Top Five Home Theater Tips, 2010

by Mike Shea on 9 January 2010

So I've gotten back into Home Theater technology a lot recently. I rebuilt most of my home theater system over the past couple of months. I replaced my beloved Yamaha DSP-A1 with an Onkyo TX-XV 707 - a HUGE upgrade in sound quality. I bought a Playstation 3 with my Vegas craps winnings and Michelle got me a Harmony One universal remote for Christmas. Lastly, after a very painful research process and a single false start, I replaced my Mitsubishi 55819 with a Samsung 52B750 52" 1080p TV. I kept my B&W 600 speakers, 800 center, and my Martin Logan subwoofer I bought about three years back. The system looks and sounds absolutely fabulous.

Anyway, I was watching HD Nation's top home theater tips and I thought I'd offer my top five home theater tips nearly ten years after first publishing them on liquidtheater.com. Let the tips begin.

Build a Dedicated Screening Room

More important than the equipment you buy is the location you put it in. A lot of people make the mistake of giving their living room double duty with their TV. They want it to be both the 1800s parlor for visiting guests, a family room, and a TV room all at once. This usually means the room is bright and cheery with big windows and not a lot of space for the entertainment center. It also means people stick the TV in the corner of the room.

Better by far is dedicating a room just for your home theater. Leave your living room for its original intent, don't let family or visitors become distracted away from conversation and don't hobble your home theater by putting it in a non-ideal room.

A good home theater room should be fully light-controlled so you can make it as dark as you want, with no uncovered large reflecting windows. The TV should be along one wall, in the middle, so you can get the right positioning and acoustics for all of your speakers. Good light control will give you a much better picture and proper positioning will give you much better sound out of the same equipment.

Likely, the cost for this concept is zero. Just rearrange how you have your home set up. Other times it means buying a new home - probably not practical but if you're looking anyway, consider looking for the place to put your dedicated home theater room.

A lot of you married folks might say that such a thing is impossible to get past the spouse. Everyone likes movies and TV shows, however, and they will quickly see the advantages of a nice controlled environment for your home theater once it's set up. Explaining the benefit for the cost is another good way to do it.

Tune your Room

So you have a good dedicated room for your home theater and you've ensured everything is placed correctly. It's time to tune the room.

First off, hardwood floors are a problem. Stick to a carpeted floor or put a large rug down. A hardwood floor will reflect a ton of sound and the echo will kill the accuracy. Big fluffy chairs and couches also help a lot. Your overall goal is to eliminate sound reflections and the best way to do that is with thick fabric.

Avoid bare walls as well. Put up some nice tapestries or shelves full of knick knacks. Paintings without glass are also excellent but paintings, pictures, or posters with glass won't really help.

On the back wall, behind your viewing area, consider putting up a bookcase full of books. This is the best way to diffuse sound coming from your main speakers.

Generally, the more big chairs, couches, book cases, shelves full of stuff, and wall hangings you can put up, the better your system will sound.

As mentioned earlier, light control is also very important. Make sure all of your windows and sliding doors have a thick light-proof curtain. That pretty flowered curtain may look great with the sun shining through it but your main purpose is blocking any light from leaking into the room. Nice thick curtains also have the acoustical advantage of absorbing sound.

Use AVS Forum to Vet your TV Purchase

I made the big mistake of buying an LCD TV without doing the right research first and it cost me. While you might find good reviews on Amazon or Best Buy - most of these reviews are not written by people who really put their equipment through a lot of rigorous testing. Not so on AVS Forum. This forum has threads for just about every current TV on the market. You'll hear about every possible problem with any set, and how well that set performs in a lot of different situations. There's also extensive tips for calibrating each set.

Before you buy a TV, run a search on AVS Forum for the model of your TV without the size, for example, search on "Official Samsung B750" to find the thread for the 52B750 Samsung set I just bought.

Calibrate your TV

Far too many people buy a new TV and never bother to adjust the settings. TVs often come out of the box with absolutely terrible settings designed to look good in a giant showroom full of other bright TVs. At best, it gives you a terrible bright, and inaccurate picture. At worst, it can damage your TV and suck up all your power.

Purchase a good calibration DVD such as HD Basics or Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark or at least use the THX optimizer on one of the THX DVDs or Blu-Ray DVDs.

There are four main things you should calibrate on your TV: brightness, contrast, tint, and color.

Brightness and contrast settings ensure your whites are bright but not TOO bright and your blacks still have a lot of detail in them. Color and tint ensure all of your colors are correct. Check out the instructions for calibration with any of those DVDs mentioned above.

Simplify your System

You might think you need that six-disc changer and the VCR so you can watch pictures of your kids making snowmen, but every one of those extra components makes your system harder to use and more prone to failure. Eliminate every component out of your system that you don't regularly use. Personally, I don't think people need much more than a Playstation 3. It has Netflix-on-Demand, Blu-ray DVD playback, and regular DVD playback. Who really needs anything more?

Hook Up Your Stuff Right

It's likely that anyone who came to this page already knows this, but take the time to learn about all of your components and ensure you're using the best connection possible. For any equipment purchased in the past couple of years, this will likely be an HDMI connection. HDMI carries full 1080p video and full-channel audio over a single cable. It's the only signal cable you're likely to need between equipment and it makes setting up and using your system far easier.

Buy a Good Remote

It further amazes me how many people buy a big home theater system and cheap out on the remote. A good single control for all of your home theater equipment is essential to ensure you and your family enjoy it to the fullest. Right now the Logitech Harmony remotes are probably the best on the market for reasonable prices.

Harmony remotes are designed around your actions rather than the features of the TV. Instead of a thousand buttons of mumbo jumbo, you have large actions like "Watch TV", "Watch Blu-Ray", and "Play PS3". It turns on all the equipment, sets the right settings, and lets you get down to what you wanted to do in the first place.

They may look expensive, but its important to budget in a good remote if you want to really enjoy your system.

Auto-tune your Audio

Modern receivers almost all have some form of built-in audio calibration. This calibration is probably the best improvement to receivers in the past 20 years. Because room acoustics and speakers can vary so widely, it was impossible to properly tune and equalize a sound system before this feature was added.

Now it's easy to calibrate your audio system and get it sounding much better. I had no idea how much of a difference this would make until I used it myself with my Onkyo THX receiver.

If you don't have a receiver with this feature, consider buying a new one. They're not too expensive and the acoustical benefit of a self-tuning receiver is huge.

If you have a receiver that has this calibration built in - USE IT! Use it the first time you're setting up your system and use it every time you do any major rearranging in the room.

A properly used auto-tuning receiver will make a bigger difference in your system than new speakers will and the cost is often far less.

The Challenge of a Good Home Theater

It's unfortunate that setting up a good home theater system is so hard. There have been a lot of improvements recently with the popularity of HDMI and most modern receivers including the built-in audio calibration. There are still a lot of tricky bits. TV settings are still all over the place out of the box with thousands of possible options. Compatibility between TVs and Blu-ray players is still challenging with possible lipsynch problems, dark level issues, and video game lag all requiring a lot of tweaking. We almost need to become engineers to figure out how to get everything straightened out.

Still, there is a lot we can do to help ensure we have the best home theater experience without adding a whole lot of extra money. For the price of a worthless "high end" HDMI cable, you can get all of the accessories you need to turn your home theater into a wonderful experience.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.