written by Mike Shea on 9 May 2003
The number one problem with home theaters today are misconfigured systems. People spend thousands on a good system, hook it up until they hear and see something, and then sit back thinking they have reached the goal of home theater. They have not. Without properly setting up and calibrating a system, you are getting less than 50% out of the system you just purchased. This guide outlines an approach and offers links to resources for setting up and calibrating a home theater system.
Before you begin to set up your system, and perhaps before you buy one, it helps to outline your goals. My philosophy includes two things. Accuracy and simplicity. By keeping my system simple I can insure that it is accurate and easy to use. I have no VCR, no satellite dish, not even a cable feed going into my system. I have one source, a DVD player.
This Spartan home theater lifestyle is a bit simple for most people. Most need some sort of channel feed such as a satellite dish or a cable box. Others may never part with their treasured VCR. Ask yourself what the bare minimum is that you can get away with. Keep it simple.
Proper system positioning is tricky in domestic environments. People love putting their crap on angles, with TVs in a corner, speakers put on whatever shelf is handy, and equipment in some cabinet somewhere.
There is a specific layout to the ideal home theater. It is independent of the type of equipment you have and closely matches the layout of a recording studio or a full sized movie theater. It includes the following:
This Dolby.Com Home Theater Guide has some excellent examples and diagrams of a proper home theater speaker layout.
There are three main systems that must be wired. The display, the audio decoder, and the speakers. Simplicity is the goal of this approach, so use as few connections as possible. This can save hundreds of dollars in interconnects and will make a system easier to operate. These descriptions are based on the most common connection types, but some may differ. Check your equipment manual for details. I currently recommend Monster Cable for interconnects and speaker wire for three reasons. They are cheap, high quality, and easy to buy at many different electronic stores. The Monster Cable Hookup guides offer some simple diagrams and descriptions for hooking up various components.
There are two common displays used nowadays. HDTVs and direct view sets. Depending on the quality of the display, you will either use an S-video plug or a set of three component video cables. The s-video cable will go from your DVD player to your TV's S-video input. If you have an HDTV, you will want a Progressive Scan DVD player. This player outputs a cleaner signal than a standard DVD player that offers a much sharper picture on a large HDTV. The component connection uses three RCA cables, a red one (Y), a green one (R-Y), and a blue one (B-Y). These three cables should go to the three progressive component inputs on your HDTV. Expect to spend $30 on an S-Video cable or $40 for a set of progressive cables.
The most simple connection for audio sources is a single digital connection from your DVD player to the digital input on your receiver. Usually this is done with an optical cable which runs about $40. Some older or more expensive receivers use a Coax Digital cable which is a fancy RCA type connector but this is becoming more rare. With the optical connection between your receiver and your DVD player, there is no need for the analog stereo cable. The optical is all that is needed.
This DVD Hookup Guide (pdf) has diagrams for the connections between a DVD player, TV, and Receiver. Pay attention to the optical digital connector between the DVD player and receiver and the component video connection to the TV
Polarity is the biggest problem with speaker connections. Almost all cable has some type of visible distinction between the two wires, sometimes it is a white line on one of the wires, other times it is the trademark of the cable manufacturer. Using this visible distinction, make sure to hook up black to black and red to red. Double and triple check your connections and when you do your audio tests, keep an ear out for speakers running out of phase.
The subwoofer connection should be a single RCA cable going from the receiver's subwoofer line-out to the mono input on the back of the subwoofer itself. Even if the sub has two input jacks, you only need to hook it up to one. There is no need for a separate RCA splitter. While there are other ways to hook up a subwoofer, the single RCA line level cable is the easiest and offers the highest quality sound.
This Speaker Hookup Guide has a good diagram for hooking up audio components to speakers. Pay attention to the subwoofer line-level connection.
There are five main settings that need to be configured on a new receiver:
You will have to read through the manual to find out how to perform these settings. When you have performed the settings above, run a test tone to make sure all channels are operating. Do not bother to tune the speaker volume with this test tone, you will do so with the THX Optimizer discussed below.
Spend a few moments to double check these settings. Read through the manual a few times to make sure you have them all set properly.
Most DVD players can only be set up when the tray is empty. There are a few settings that are critical for optimal performance.
Again, we want as little processing done on the player as possible. Any noise reduction will interfere with the original source. Any special filters or features should be turned off. We want as clean a signal from the DVD as possible.
Now that all the settings are set on our equipment, it is time to calibrate it. Calibration includes both video and audio systems with three to six tests each. There are three tools needed to perform these calibrations, all three cost under $60 total. We need a Radio Shack Sound Pressure Level (SPL) meter, a pair of THX blue filter glasses, and a DVD with the THX optimizer feature on it. The following is a short list of DVDs that include the THX Optimizer feature, but there are many others.
The primary purpose of speaker calibration is to make sure speaker wires are connected properly, make sure each speaker is balanced to the others, and to make sure the subwoofer crossover is working. While fully balancing the speakers at all frequency ranges is ideal, it is usually impossible for a typical home theater.
The following THX Optimizer tests will ensure your system is properly calibrated.
Not only will proper screen calibration help you get a more accurate picture, but it can save your display from an early death. The following THX Optimizer tests help you set brightness, contrast, tint, and color settings.
Properly tuning a room can make as big a difference as upgrading your speakers or getting a better subwoofer. With the right room decor, you can not only improve your room's look and feel but greatly improve your movie experience. Here is a checklist:
While you don't have to add all of these tips into your room design, the more the better.
Every DVD needs to be set up before you watch it. This usually means setting the sound to the proper decoding method. You should check both "setup", "audio", or "language" to see if it has either a DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. If the DVD has DTS, use that unless it is not supported by your receiver or DVD player (you'll know when you can't hear anything). If DTS is not included, use Dolby Digital 5.1. If all else fails, Dolby Pro-logic is the only thing left.
You should also check the aspect ratio to make sure you are playing discs in 16x9 mode. If you set up your DVD player for "16x9" or "widescreen" and the DVD looks fine, you should be ok. Run through the various aspect ratios on the display to make sure you are running "full".
Buying home theater equipment is only half the battle. In order to enjoy movies to the fullest you have to become your own projectionist and your own engineer. To not learn this is to flush all that money down the drain and do a disservice to the artwork of movies themselves. Use this guide and use the Liquidtheater.Com Certification Checklist to ensure your system is operating optimally. Spend the time and you will be rewarded.
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