So, you’ve purchased a shiny new home theater, and now you want to sit back and enjoy it. If you want the best out of the system, however, you’ll need to follow a few more steps. Using your home theater without first configuring it for the best performance is selling the system—and yourself—- short. Everything from color, brightness, and contrast on the TV to programming speaker levels and size into the A/V receiver can, and should, be addressed. We’ve talked to the experts in the field of home audio and video and compiled this list of tips to help you adjust the settings on your system for an enhanced home theater experience.
Calibration DVDs are essential tools for do-it-yourself calibration of home audio and video. These DVDs come with step-by-step instructions, test patterns, and test tones that are necessary to properly adjust the picture and sound quality of your home theater system.
Industry experts insist that reliance on the eye and ear alone is not enough. “You simply cannot correctly calibrate the system without a disk,” says Jayson Small, President of Adobe Cinema and Automation. The two most popular calibrations disks on the market are “Audio Video Interactive Aid” (AVIA) and “Digital Video Essentials” (DVE). Disks can cost as little as $25-40 and often come with filters to assist in color and tint adjustment.
Whether they use a disc or go it alone, A/V owners can begin their calibrations by zeroing in on the following tips.
5 Tips for Calibrating Home Video
1. Adjust Mode and Warm-up
The out-of-the-box settings for most video displays crank up the set’s temperature and contrast to duplicate how the set looked on the showroom floor. “We call this the ‘torch’ setting,” says Small. The problem is, this setting is most often not suitable for your viewing arrangements. On your set’s picture menu, the “medium” or “normal” setting should be selected. Additionally, any automatic settings should be disabled, and custom settings should be enabled. The set should be allowed to warm-up for about 30 minutes before proceeding.
2. Brightness and Contrast
The brightness and contrast settings on the TV refer to the black and white levels, respectively. If a calibration DVD is not present, users can choose a freeze-frame picture that features heavy contrast and black and whites. “Using an image of James Bond in his tuxedo is perfect for this,” says Small. The brightness (blackness) should be adjusted so that the black on the screen looks black, while still featuring shading and details. Similarly, the contrast (whiteness) level needs to be set to allow pure whites to appear that way, without washing out important textures and shadows, like the creases in Bond’s white shirt.
3. Color and Tint
Put simply, color and tint control the aspects of the picture that make objects look, well, natural. “You want your flesh tones to look natural, your blue sky to look blue, and your grass to look green,” says Small. To this end, users without disks can use a scene from a movie or broadcast that features faces. Increasing the color level will make the flesh-tone red, while adjusting tint will alter the saturation of color, turning the flesh-tone from red at one extreme to green at the other. “Color and tint are dependent upon one another, so after adjusting one, users need to go back and make sure that the other doesn’t need to be re-done,” says Small. Additionally, both color and tint can have an effect on brightness and contrast; these, too, must be re-evaluated for unintended changes.
Do the edges around objects on the screen ever look blurry or distorted? This is a sharpness issue. “Adjusting the sharpness of the set will eliminate unwanted rings around the edges of things,” says Small. Sharpness level should be brought down to a point where an object has a clearly-defined outline.
5. Power Conditioner
Not to be confused with a surge protector, a power conditioner provides clean power to the home theater system. More an augmentation to your system than a calibration, power conditioners eliminate interference or noise, and deliver consistent, clean current. “Power conditioners protect against the thousands of micro-surges that occur everyday, and improve the performance of the system,” says Small. Power conditioners can be purchased for under $200, but Small recommends making a more significant investment, insisting that with power conditioners, “you truly get what you pay for.”
5 Tips for Calibrating Home Audio
1. Speaker/Furniture Placement for Surround Sound
For surround-sound set-up, Dolby and THX offer specification guidelines to determine optimal speaker placement and/or seating location. “Both Dolby and THX have instructions on their Web sites to assist in setting up speakers and furniture,” says Scott Horman of AudioControl.
2. Program Speaker Size
Most systems will allow the owner to tell the receiver/pre-amp what size speakers the system is using. The two options are usually “large” or “small.” If the system includes a designated subwoofer, the receiver should be programmed to “small;” if the system does not include a subwoofer, the receiver should be programmed to “large.” “Speaker size doesn’t necessarily have to do with physical size,” says Horman. “It concerns the frequency range that the speakers will play.” In a system that features a designated subwoofer, the receiver should be programmed to “small” so that the remaining speakers will not be reproducing the lower frequencies best suited for the subwoofer.
3. Adjusting Subwoofer Phas
“Phase” is a quality of the subwoofer. “The consumer doesn’t need to know what phase is,” suggests Horman, “but they should know how to adjust it.” Most basic subwoofers allow the phase to be toggled between 0 degrees and 180 degrees. To determine the best phase for the system/room, one person should sit in the prime listening seat, and another person should switch between the two phase choices as a test tone is sent through the speaker. “Whatever phase sounds best, or loudest, should be selected,” says Horman. Higher end subwoofers will feature a phase dial that allows phase adjustment anywhere between the 0-degree and 180-degree settings.
4. Set Speaker Level
Optimal audio experience in the prime listening seat of the home theater is achieved by setting the speaker levels to match one another when measured from that location. The speaker level refers to the pressure created by each speaker, not necessarily the volume of noise coming from the speaker. “Sound produces waves, and waves cause pressure; this is what we measure and adjust,” says Horman. Speaker level adjustment is done by running a test tone through each speaker and measuring at the listening point. Determining or measuring speaker levels can be done by ear (which usually results in sub-par settings), or by using a meter. SPL meters can be purchased for as little as $30, and will measure speaker levels. The precise equipment used by the pros to make these measurements and adjustments costs as much as $4,000.
5. Arrival Time Alignment
Similar to speaker level, arrival time refers to the time it takes for sound to travel from the speakers to the listening point. For the optimal audio experience, sound from all the speakers should arrive at the listening point at the same time. If sound from a speaker is arriving too early, that speaker’s delay must be adjusted. The easiest (read: cheapest) way to measure for this is to use a tape measure to calculate the distance from each speaker to the listening point. Using the speaker’s furthest away area as the “0” point, adjust each of the other speakers’ delay by using a “1 foot = 1 millisecond” ratio. The more expensive the system, the smaller the increments in millisecond that the delay can be adjusted. Pros will use expensive equipment to measure acoustic flight time down to 0.01 milliseconds.
Alternative: Professional Calibration
Professional calibration is the best way to ensure maximum performance from your system. Pros come with experience and equipment, and not only will they know the intricacies of your particular system, they will also have the expensive test equipment (color analyzers, signal generators, etc.) needed to achieve the desired results.
“Some settings in your system cannot be accessed except by a professional,” says Small. It is advisable to hire a certified pro for the job. Certifications might include Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) for video calibration or Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA) for audio calibration. The Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) also offers classes and training to professionals.
Professional A/V calibration will vary in price depending on required services and system specifics, but expect to pay in the hundreds.
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Between watching re-runs of the The Jetsons and convincing his Insteon and Z-Wave controls to get along, Ben Hardy is immersed in the world of home automation, home control, and home networking.