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How To Get More From Your Home Theatre Without Paying A Dime

Unless you had your home theatre set up by a professional, chances are you aren’t getting the best possible video and sound out of your existing setup. These simple tweaks will take just a little bit of time but will make a world of difference.

Photo by Pascalsijen.

You can build a pretty sweet home theatre with an HDTV and a nice set of speakers, but just because you’ve got the gear doesn’t mean you’ve got the optimal viewing experience. With all the time setting up a TV, audio receiver, Blu-Ray player and HTPC can take (and all the confusion it can cause), you may not have made the small tweaks that can make all the difference in delivering the high quality audio and video you paid for. If it’s been awhile since you thought about the nitty-gritty of your system, here are some things you may want to go through to make sure your theater’s performing in tip-top shape.

This guide assumes you’ve already got a home theatre of some sort set up, and that you’ve put some thought into it already: That is, you’re using all the right cables, you’ve got a decent HDTV, and you maybe even have a surround sound system set up. This isn’t about setting up your first home theatre — this is about making your existing system’s sound and audio a whole lot better.

Video

You spent a lot of money on that new HDTV, and while it may seem infinitely better than the old tube you had in its place, you’re probably not getting the best picture possible out of it—especially if you just brought it home from the store and threw it in the cabinet. Here’s how to tweak your HDTV into giving you the best video possible.

Viewing Distance
This is something you probably (hopefully) thought about when you bought the TV in the first place, but if you didn’t, you should consider whether your TV is at the optimum distance and viewing angle from your seating area.

You can find a lot of different opinions on the subject of optimum viewing distance, but the easiest way to decide your optimal viewing distance is to take the diagonal size of your TV in inches and multiply it by two. That’s around how many inches you should sit away from the TV — or that your TV should sit away from you.

That said, it doesn’t really need to be measured in exact inches (after all, that isn’t practical for everyone’s living room). You’ll definitely want to make sure your TV is within the range of one of these charts, though. Check out the table to the right for THX’s recommendations. Also remember that, if you’re going to play around with moving your furniture, we recommend mapping it out first, so you don’t end up moving it 10 times before you find the best setup.

TV Calibration

You may not realise it, but your TV likely won’t be set up to deliver the best quality video when you unbox it — you’ll have to calibrate it yourself. While you could do this manually, the best way to do it is with a DVD-based calibration tool. You probably already have a DVD with THX’s optimiser tool (pretty much any DVD with the THX logo will have it), and for $US2 you can grab a pair of blue filter glasses that will help you run the program even better. (If you’ve got a media centre with XBMC, it has a nice video calibration tool built in.) If you use the THX optimizer, make sure you read through Gizmodo’s guide to using it. If you’re a fan of the Criterion Collection, all their DVDs come with calibration tools as well.

If you’re not thrilled with the free-ish options, for about $US20 or so you can grab a more full-featured calibration DVD that better explains the process. Some favourites include Sound & Vision’s Home Theater Tune-Up disc, the Avia Guide to Home Theater, and Digital Video Essential’s Home theatre Optimizer. (S&E’s is probably best for beginners.) These’ll also help you calibrate your sound too (which we’ll come back to later), so that’s pretty handy.

Many people recommend using a colourimiter to help calibrate your TV, too. It isn’t imperative, but if you have a local photo shop that rents them, you can rent one for considerably less than the sticker price.

The other thing you’ll want to be wary of when doing this is that your TV will look different at different times of day (and even with different inputs). Many TV’s should allow you to create different colour presets, and PC World recommends calibrating your TV once during the day and once at night, and creating presets for both — that way, you can switch back and forth between them and have the best picture no matter what kind of light is peeking through your blinds. More simply, if you generally watch TV during one time of day — at night, for example — you’d be better off calibrating at night. For more info on calibrating your TV, I highly recommend checking out PC World’s full guide — it’s got a lot of great information.

Sound

The other half of the home theatre equation is sound. Chances are, even if you have a surround sound system and put some thought into the speaker setup, it isn’t yet optimal. With these tweaks, however, you’ll find you can get much better sound from your system in just a few minutes.

Speaker Placement

There are quite a few speaker placement guides out there on the net, but the previously mentioned Dolby interactive setup guide makes it a snap. Just enter your viewing distance (which we figured out above), tell it how many speakers you have, and it’ll tell you where you should place them. Essentially, you’ll have a centre speaker right under your TV, two speakers on the left and right, and (depending on your surround sound situation), two to four speakers behind you, standing on long stands or mounted on the wall so they’re just above ear level. The guide will tell you the exact distances and angles your speakers should have for optimal sound — it shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes to tweak your setup. Also, don’t get too hung up on the angles of the speakers — a little wiggle room is just fine if you have other furniture in the way.

Setting up the subwoofer is beast unto its own. Your subwoofer can generally go anywhere except the corners of the room, so you’ll want to try a few different locations to see where it sounds best. The best way to do this is the previously mentioned “subwoofer crawl”, where you place the subwoofer in the spot where you usually sit, and then get on your hands and knees and crawl around the room, listening for the best sound. When you find the spot with the best sound, switch places with your subwoofer, and it should retain roughly the same sound quality.

Speaker Calibration
Once you’ve got your speakers where they should be in the room, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the best audio possible. The first thing you’ll want to do is try out the previously mentioned Eminent multimedia speaker test. It’s essentially a list of WAV files that you’ll want to play through your speakers to make sure they sound like they should. If what you hear from a specific file doesn’t match what the speaker test page says, you might need to tweak your setup (or get your speakers fixed). We’ll come back to the speakers in a moment, but before we really dig in, we just want to make sure they’re working correctly. Next we’ll adjust the bass.

Bass Management
Photo by Rick.

In a sound system, your receiver needs to know when to send sounds to the subwoofer and when to play them on the main speakers. To make sure this is set up correctly, you’ll need to tweak two things: your system’s crossover frequency and the size setting of each speaker. Those may sound a bit daunting, but you don’t need to go overboard with the calibration here — in fact, just a small tweak here and there can make your system sound a whole lot better. If you want to get really deep into it, Audioholics.com has a pretty great guide to managing your bass, but we’ll go through the basics right here.

The way it works is this: Your speakers have a “crossover frequency”, which is the frequency that decides whether a sound is sent to your speakers or your subwoofer. If you have a two-speaker setup, the crossover frequency setting will be on your subwoofer, and you can tweak it as described here. If you have a surround sound system, however, you’ll want to turn your subwoofer’s crossover frequency off and manage it through your receiver’s main menu. If you can’t turn your subwoofer’s crossover frequency off, turn it up as high as you can—it’ll have essentially the same effect.

To start, you’ll probably want to set your crossover frequency to 80Hz (though if your speakers are particularly small, like 3-4″, you may want to go up to 100 or 120Hz). This means that any sound above 80Hz will be sent to your speakers, while bass sounds under 80Hz will be sent to your subwoofer. Cool, huh?

There is one caveat, of sorts, to this setup: in most surround sound setups, each speaker has a setting: “small” or “large”. Any speakers set to “large” will not send their bass sounds to the subwoofer — meaning your speaker will spend most of its power trying to output those low bass sounds. Whether your speaker is actually small or large in real life doesn’t really make a difference: you’re probably best off setting all your speakers to “small”. There are, of course, differing views on the subject (if you really want to, you can set your main left and right speakers to “large”), but just setting them all to “small” is about as easy as it gets, and your system is pretty much guaranteed to sound great.

Speaker Volume
Photo by William Hook.

The last step is adjusting the volume of each speaker in your surround sound setup (if you only have two speakers, you probably don’t need to worry about this too much). Sit down in your listening or viewing spot and adjust the master volume to the level you’re used to. Your receiver should come with a test tone for setting the volume levels — turn it on and let it play through each speaker in the system. Tweak the volume level of each channel until they all sound similar. Don’t get too caught up in this, though—feel free to adjust different channels as you watch different movies. There is no one “perfect” setup that will work for everything when it comes to volume.

If you really want to get a good calibration going, the aforementioned video calibration DVDs will also calibrate your sound, so you can get both done in one fell swoop.

You’ll want to watch out for a few things as you do this. Make sure you don’t turn your rear speakers up too high. Ecoustics explains this oft-made mistake:

The surround isn’t intended to blast you with precise directional cues except for certain hard-mixed sounds that happen off-screen during gun battles, fights, chase sequences and the like. Much of the time, you may wonder if the surrounds are even on-until say, a rainstorm or outdoor sequence or perhaps a phone ringing off-screen suddenly reminds you of how much realism a surround system is capable of.

The same goes for your subwoofer. The best way to get a good volume level for your subwoofer is to plug it in, turn it all the way down, and start playing some music. Gradually turn it up until the deep bass meshes well with the rest of the audio. You’re not trying to shake the building, here. (Trust me on this one: you’ll get angry letters from your neighbours.)

Many of you may have already tweaked your home theatres to this effect, so if you have some experience, share your thoughts with us. What worked for you? What didn’t? Which tweaks made a bigger difference than others? Sound off in the comments.


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