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10 ways to improve your home theater

Home Theater

Series sponsored by Axiom

One of the most common remarks made by home theater owners old and new is: “I just feel like I should be getting more.” If you find yourself thinking this as you sit and enjoy your system then you’re right – you probably should be. For all the time and expense involved in purchasing and installing a home theater, some of the finer details usually go overlooked. The good news is with just one or two key adjustments, you can make an appreciable difference in the performance of your home entertainment system. We’ve created a top 10 list of some of changes you can make to improve your system right away.

1. Match your speakers

If your speaker system is a hodgepodge of old and new speakers from various different manufacturers, then you are missing out on the immersive, high-impact surround experience you deserve. Every speaker brand has its own, unique sound signature. As sound effects travel from one speaker to another, the sound signature changes along the way. Say a car races from the left of the screen to the right and then behind you. If your center channel and surround speakers aren’t matched to your front left and right speakers, the sound of that car is going to change three times. It may not seem like a big deal on paper, but in reality your brain can process these differences and it takes away from the realism that a surround sound experience can provide. By having matched speakers throughout your system you ensure that the sound is seamless from one speaker to another and the result is a much more realistic, immersive effect. If you need to match your speakers in stages, start with the front left, right and center channels where most of the action takes place. Then, match your surround speakers as you are able to.

2. Upgrade your subwoofer

The subwoofer is responsible for adding impact and depth to the sound of your movie tracks. Think back to the last time you went to a big fireworks show. For all the pretty colors and patterns you saw, it’s likely that the fireworks that made a big boom got the most ooohs and aaaahs from the crowd, right? People like to feel the impact of an explosion or the pounding footfall of a giant Transformer.

A quality subwoofer will deliver this experience to your home theater space. Bear in mind, however, that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. If you are confronted with choosing between a higher quality 10” subwoofer and a lesser quality 12” subwoofer, we suggest you go with the higher quality sub. You’ll get better impact without the muddiness that comes along with cheaper design and enjoy your movies that much more.

3. Upgrade your center channel

While the subwoofer adds depth and impact to your movie’s sound, it is actually the center channel that is doing the heavy lifting. It is estimated that some 85% of a movie track’s information is for the center channel. Not only is the center channel used for dialogue, but explosive effects as well. Your brain knows what a voice should sound like and when the center channel can’t reproduce that voice in a life-like manner, you aren’t as sucked in by the listening experience. A larger center channel can handle more bass and, when designed correctly, give everyone in the room a more enjoyable experience by providing life-like dialogue and stunning effects. If there is one speaker in your system you should splurge on, it’s the center channel!

4. Upgrade your receiver or amplifier

The most amazing speakers in the world will still sound underwhelming if your amplifier doesn’t have enough power. It’s also true that even a mediocre speaker can be given new life by feeding it with premium power. Even though your speakers don’t need lots of power very often, big action sequences in movies and wide swings in dynamics of music will require power in reserves to maintain excellent sound quality. Don’t judge your power needs entirely off of wattage ratings, though. Receiver manufacturers know that big numbers will sell a lot of product so they “cook the books” to make the receivers sound powerful. In truth, 60 watts per channel from a premium audio manufacturer will sound much better that “100 watts per channel” from a more run-of-the-mill company. Do some research and find out what receivers or amplifiers are getting the best reviews, then go have a listen to them at your nearest electronics store. As always, be sure the vendor you purchase from has a gracious return policy so that you can audition the piece with your speakers before making a final decision.

Image courtesy of THX

5. Change your speaker placement

If you have your speakers placed in the far corners of the room, up near the ceiling or, worse, tucked inside an entertainment cabinet, then the single most effective adjustment you can make is to move your speakers to a proper position. There are plenty of guides online that show where you should place your speakers relative to your seating area. By following a few simple guidelines of speaker placement, you will dramatically improve your system’s sound and effectiveness. Your sense of hearing is a highly technical process and it knows when something is amiss. By placing your speakers correctly, you will be able to convince your ears that you are “in” the action- an effect that is a lot more fun for you and your guests.

6. Install a dedicated electrical circuit

Today’s modern home is filled with all sorts of electrical gadgets and appliances. Refrigerators, air conditioners, fans and washing machines may run on the same circuit as your home theater equipment. These appliances make electrical “noise” and cause variations in the current that can translate into noise and instability for your system. By installing a dedicated circuit you provide a cleaner source of power for your system ensuring quieter, safer operation. While line conditioners and voltage regulators can take care of most of these issues, most experts will agree that having a separate circuit for your expensive electronics is the best first step toward better performance.

7. Replace your speaker wire and connecting cables

The extent to which speaker wire and interconnecting cables affects your system performance is a topic of heated debate in the world of audio enthusiasts. There are several cable and wire companies that bank their success on convincing you that you aren’t getting all the sound or picture you paid for unless you are using their $450 HDMI cable. Like most things, the law of diminishing returns eventually comes into play, but with wire and cable it comes sooner than you might expect. That said, there are some wire and cable products that are entirely worthless. The best example of this is the cables that are included with DVD and Blu-Ray disc players. Manufacturers include these cables to ensure that you can enjoy your product as soon as you get home with it, whether you remembered to purchase accessories or not. They are just barely functional and seriously compromise your systems performance. Likewise, any speaker wire that is included free is better suited to tying something down than it is for carrying a signal to your speaker. An investment in quality cables and speaker wire will make a noticeable different in your system performance. Just bear in mind that law of diminishing returns.

8. Take control of the light in your room

You may have noticed that, come show time, theaters completely darken the room. They are able to do this because there are no windows and the doorways are usually behind a partition. The importance of darkness in a home theater environment is seriously underrated. With home theater projectors, darkness and black levels aren’t projected on the screen, they are a product of the absence of light. Any light leaking into the room affects the contrast and brightness of the image and takes away from the presentation. To a lesser extent, ambient light can also affect the image quality of flat panel televisions, particularly plasma displays which aren’t known for their outstanding brightness. To take control of the light level in your room, invest in a set of black-out curtains. These curtains are backed with a material that doesn’t let any light through and effectively blackens your room. We think you’ll be surprised at how dramatically they improve your picture.

9. Soften reflective surfaces

Reverberation (reverb for short) in the context of a famous concert hall or amphitheater is usually referred to as a positive attribute or part of the space’s “great acoustics” At home, however, reverb is the enemy of good sound. Though you aren’t aware of it, your brain “hears” the latest sound signal that it receives. Your speakers could be producing gorgeous sound but the flat, hard surface of a wall, ceiling or window will reflect that sound at you in such a way that it arrives to you after the direct sound from the speaker. In a way, what you hear is a reflection of the sound by the wall or window and not the original sound of the speaker. When your wall, window or ceiling bounces sound at you, it distorts it slightly. As a result, you don’t hear the purity of the sound coming from the speaker because of all the excess noise that is created by reflective surfaces in the room. To control this effect, you need to soften those hard surfaces so they no longer bounce sound around. This can be achieved by placing drapes over all of the walls in the room or by installing sound absorbing panels in key places on the walls, ceiling and corners of the room. This doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition, though. There are several DIY options that yield great results without ravaging your wallet.

10. Install more comfortable seating

Most commercial movie theater seating is an ergonomic nightmare. It’s not uncommon to emerge from the theater feeling cramped and sore from oddly shaped, barely cushioned seats. Once again, home theater affords us the opportunity to take the movie watching experience to the next level by offering lush, comfortable seats. If you threw the old futon from your college years into your home theater space or bought old theater seating from a liquidator because you thought it would add an element of authenticity, you could probably stand to focus on this one improvement. You can’t enjoy the suspension of disbelief that a movie can provide if you aren’t totally comfortable. Head out to a furniture store, test drive some seating options and get ready to enjoy your home theater again.

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