I start playing a movie maybe the screen is different than a TV show. Or when I play a funny thing on YouTube, the lights wouldn’t have to be down completely.
There’s some interesting things that we’re interested in trying to do to kind of tie the entire experience together. Those are things that are going to require a little bit more plotting and planning and thinking, but there’s no question now that I’ve really seen the beginning of what’s possible I want to keep that story and finish that experience.
Mat, I know we’re using a product called Simple Control and I wanted you to maybe take just a couple of seconds to talk about that and then talk about the trend towards IP controls for everything.
We’re actually in semi-partnership with, we’ve been doing it for a couple years now, a company called Simple Control, formally Roomie Remote. They’re a local company here in the valley and they created an amazing app for IOS devices currently. They want to port to Android and others, but right now it’s IOS. It’s basically an iPhone and iPad app that allow you to control probably about 50% of all components that have IP controllable that you can control.
In this particular Plex theater every single device has an IP control. You can pull the app up and we can say okay, turn on the home theater, watch Plex, watch Apple TV and we don’t have the IR blinkies anymore, that used to plague us for years and years. It’s very reliable, it’s very fast, and it allows for two way communication. When you go to Apple TV or even the Plex server, you can see very rich two way content from your iPad of what you’re actually seeing up on the screen. You can’t do that with a static remote control that is a one-way communication.
Chris, what are you guys, from the Wirecutter side of things, you guys see a lot more than just the Plex Theater and what we’re doing here. How are we doing and what’s coming up that maybe we haven’t thought about?
I think you guys have a fairly advanced theater as far as most people go, but most people aren’t running Atmos or anything like that yet because they don’t want to drill speakers in the ceiling.
I think lots of people run into these challenges setting the home theater up. How do I run wires, speakers somewhere, how do I hide all this stuff without making huge modifications. If you’re someone who can do wire channels pretty easy without doing much damage to the wall with a couple of nails or some 3M sticky stuff or whatever they need to do to keep it up there, I mean I think everyone can learn from this. Maybe figuring out, well I really like this gear, but maybe it doesn’t work for my room because I can’t run a projector. Or these speakers have to go against the walls.
When people come home and can just put on the football game from last night for example, or play my Pandora station and it will just work. That’s going to make lots of people consider doing these kinds of systems more because it’s just going to be easy for them to set up and use. I think if we get that integration in the next year or two that more people are going to consider doing this type of system because it’s going to fit better into their lifestyle.
We’ll we’ve really gone down the theater rabbit hole. I think that’s plenty for now. Thanks so much, Scott, Chris, and Mat
Please let us know what you think, and how we can help get Plex running in your home theater.
The Wirecutter wrote about their experience working with us and how to create a high-end theater on a “most people” budget here.