I’m reminded of how much a home theater can be like getting your first car. When you’ve been riding a bicycle for years, anything with an engine and wheels is fantastic. Consequently, when you’ve been listening to stereo for years, anything that has surround sound is a definite step in the right direction. Taking small actions to improve your home theater is the next logical step towards making what you have even better.
And that’s just it—you can do more with what you have. I’ve walked into so many home theaters where if the homeowner just tweaked a few things, their listening experience would be so much more immersive.
Enough is enough—I’m going to tell you 10 simple things you can do—today—to improve your home theater. Some of these suggestions could cost some money. Most won’t. It’s up to you how many you’re able to undertake, but you can’t go wrong if you follow these guidelines and do as many as possible.
1. Improve Your Home Theater by Setting Your Main Speakers to “Small”
If you have a subwoofer, then let it do its job. I can’t tell you how many systems I’ve gone into where the main channels (speakers) were set to “Large” and all of that bass that should have been going to the sub was getting lost. It is doubtful that you have main speakers that go much below 40-50 Hz. If they’re set to “Large” that means anything below the frequency response of those speakers is being lost in the ether…never to be seen again. Kind of like Nick Nolte.
One surefire step on the path to improve your home theater is to set your main speakers to “Small” (and every other speaker for that matter) and your subwoofer will get everything below the crossover point (typically 80Hz). Another added benefit is that your front speakers don’t have to work as hard, so they do a better job with the remaining frequencies. Better sound all around.
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2. Get a Subwoofer
People say the most important speaker in your home theater is the center channel. While the center channel probably gets the most use, it’s not nearly as important as a subwoofer in terms of its impact on the movie-watching experience. Seriously, get a subwoofer if you don’t have one. If you can afford $99, you can at least get a basic subwoofer speaker which will do wonders to improve your home theater system. If you already have a subwoofer, consider upgrading it. An entry level subwoofer is better than no subwoofer, but a truly impactful sub will change everything. Explosions will be felt. Bullet hits will will be visceral. Explosions will pound you in the chest. You’ll go from “watching a movie” to experiencing a true “home theater”.
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3. Adjust Your Lighting and Shades
Did you know that suspension of disbelief relies considerably on forgetting your actually in a room? That doesn’t work so well when you can still see the room. Figuring out a good way to dim the lights and enhance the shades in your home theater will dramatically increase your movie-watching enjoyment. I realized the importance of this the moment I realized that my projector couldn’t “project black” onto my screen. That meant that if my screen looked white, it was actually going to stay that way—and only the contrast between the brightest output of the projector and the color of the screen would trick me into thinking I was seeing any blacks at all. Darkening the room and adding shades helped me to enjoy movies to a much more full extent than was otherwise possible.
4. Move Your Subwoofer Around
Got a subwoofer? Great! Now move it around the room a bit until you get a more even response. I was over at a friends house (I have a lot of friends with home theater seeing as I review a lot of equipment and give a lot of it away) and it didn’t take long to see that he was experiencing a ton of bass where he was sitting, but from my position there was hardly any. Moving the sub a bit evened out the sound by moving some of the major bass peaks to locations other than where we were sitting. See our crawling around for bass article for more on the process of doing this accurately.
5. Make Sure Your Speakers Are Pointed Correctly
I gave one of my friends a 5.1 system only to return to his house one day and find his main speakers pointed nearly into the walls (his wife had redecorated). Granted, his job is a lot more important than mine and he doesn’t think about sound the way I do—but his home theater had gone from sounding stellar to “meh” as a result. After repositioning the speakers correctly and recalibrating, the sound was back to where I expected it to be and the front soundstage (the ability to “hear” where everything was supposed to be in the mix) was once again as it should be.
Another thing many people do is point their surround speakers directly at their heads. With dipole and even bipole speakers this is fine. If, however, your sofa or chairs are against a back wall, the last thing you want to do is point your surrounds at your head, or into the middle of the room. For a more diffuse sound, sometimes the best thing to do is point the speakers directly at each other. This allows the sound to come from behind you and not distract you from the on-screen action.
6. Check That Center Channel
I think the center channel speaker is very important, but I’ve know plenty of folks who throw any old speaker into that position. If you don’t have a decent center channel speaker, don’t grab that old Radio Shack 8-inch paper cone model and flip it on its side. You’re better off “ghosting” the center channel. “Ghosting” is when you simply don’t use a center channel, and you tell your receiver as much, allowing it to send that information to your left and right speakers. This is different than operating the receiver in Stereo mode because it presumes you have surround speakers.
7. For the Love of Pete, Take Your TV Out of Torch Mode!
A long time ago, some marketing person realized that brighter TVs sell better in florescent light-infested showroom floors. When you look at TVs in Costco, SAMs Club, Best Buy or anywhere else for that matter, you’ll note that they are all set to what we in the industry affectionately refer to as “torch mode”. The problem is—most of those TVs are set that way from the factory. Consequently, when people take these TVs home and set them up, they’re still in torch mode. And when you’re watching that movie late at night, guess what? Torch mode turns all of your blacks into medium dark grays. If you want your blacks to be black, you’ll need to set your TV’s color mode to “Theater”, “Cinema”, “Movie”—or whatever other term the manufacturer uses to illustrate a recommended color balance for nighttime movie watching. Even for regular viewing we recommend Standard and not the “Bright” mode which often renders a nice greenish hue as it blasts all possible light output onto the screen with all of the subtleties of Miley Cyrus performing a “family friendly” dance move on a national awards show.
8.Improve Your Home Theater by Setting Your Speaker Levels
I’m lucky to find people who remember to tell their AV receiver that they have a 5.1 system—or who take it out of a DSP mode and place it in Standard Dolby Digital. But my biggest pet peeve is when I’m in a home theater and the system is simply (and obviously) not balanced. The center channel is either blaring or nearly off, or the surround speakers are nonexistent. You might as well be listening in stereo. Taking a few moments to calibrate your speaker levels—either with an SPL meter or the included microphone found in most mid-fi and up receivers—will do wonders for your home theater experience.
A couple pointers (see our full article on Setting Speaker Levels) include tweaking the center channel to just a dB or 2 above normal for more intelligibility and setting the subwoofer to taste. You can also work with the surrounds to your hearts content. Just be sure you like the results and you set the levels the way you did on purpose, not through accident or negligence. And if you have no idea how to start—grab a Blu-ray or DVD with a THX log on it. In the menu there will be a free THX Optimizer program that will get you on your way (and even give you some pointers for video as well).
9. Note Your Upgrade Paths
If you’re like me, you like the idea of making what you have better. Sometimes that involves upgrading. To do that you’ll need to know where the start. The subwoofer is a good place, but your main channels will make the biggest difference (Well, unless you’re watching on a 20-inch Magnavox—if that’s the case, stop reading this and go buy a new 50″+ flat panel TV right now…we’ll be here when you get back.) When you upgrade your mains, you also (often) get to upgrade your surrounds in the process. Your old main speakers are almost certain to be better than your old surrounds—so flip them out…and then upgrade them later if you feel the need.
10. Consider the Source
While upgrading the speakers and display are certainly excellent ways to improve your home theater, you can also upgrade your source components. You could, for example, upgrade from a DVD player to a Blu-ray player—that will make more of a difference on a larger screen than a small one, but it’s a nice difference when you see it. Another thing I’m seeing people do is purchase streaming media devices—like an Apple TV or a Roku box. Or you may want to investigate switching from Time Warner Cable to DISH and benefit from features like their Hopper and Joey system that lets you record up to 8 (might as well be a bazillion) programs at once and stream tons of free movies from Blockbuster and other sources on demand.
You paid for your home theater, these are just some tips to help you take control over your investment. Trust me, when you improve your home theater you won’t regret it! Let us know what you think of these suggestions by commenting below. We want to hear what you think (and whether you believe we left anything out of our list!)