Ten ways to improve your home theater for under 100 bucks

written by Mike Shea on 4 May 2001

Most of the folks in the home theater industry seemed to be tied so closely to their equipment that they forgot what it is they are after in the first place. While some may spend a quarter of a million dollars on a home theater, they are forgetting some pieces that simply destroy the director's intent outright. This article outlines some simple rules that allow you to get more out of your home cinema experience.

This article will not discuss the equipment itself, which can be found in other articles on this site. A couple of items are mentioned simply because they almost perfectly fit the philosophy of home theater. Some of these suggestions might simply be impossible to follow in certain situations, so we work with those we can change and hope for the best. The more of them you can successfully cover, the better your experience will be.

Turn the lights out and buy a back-light. Ok, this is two rules, but they go hand in hand. Movies are designed to be played in a completely black room, so the viewer's attention is only on the movie itself. Focus of the viewers attention is paramount to a good movie experience. By taking away all your visual senses except those focused on the screen, you will be paying more attention and will have a better chance of getting lost in the movie experience. A backlight is a small 1' fluorescent lamp that goes behind your TV set if the screen is less than 25 degrees of your field of view. More information about the field of view and it's effect on the size of your screen can be found in the Digital Televisions article. The lamp is placed behind the television so that it illuminates the surface behind the screen just enough so your eyes do not strain on just the TV itself. You will have a more comfortable experience overall, and enjoy the movie of the night that much more.

Shut up! Much like it is in the theater, noise at home can simply break the idea of getting lost in the movie. Try as much as possible to get rid of all external sounds including any others who might rather discuss Regis's choice of tie in last nights "Millionaire". Take the phone off of the hook (like any of us have lives so important that we can't get to them in two hours), shut off the dryer, go let the dogs out (whoo whoo whooo whoo whooo), and give the shush sign to your mother-in-law. Once again, the whole idea is to lose yourself in the movie. That means removing any extra sensory situations that might interfere.

Know your Home Theater It is amazing to me that people will spend as much as they do on a home theater but know nothing about it. They come up with all of this crap about how they aren't technical but all it takes is simply reading the manual and maybe doing a little homework. Take a Saturday afternoon sometime and really read through the manual to your equipment. Understand it and work with it. Read up on what the hell 16x9 enhanced and Dolby Digital really mean. Go buy yourself a copy of the Avia Guide to Home Theater and take the two hours to watch it from beginning to end. Go study the official Dolby site on home theater to get an idea on how you should have your system set up. By knowing more about your system and spending the time to understand it, you will be better prepared to set it up correctly and thus enjoy the movies that much more.

Set it up correctly After you find out more about your home theater, you can now go through the trouble of setting it up correctly. Once again, a lot of folks will spend a ton of money on a home theater system and then set it up all wrong. Proper placement of the components is a must. One major difficulty here is in the area of room decor. Somehow, aliens like Martha Stewart came down to earth and embedded into women that putting a TV against a flat wall was a bad idea. Also having speakers on stands in an open area is ugly while tying an old bicycle to the wall is considered art. I don't claim to understand it, perhaps why I am single, but I do know that you should at least be aware of the proper placement of your components and work to get them placed correctly. You might have to negotiate to get what you need, but work towards it. It will mean a better system, which is why you spent all that money in the first place. An alternative is to create a media room, basically the dog house of our age, where you can set up a system without worrying too much about the look. I have seen many home theater rooms that are truly a pleasure to walk through, even before the lights go out and the movie begins. If you can, dedicate a room. If you can't, at least try to set it up properly.

Tune your Home Theater Here again, a lot of folks just simply spend huge amounts of cash and then expect it to work right out of the box. No TV I have ever seen is properly tuned up to display movies accurately out of the box. Study Avia's Guide to Home Theater, go buy a Radio Shack analog SPL meter (about $20) and tune the system correctly. Your audio and video will produce much more accurate results. Remember, this has nothing to do with how good or bad something sounds or looks to you. You cannot properly tune a system by site and sound alone. To do so will break the way the movie was supposed to look or sound in the first place. Properly tuned systems are far more accurate even if they are not as bright or loud as you would expect.

Proper Furnishings Furnishings can play a big part on how well you will enjoy your home theater system. First of all, you need to have your seating arrangement in the proper position. This can be found on Avia and on the Dolby site. The furnishings of a room can also play a big part in how a system looks and sounds. If you watch during the day, get some thick black drapes or a drape liner so you can get rid of any light coming from the outside. Remember to turn off all the lights except the back light and especially get rid of any lights that will reflect off of the screen. Good thickly upholstered couches and chairs as well as wall hangings and a good rug or carpeting will greatly help tame the reflections of sound on your floor, ceiling and walls. One of my favorite tricks is placing a large book case filled with old books behind your main seating area can give you the perfect audio diffuser without spending the thousands of dollars for a professional one. Make sure you have something on the walls to break up the large flat surfaces. Paintings, hangings or shelves can do the job perfectly.

Get Comfortable You will probably hate every movie you watch if you are sitting on the equivalent of a bed of nails. Make sure you are as comfortable as you can be when watching your movie of choice. Good couches, chairs and foot rests can really make your overall experience a lot better. Keeping the temperature at the right setting or keeping an extra blanket around will also help. You don't want to fall asleep, but you still don't want to be thinking about your aching back while trying to understand deep character of development of Alien Seed.

Make it Easy When putting together a home theater, remember to make it as easy as possible to operate. Most of this is covered in the Home Theater Usability editorial so take a look there for some tips on making your system easier to operate. Picking up the One For All Cinema 7 remote or the Philips Pronto (ok, that cost more than $100, sue me) can help make your system easier to operate. The last thing you want is to sit down with a movie and wonder how the hell you are going to get the TV into "widescreen" mode.

Watch Good Movies Ok, going for the obvious one last. The movies you watch are the biggest component that can make or break a home theater experience. If you watch nothing but crap, you won't like it. Find movies you like watching and you will be far more entertained that watching the crap that seems to seep out of the ground. Read up on the hundreds of DVD reviews out there and you can get an idea of what you should be watching and what you should avoid.

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