This week we’re providing a series of Vulture Hacks: expert advice, gear guides, and recommendations to help you maximize your entertainment experience.
There’s a reason we wait in line outside the theater for big movie releases: because where you sit matters. A prime, central location will not only ensure the most direct view and best surround experience, it will also save your neck and keep you out of the path of mid-movie bathroomgoers. But what’s the best spot to plant your flag when those doors swing open?
About two thirds of the way back, as close to the center as possible.
This may sound a bit vague, but it’s based on how engineers typically calibrate a theater’s sound system. According to Steve Martz, director of global technology at audio company THX, technicians will take microphone measurements at several locations throughout the theater. “These measurements are averaged together in order to better evaluate what each person hears when they are watching a movie,” he says.
This bundle of microphones includes a “primary microphone” that is used to set playback levels, speaker timing, and other parameters that require a single location for measurements and calibration. To get the best possible sound, you want to sit as close as possible to where this mic is positioned: About two-thirds of the way back, in the center of the row. “THX designs every seat to be a good seat, but most people would do well to sit near the primary microphone position,” Martz notes. “And then spread out to other areas as the cinema gets full.”
The best way to fan out to other areas: Snag a seat near the center of a row in order to maintain audio and visual symmetry, and then move forward toward the screen rather than back to the nosebleeds. “Moving in this direction increases your horizontal viewing angle,” explains Martz. “It essentially increases your peripheral vision.”
Recent developments make this less of a concern than it was in the past, particularly if you’re in a theater that has been upgraded with new sound technology. Martz says THX specifically designs its speakers and layouts so that sound is delivered to each seat evenly, and keeps its theaters regularly tuned by on-site engineers. IMAX theaters take it a step further, with permanent microphones that automatically calibrate the theater’s sound on a daily basis, as well as laser-aligned loudspeakers that are precisely placed in order to distribute equal volume to almost every seat. “In good theaters, no matter the size or seating configuration, moviegoers should enjoy a good presentation,” Martz says.
Of course, most theaters, especially older ones that haven’t been refurbished in a while, don’t have one of these sophisticated audio setups — meaning the sprint for the sweet spot is as important as ever.