Keith Yates on the Ultimate Home Theater

4x4 VGA Matrix Switcher

What would it take to win a contract to work on a home theater-style screening room for George Lucas? Keith Yates shared the answer over a lunch hosted at Bob and Ron’s World Wide Stereo in Ardmore, PA. According to Keith, the key is not the price—there are companies full of people dying to design that screening room for free. A designer must offer something beyond mere competence.

What’s needed is brilliance and deep knowledge of the science of sight and sound. While Keith is too modest to call himself brilliant, that’s the only conclusion I can come to after examining his approach to building home theaters. Obviously, a number of people in the film industry agree—as Keith notes, he sees his clients’ product in the Oscars each year.

So, what was Keith—who lives in California—doing in a Philly suburb? He was here because of his partnership with Bob Cole, the store’s owner. World Wide Stereo is not just a high-end audio store; it’s a showroom that features a Keith Yates-designed home-theater demo room. It is also one of six pre-certified Imax Personal Home Theater installers in the USA, with an international clientele. A Personal Imax auditorium is one of the most expensive and elite AV products there is, and Keith told me that he has designed and built numerous theaters to similar specifications over the years—since before Imax came up with the idea of selling a branded personal theater, which was eight years ago.

It takes a rarified skill set to get this piece of paper.

The demo theater at Bob’s is not a private Imax, but it is a special experience. The video was as good as I’ve come to expect from a top-notch 1080p system, including a 130″ Stewart FireHawk CineCurve screen and a SIM2 M.150 LED projector with an autoscope anamorphic-lens kit. But it’s the sound quality that was truly exceptional. Make no mistake—achieving rarified levels of sound quality is Keith’s obsession. For example, when testing for background noise, he uses a microphone that costs $11,000 to measure it because many of the theaters he designs are already so quiet, and that’s the price of a mic sensitive enough to give an accurate reading in those conditions.

This screen features acoustically transparent motorized masking.

There is science to back up the need for that sort of sensory isolation. In the bluntest terms, you do not want outside sounds to take you out of the movie experience—one overheard toilet flush during a quiet, dramatic scene is enough to ruin the mood. However, achieving a low noise floor is about more than merely preventing distractions—it’s about triggering fight-or-flight instincts. Keith has studied psychoacoustics, delving into the elements needed to achieve that loss of self-awareness, which makes immersive movie viewing so exciting. It’s about goosebumps. It is about giving the creators of a movie or TV show the best blank canvas to convey their vision to the viewer—with sound, that canvas is silence.

Once the viewer is lost in a movie, they experience “suspension of disbelief,” which is a psychological state where you lose yourself in the story. Passive observation yields to active physiological reactions, provoking real emotions. This, in turn, provides the viewer with an escape, which is the whole point of entertainment—to escape, to be somewhere else.

So, who wants a multi-million-dollar home theater, aside from George Lucas? Movie and music lovers with deep pockets, Hollywood executives, politicians, and heads of industry—you name it. Sometimes, the clients are completely anonymous.

It is worth mentioning that the cost of an Imax Private Theater—or any high-end home theater—includes construction of the space, which involves advanced building techniques meant to physically isolate the room. Often, the challenges encountered in building such a room require skills that regular contractors don’t possess—after all, we’re talking about home theaters that cost more than most homes do.

Tower of McIntosh Power

Then there’s the matter of the gear itself—in the demo room at World Wide Stereo, that means 1080p Blu-ray video and audio played through over $200,000 worth of equipment. The gear includes a Kaleidescape media-management system with an M500 player as the source, McIntosh amplification and sound processing, B&W speakers, and JL Audio subwoofers. The sound was profound, so I chatted with Keith and store owner Bob Cole about the choice of gear used in the sound system. I’ve heard a number of elite systems this year, but this one was uniquely great. What was the secret?

It turns out there is no secret—it takes hard work, attention to detail, and for the most rarified systems, lots of money to get the details right. Even the doors to the theater are self-sealing and cost a bundle, and the wall-mounted acoustic treatments are applied randomly—no patterns allowed. Tolerances are tight, and every detail is accounted for. Keith pays particular attention to acoustic reflections from ceilings. He explained that the human ear is not very good at discerning height cues, and he suggested that proper ceiling acoustic treatment is one of the most cost-effective upgrades for a home theater.

Keith barely touched his food; all the man does is talk and think about home theaters.

When I arrived for the lunch meeting, Keith was busy analyzing the demo room, dialing in some final tweaks to the sound system. Like any other dedicated AV enthusiast, it’s hard to get him out of the theater when he’s calibrating. Bob told me that Keith can spend days adjusting the bass—such is the complexity of his measurement and analysis system. When you have a room that meets Keith’s stringent specs for background noise levels and sound absorption, proper calibration is crucial to getting the best results.

Keith, doing his thing

Of course, the highlight of my visit was the demo. The video presentation looked great, which was to be expected when pairing a $20,000 screen with a $30,000 projector. But it would’ve required a 4K private Imax screen for the impact of the visuals to match the sound quality I heard. I’m talking about an $80,000, audiophile-quality home-theater sound system in a dedicated room, calibrated for optimum performance. And it blew me away.

Of all the home-theater demos I’ve experienced in 2013, this was the only one in which the sound itself seemed truly holographic and transparent. The reward for all of Keith’s effort was bass that had the ability to emulate exactly what was on the screen—a door slam versus an explosion versus the rumble of thunder. These and other sounds all have a different texture that cannot be communicated through the typical one-note booming bass often found in commercial movie theaters. From a horse-race scene in Seabiscuit to the crunching and rumbling sound of Decepticons destroying Chicago, the sounds were tangibly real—suspension of disbelief came naturally, the same way it does when I’m watching a great magic show.

Seabiscuit made for a good demo; the sound of hooves pounding the dirt was totally believable.

I’ve auditioned a number of rarified home-theater sound systems this past year—the Wisdom Audio demo at CEDIA comes to mind. Nevertheless, the best AV sound I’ve heard lately was without a doubt what came out of the speakers in the Keith Yates-designed demo room at Bob’s World Wide Stereo. It had such an impact on me, I went home and reconsidered every aspect of my own home theater and the balance of sound that I had grown happy with—and accustomed to.

I can’t afford what it takes to achieve the kind of sublime transparency I experienced in Bob’s demo room, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience—now I know what’s possible when carefully calibrated high-end audio gear is mated with a well-designed and constructed home-theater room. When it comes to high-end installations, Keith and Bob make quite a team.