Overlooked details in home theater setup

Week of March 26, 2006

Q:What important details are commonly missed when setting up a home theater? Any helpful hints to correct things that people commonly overlook?

-Kevin Gulbrandsen, Thousand Oaks, California

A: There arefour that come to mind right off the top of my head. I’ll list them here, and revisit the issue in the future after readers chime in.

The first is the importance of speaker placement. A few inches difference in speaker placement can mean a big difference in sound quality, so be sure to experiment with placement and make fine adjustments with your speakers to get the most out of them.

The second is to precisely set up the sound balance of the speakers. Your receiver will play test tones over the speakers so the volume levels can be balanced so they are equal. Once correctly balanced, surround sound and music will be played exactly the way the director intended you to hear them. Most users simply estimate based on the test tones volume as heard by their ears. A much more accurate and easier way is available.

Radio Shack sells an analog sound pressure level meter for $45. Only buy the analog version- NOT the digital version, which is much less precise because it rounds the numbers. Measurements could be off by .5 dB or more.

Sitting in your listening area, hold the meter so the sensor points upwards and activate the test tones. Set each speaker so the meter reads 75dB. Not only will the surround and music effects be perfectly balanced, but when you set the volume to the reference point, the volume will be exactly the same as it would be if you watched the movie in the theater! The correct volume setting is in your receiver’s manual. If your receiver counts down to 0 when you turn up the volume, then 0 is the playback point. That is why the display reads -24, -18, etc as you turn up the volume. It would mean 24 dB and 18 dB below the theater volume level. If you turn it up to the playback reference it can be quite loud, so prepare for it.

Most TVs are set to produce an overly bright, inaccurate picture out of the box, so the second would be to set your picture for the best image quality. This is best done with a DVD such as Avia or the Sound and Vision magazine Home Theater Tune-Up. These discs will play test patterns to adjust the various settings of your picture to produce the best image possible. If you would like to improve your picture from the factory settings without buying a disc, turn the color temperature to its lowest setting (usually called “warm” or “NTSC Standard” and turn the contrast (called “picture” by some TV manufacturers) down to the halfway point. This will get you a lot closer to an ideal picture than the factory settings. At first it may look a little dull, but if you watch it with the warm color temperature and lower contrast for a while and then go back to the factory settings, you won’t believe you found the picture watchable before.

Last but not least, arrange lighting sources so they do not reflect on the TV’s screen. This is not always easy because people like lighting near their viewing area, and this tends to reflect in the screen, causing distractions and diminishing picture quality. My grandma used to complain about a lamp causing a big reflection right in the middle of the screen. The answer is simple… move the lamp, grandma!

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