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June 18, 2012
Over the past couple of years, I've put a lot of time and money into my home theater. It started with a surround sound system, because after all, I'm a musician--I should be listening to music on the best equipment I can afford. Of course, it feels silly to have half a dozen little speakers screwed to the walls all over the place, and my grandma's old 13-inch CRT television. I went shopping for a 32-inch anything and came home with a 42-inch plasma.
Hey, it was on sale. And if you give a mouse an HD TV, he'll need a blu-ray player and HD satellite service to go with it.
In a previous article, I wrote a little bit about hedonic adaptation. It's the idea that when you get something nice and new, it feels good for a little while, then you get used to it and want something even better. Every time I watch a blu-ray, the little voices in my head remind me how awesome my setup looks and sounds, because I don't want to fall prey to hedonic adaptation. I can't afford to, I'm out of money. And while throwing some speakers around the room and smacking a flat screen on the wall is good enough for some, I want to make sure I'm getting my money's worth. There are a few aspects of the home theater experience that seem to bring out the OCD in me (and a lot of other people too). For example:
1. HDTV Calibration
When most people buy a new TV, they take it out of the box, plug it in, turn it on, and if they see a Kardashian, they're done. Maybe If the picture's too bright they turn down the Brightness, or if people are purple, they mess with the Tint, but not much more. Unfortunately, watching a TV on its factory settings pretty much guarantees the worst picture. See, a TV's factory settings are designed to make the TV look good under the bright lights of a Wal-Mart, not in your living room with the lights off. Those settings are called 'torch mode' because they will burn out a TV much faster than if it was properly calibrated.
It doesn't help that most of the controls on a TV are not named in a way that makes any sense. 'Brightness' actually controls darkness, while 'Contrast' controls brightness. To complicate matters, most new TVs come with dozens of settings that, at best, should only be messed with by an experienced TV tech, or at worst, screw up the picture even more. And don't bother searching the internet for your particular TV's 'optimal' settings. You'll find so much conflicting information, you'll end up more confused than when you started. Here's my advice, based on my experiences with my own TV:
1. Use a warm color temperature. Everything might look yellow at first, but once you get used to it, you'll be shocked at how realistic things start to look (especially sunlit outdoor scenes).
4...But not too much. At first, I adjusted my Plasma TV to look like my old CRT, because that's what I was used to. And it looked great. When I changed my settings to what was more correct, it looked strange at first, but once I got used to it, my old settings looked completely flat and washed out. A poorly calibrated HDTV will just look like a good TV, but a well calibrated HDTV should look like a window into a real little world on the other side of the screen.
5. Set it, and forget it. At some point, good enough has to be good enough. There is no perfect in TV calibration. Get it close enough, and leave it alone, or you'll go crazy.
Nothing annoys me more than when somebody spends $1000 on an HDTV and blu-ray player, then connects them with a little yellow video cable. Why even bother?
I know, it's their TV, they can do with it as they please. They just could've bought an old VCR from the Goodwill for a lot less, is all I'm saying. To assist people who just don't know any better, here's the rundown on video connections.
1. HDMI stands for high definition multimedia interface. It's by far the best connection type. Not only does it carry the widest range of resolutions, but it also carries surround sound and control signals too. It's digital, so there's no signal degradation (not even with cheap cables, so get them at Five Below and save a ton of cash).
HDMI is rapidly becoming the standard for all AV equipment.
2. Component Video. The video signal is split up into three cables. It can handle most resolutions and progressive scan. If you have older HD equipment without HDMI, use this.
3. S-Video consists of one cable that contains several wires and has a plug with multiple pins that must be inserted correctly or they'll break. There's much debate over what the S stands for. It can only handle Standard Definition video. Provides a pretty nice picture on older CRTs, but seems to be dying with them.
4. Composite Video. The mustard in ketchup-mayonnaise-mustard plugs. Often confused with the similar sounding Component Video, but much lower quality. Standard Definition only, with lots of interference such as dot crawl and rainbows. It used to be the most widespread video input, and is still used for convenience since it is very easy to figure out how to connect stuff quickly.
5. RF stands for Radio Frequency, and is just that. Even if it's sent through a coax cable, it's the exact same kind of signal that comes over the air waves and into your TV antenna. There are actually two kinds of RF: analog and digital. Analog RF was recently phased out in most of the U.S., but most old (pre 1985) AV equipment has analog RF only. Digital RF works with the exact same cables and antennas as analog, but provides HD picture and surround sound. Because analog RF carries both video and sound, it's extremely easy to connect, but the picture is terrible by modern standards.
3. Aspect Ratio
They say the camera adds ten pounds, but the TV can add another hundred. When old standard definition TV shows are shown on widescreen TVs, the picture is often stretched to fill the screen, resulting in instant obesity for all characters.
My parents are clueless about this. They say that they don't care, as long as there's a picture on the screen, but it still irritates me. They absolutely refuse to touch the format button. My dad says he doesn't understand why everything isn't put into the proper aspect ratio by the TV automatically, and I can kind of see his point. My rebuttal is always, "How hard is it to push a button?" and his response is, "I shouldn't have to." I don't think I've been in a doctor's waiting room with an HDTV on which everybody didn't look like a blob. Please, just push the format button, please? For my sake?
4. Speaker Placement
So you finally have your TV connected, calibrated, and looking great, but you're only halfway there. The internal speakers in most TV's are horrible, so some kind of sound system is a requirement for a decent home theater. Good old fashioned two-speaker stereo still has its holdouts, but most home theater buffs go for surround sound. 5.1 is the most popular kind of system (5 speakers and 1 subwoofer), but systems with 6, 7, and 9 speakers (and multiple subwoofers) are available. Some systems have more speakers behind the viewer than in front. Figuring out where to put all those speakers is a subject of considerable debate.
1. The Center Speaker should ideally be placed at ear level directly in front of the sweet spot (the ideal listening position, or best seat in the house). The problem is, unless you're a mutant, your ears and eyes are at about the same height, which puts the center speaker right in the middle of the TV screen.
Movie theaters use acoustically transparent screens that don't muffle the sound of the speakers behind them, but in a home theater you'll have to settle for putting it either right above or below the TV.
If you watch TV or listen to music with friends, face the speakers parallel into the room.
5. Positioning the Subwoofer
Even though it seems like it should be simple, this has got to be, by far and away, the most difficult and annoying part of setting up a home theater. The subwoofer works through a neat little auditory illusion. See, our ears are great at determining the source of a sound, but only for higher frequencies. Our ears are very bad at figuring out where low sounds are coming from.
This isn't really a problem because almost all low sounds have overtones, higher frequencies that are layered on top of the lower frequencies. These overtones are largely what make different instruments sound different, a quality called timbre. In a home theater, it's the reason you can have a dozen little tiny speakers everywhere, and just one subwoofer. Even though all the low frequencies come out of the subwoofer, your ears perceive the little speaker on the other side of the room as the source of the sound because that's where the high frequencies are coming from.
That's the theory, anyway. When it works perfectly, it creates the illusion that the subwoofer isn't making any sound--that all of the sound is coming from the other speakers. In practice, it can be extremely difficult to find a place to put the subwoofer where you can't tell it's the source of the low frequencies. It's called being able to localize the subwoofer, and it's incredibly distracting when you're watching a movie and all the explosions are coming from a little black box in the corner of the room.
It's a game of inches. I'm always surprised by how moving the subwoofer a little bit in one direction or the other can completely change how everything sounds. It's a lot easier if you have a friend move the subwoofer around the room while you sit in the sweet spot and listen, but if you don't have a friend you'll have to run back and forth yourself. Some people recommend putting the subwoofer right below the TV so, even if you can localize it, at least the sounds are coming from the right direction. I think this is the lazy approach. Trust me, there is somewhere in that room where the subwoofer will seem to disappear, and you can not and will not stop until you find it. Every time you hear a sound coming from the subwoofer, your eyes will immediately be drawn to it. It will taunt you, calling you a quitter. It can end up being an all day project. And just because you can't localize it from the sweet spot doesn't mean it's right anywhere else. If you're watching a movie with a bunch of other people, someone in that room is listening exclusively to the subwoofer.
This article is by no means comprehensive. If you decide to setup a home theater of your own, you'll run into a million other little details I haven't mentioned here. Don't worry, though, it's all worth it.
Images courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Copyright 2012 Peter Hopkins