Unless you had your home theater 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.
Blast from the past is a weekly feature at Lifehacker in which we revive old, but still relevant, posts for your reading and hacking pleasure. This week, we’re giving our home theater a little tune-up.
You can build a pretty sweet home theater with an HDTV and a nice set of speakers, but just because you’ve got the gear doesn’t mean you have the optimal viewing experience. With all the time setting up a TV, audio receiver, Blu-Ray player, and home theater PC 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 theater 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 theater—this is about making your existing system’s sound and audio a whole lot better.
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.
Set the Optimal 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. Keep in mind you want to measure from the TV to where your eyes would be—not the front or back of the couch.
That said, it doesn’t really need to be measured in exact inches (after all, that isn’t practical for everyone’s living rom). 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 RCA’s recommendations (if you prefer a more immersive experience, THX’s ranges may be more your style). 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.
Calibrate Your TV
You may not realize 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 optimizer tool (pretty much any DVD with the THX logo will have it), and for $ 2 you can grab a pair of blue filter glasses that will help you run the program even better. 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 $ 20 or so you can grab a more full-featured calibration DVD that better explains the process. Some favorites include Sound & Vision’s Home Theater Tune-Up disc, the Avia Guide to Home Theater, and Digital Video Essential’s Home Theater 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. Check out our guide to calibrating your TV for the full step-by-step instructions.
Many people recommend using a colorimiter 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 color 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.
The other half of the home theater 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.
Place Your Speakers Correctly
You’d think you could just plop your speakers down on either side of your TV and you’d be fine, right? Not so fast: for the best possible sound, you’ll actually want to take distance and angle into account.
Dolby has some pretty good diagrams that can help you out, but the essence is simple: try to make an equilateral triangle, with your left and right front speakers as two points and your ears as the third point. That means if you are 8 feet away from your TV, your speakers should be 8 feet apart (so, about 4 feet away from the center of the TV). Tilt them at a 22 to 30 degree angle, as shown above, and make sure they’re as close to ear level as possiblefl. If you have a 5.1 setup, place those speakers accordingly. 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, as long as it isn’t in a corner or other enclosed space. Try a few different locations to see where it sounds best. If you really want to get crazy, you can try the previously mentioned “subwoofer crawl”, in which 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.
Tune Your Subwoofer’s Volume and Crossover
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 a few things: your system’s crossover frequency, the subwoofer’s volume, and the speaker size setting. This is actually quite simple—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.
It works like 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.
So, to set your subwoofer up, do the following:
- First, set the crossover. This is the frequency at which your subwoofer starts playing bass notes. You generally want your crossover set to where your speakers start to roll off—for example, my speakers can’t go much lower than 80Hz, so my subwoofer’s crossover is set to about 80. You can find this in your speaker’s specs, or just slowly turn it up until it “rounds out” the sound on your speakers (so that your speakers and subwoofer aren’t both playing the same notes).
- Next, adjust the gain. This is the important part, and the part that I’ve done incorrectly oh-so-many times—but it’s also the easiest. Start playing a song, and turn the subwoofer down until you can’t hear the subwoofer anymore. Then, turn the gain up just enough so you can start to hear it start to fill in the bass. That’s all it takes.
- Lastly, if you have a phase switch, switch it between 0 and 180 degrees and see if you hear a difference. One may sound better than the other depending on your room and gear. You can read more about what phase is here, but in practice, it’s pretty simple: pick whichever one sounds better.
(The above text is taken from our guide to subwoofer volume.)
Lastly, set the speaker’s “size” on your receiver (if it has a setting for it). 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.
Tune Your Speaker Volume
The last step is adjusting the volume of each speaker in your surround sound setup (if you only have two speakers, you can skip this step). 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. 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.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, either—if you feel like dialogue is too quiet in relation to explosions and other sound effects, there’s no shame in turning your center channel up a bit (despite what many home theater enthusiasts would tell you). Start with the basic recommendations and tweak to your liking.
Many of you may have already tweaked your home theaters 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.