Spending a lot of money on your home theater and then not getting the most out of it is like eating pizza without tomato sauce. It’s really just a bunch of cheesy bread. To get that special sauce for your room, we recommend making a few simple adjustments and enhancements to let your theater truly shine. From a budget system to a high-end pin-up of a system, the following tips will get you dialed in, quick.
1) The Mirror Trick. “One of the most important aspects of a great home theater is the sound,” says Matt Then of Advanced Home Environments. “And that is largely dependent on the room itself.” One solution is known as the Mirror Trick, which both DIYers and professionals like Then use to easily tame unruly room sound. Grab a mirror and a friend. Sit in your normal listening location and have your friend slowly move the mirror along the side wall until you can see the left front speaker, and mark the spot with a piece of tape. Repeat this step for the center channel speaker, and then the right front speaker. Afterwards, place absorptive acoustic treatment wherever you see a piece of tape. If you can’t place acoustic panels on your walls, try a curtain or some pillows. Do the same along the other wall. The sound in the room won’t bounce around as much, creating a more realistic soundstage.
2) Invest in a receiver with an auto calibration mode. These modes in receivers can do wonders for the audio in your room. Some use a microphone to measure your room, then take dimensions into account and adjust your speaker levels accordingly for maximum sound. It’s like having an A/V expert in a box. Every time you add a new piece of furniture to the room, recalibrate your system using the auto-calibration feature for more accurate sound.
3) Give speakers some breathing room. While you may be tempted to shove your speakers against the walls, don’t – especially if you have floor-standing models. In fact, Then recommends that you put them no closer than 3 feet and 5 inches from the front wall. “You’ll have better bass, and a deeper soundstage,” he says. By pulling your speakers away from the wall, you eliminate the problem of sound from the speakers interacting with walls and creating all kinds of acoustic anomalies.
4) Two subs can be better than one, especially if you have a rectangular room. Many acousticians use two subwoofers to make sure that everyone in the room is getting the same bass effects, and there are no low-energy drop-outs in certain seats. Use two subwoofers and place them at the front and rear, or at the midway point on both sidewalls. “When that bomb goes off, everybody in the audience will feel it with the same intensity,” says Then.
5) Get a universal remote. “Your system should be simple enough for everyone to enjoy it, even the babysitter,” says Then. And if you have a bunch of different remotes cluttering up your coffee table, more than likely, your system is too complicated to operate with ease. Invest in a simple remote to help you power up your system. Some models even let you perform different macros – a prerecorded series of actions – which will let you perform a specific function, like “Play Xbox,” with the touch of one button.
6) Are you watching high-def? It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to make sure you are watching a high-def image. One of the most common problems in any home theater is that they aren’t set up properly for HDTV. First, make sure you are using the HDMI inputs and outputs wherever possible (if you don’t have HDMI, component video is also a high-def input). HDMI delivers the highest resolution for HDTV, and carries the new high-resolution audio formats found on Blu-ray discs. Next, make sure your sources are high-def—that includes things like your cable box, DVR, and disc player. And don’t forget to watch the high-def channels. They’re usually denoted with HD after them, so it’s not too difficult to make sure you’re getting the best resolution possible.
7) Perform a few simple calibration steps to dial in your TV. Simply go into your picture settings and get your TV back to standard settings. Many sets are on a “vivid” mode to compete with other TV sets in a store display, but these settings are not ideal for home use. Set the picture setting to cinematic, normal, or movie. These modes will all look better than a Vivid or Bright mode will in your living room. For more complete details on dialing in your TV’s picture, see our guide to improving HDTV picture quality. Of course, you can also hire a professional for a nominal fee to come to your house and get your TV’s image picture-perfect.
8) Install a dimmer that you can tie into your remote control. Lutron makes some great products that can be simply integrated with your system, such as the RadioRa system. There is nothing cooler than being able to dim the lights as your movie comes on in your home theater.
9) Use a backlight. Cinematic viewing in a completely dark room is fine at the movie theater, where screens are large enough to fill a theater with enough light to eliminate any eyestrain issues. At home, however, screens usually aren’t big enough to put out enough light and accommodate such viewing, which means that your eyes might start to tire, resulting in headaches, if you spent too much time watching TV in a dark room. Put a backlight behind your TV to help take some of the stress off your eyes. It can be as simple as a small desk lamp. Some manufacturers, like Philips, make TVs with backlights built in to the frame itself.
10) Consider a power conditioner, especially if you have an older house with unpredictable wiring. Not only can good power conditioners improve the quality of your image and sound by eliminating interference between components and problems with drops and peaks in power, they can actually protect your investment in the case of, say, a power surge or a blackout.