10 Easy Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Home Theater System

Now that you’ve finally purchased your home theater system and gotten it connected, you can sit back and immerse yourself in that Home Theater experience, right in the comfort of your own home. Chances are, though, if you’re like most people, you haven’t really taken the important steps to make sure that you’re maximizing your experience. There’s plenty of little things you can do to improve your sound and picture, as well as to make your Home Theater Experience more enjoyable. Doing these things will make sure you’re getting the most out of your system. So what are some things you can do to get the most out of your new Home Theater System?

1) Connect your equipment with quality Cables

You’ll hear so many different theories on whether quality cables are worth the expense or not. We believe they are! That doesn’t mean that you have to get the most expensive cables money can buy (and they CAN get expensive). You’ll have to do your research and purchase what you’re comfortable getting, and keep in mind that there’s a point of diminishing return, where you have to spend a lot more money for a little bit of return. That point is different for everyone, but some things you should look for are:

* Quality connectors – The connector should make solid contact when plugged in, for maximum signal transfer. Also, you don’t want your cable to fall apart or ruin the component it’s plugged into. Quality connectors will make sure that your cable stays in place and makes good contact.

HDMI Cables have two well-documented issues with the physical connection.  The HDMI Cables are known to work themselves loose or pull out easily, resulting in an intermittent or lost signal.  Also, HDMI Inputs are known to be fragile, and the stress from the HDMI Cable can cause damage internally to the HDMI port, or the HDMI Cable itself.  Higher quality cables usually have a better fit in the input, but they are also usually a heavier guage cable which can cause other issues. If you have a loose HDMI Connection or are concerned about damaging your HDMI Input, there are some products out there that can help, such as hd EZ lock, the only Universal Locking HDMI Cable adapter available.

* Shielded Cables – Certain cables (usually low voltage cables such as RCA’s and HDMI’s) are subject to electrical interference, which can enter the cable and introduce noise into your system. This translates to hearing buzzing and humming through your speakers, or seeing “noise” in your picture. Shielded Cables are designed to block these signals from entering your cable.

* Cable Material – Cables are manufactured using different materials, from Copper to Silver. There’s also different grades of metals. These can make a difference in the type of sound as well as the quality of the sound – more spacious, more detail, brighter or warmer, etc.

* Cable Geometry – There are many different ways that Cable Manufacturers design cables, but the most common type found in better cables is a twisted geometry. Twisting the cables in a specific way can cancel out unwanted noise that might get into the cable, as well as controlling the phase of the sound, making sure that all frequencies arrive at the same time.

In our opinion, you will notice a difference in analog cables, such as Audio RCA Cables and Video Component Cables, but there’s still a lot of debate as to the difference in the quality of HDMI Cables. While we don’t subscribe to the “digital is digital – you either get it or you don’t” theory, there seems to be plenty of people claiming to have done extensive side by side testing and are unable to see a significant difference. One important thing with HDMI Cables though is the ability to pass a 1080p signal, particularly at longer runs. This is where you will see a significant difference in HDMI Cable quality (see speed rated cables).

2) Invest in a quality Line Conditioner

Line Conditioners, or Power Conditioners, are surge protectors on steroids. Quality Line Conditioners offer a high level of surge protection. Many will cover under-voltage (from brownouts) as well as electrical spikes, such as from lightning storms. They also filter your AC power, eliminating noise that travels along the AC line and into your equipment. The result is your equipment operates at the voltage and frequency it’s designed to operate at, which optimizes performance. Although many factors can determine how much of an improvement you’ll notice, you can expect an improvement in sound and picture quality.

3) Speaker Placement

Most people find a place where their speakers fit or look good, drop them in place and enjoy. Speaker placement is very important to getting the best sound out of your speakers. Speaker placement theory is a very complicated subject, but there are some things you can do very easily to improve your speaker placement. If possible, I recommend your front three speakers (left, center and right) to be around ear level, when your seated. Also, if you can have the left and right speaker be equidistant from the center speaker, and from your seating position, the sound from the speakers will arrive to you at the same time.

I prefer rear speakers to be above ear level, even mounting them higher on the wall if possible. This gives the effect of more spacious surround sound. If you’re doing a 5.1 system, they should be positioned on the side, slightly behind you, or behind you. If you’re doing a 7.1 system, your surround speakers should be mounted beside you, or slightly behind you on the sides, and the surround back speakers should be mounted behind you.

Also, many people believe that since bass is non-directional, that you can just drop your subwoofer anywhere it fits. While it’s true that you can place the sub anywhere in the room and most likely it will provide tons of bass, there are places in your room that will sound better than others. One method you can try is to put the subwoofer where you would normally sit, then walk around the room with your ear at the normal subwoofer height until you find the location that gives you the best bass output combined with the best sound.

4) Proper Connections

Double check your connections to make sure everything is connected properly. This can effect not only ease of use, but also performance. For example, if you have your front two speakers connected out of phase – the left one connected properly but the right one you’ve reversed the positive and negative speaker wires – you’ll experience what’s called “cancellation”. That is, most notably with lower frequencies, because the speakers are wired so that they are working opposite of each other, you will hear a cancellation of bass. That means you will hear much lower bass levels than if they were connected properly in phase.

Also, it can be much more convenient to use your Home Theater system if you use your AV Receiver as an AV switcher. That means you’d run all of your audio and video into your Receiver, and then your receiver would send the selected signal to the TV. So when you select DVD Player on your receiver, you’ll hear the DVD through your speakers and see the DVD on your TV, without having to change inputs on your TV.

5) Proper Settings

Take the time to go through your menu settings in all of your components. If necessary – and I know this is hard to hear – read the Owner’s Manual so that you understand what the settings do. Play around with some settings to see what sounds best to you. For example, if you have big, Floor-standing speakers, you may find that your system sounds better if you have your front speaker setting is set to large. Many people assume if they have a subwoofer, that you have to set your front speakers to small, even if they aren’t small. Play around and see what sounds better.

Make sure that all of your speakers are turned on in the menu system, and check their levels – how loud they are in relation to the other speakers. You can adjust the speaker levels in the menu (think of an independent volume control for each speaker) to get the sound the way you like it. Many people make the mistake of jacking the levels up on each speaker. That’s not the purpose of speaker level control…that’s what the main volume is. I recommend raising the level as little as possible…I prefer to lower the level than to raise the level. Raising the level too much can mean that you’ll hear more distortion from your speakers when you turn it up.

Also, many of the newer AV Receivers on the market now have an auto calibrate feature. They include a microphone that you can place in your seating position, then through feedback they measure your room’s acoustics and automatically adjust your settings. I’ve had mixed feelings about this. Sometimes it works great, other times I’ve preferred to adjust the setting manually.

So take the time to go through your AV Receiver settings, as well as your TV picture settings to make sure everything is set up properly.

6) Use a Calibration Disc to fine tune your system

Calibration discs such as the ones by Avia, Digital Video Essentials, or Monster Cable discs are a great way to optimize your sound and picture. They provide you with test patterns used to adjust things like contrast, brightness, colors, etc. They also provide you with different tools to fine tune your audio system.

7) Control your Lighting

To get the best experience possible from your Home Theater System, you have to be able to control the lighting in the room. Direct light right on your TV screen will have a huge effect on your experience…it’s hard to enjoy your system if you can’t really see the screen. Make sure you have the ability to block out lighting and darken your room when watching a movie. Also, pay attention to the lighting in the room. If you have bright lights shining directly on your screen, or directly into your eyes, it will take quite a bit away from your experience. Experiment with indirect lighting, such as sconces, or use dimmers and shades to control your lighting environment.

8) Clean your Screen

Many companies such as Monster Cable, Audio Quest, Belkin and more make a solution that allows you to safely clean your TV screen. Excessive dust and grime will take away from the quality of your picture. Also, using an improper cleaning solution can damage your TV screen by leaving permanent streaks. Many TVs have a protective coating over the TV screen surface. Some cleaning solutions, particularly ammonia based cleaning solutions can ruin that coating, leaving permanent streaks in the surface of the TV screen.

9) The Best Seat in the House

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a dedicated home theater room, so we have to work around our existing furniture. And in those cases, sometimes there’s only so much you can do. But sometimes, even small changes to your seating position can improve sound. The best seat in the house has an equal distance to both the left and the right speaker. If possible, take a look at your seating arrangement and see if you can move things around to put yourself in a better position.

Also, try to make sure you’re not blocking your speakers with another piece of furniture, large plant, etc. Pay attention to your environment and see where you can make sacrifices. If you can’t get your seat in a prime position, most receivers now have Digital Sound Processing (DSP) settings to compensate, but I always recommend starting with your seating position so you’ll have less adjustments to do later.

10) Be in Control

So you’ve got this great system installed, and now you’ve followed the nine steps above to really dial in your system and it looks and sounds great! Then you pick up one of the five remotes, and hit the wrong button, and NOTHING!!! Nothing’s more frustrating than not being able to figure out how to use your system. Only slightly better is having to go through a series of buttons on one remote, then another remote, then another remote.

Most remotes that come with your TV, AV Receiver, or Cable box have basic universal functions, but they never seem to do exactly what you want them to do. There are quality Remote Controls, such as the Harmony Remotes, or more advanced remotes like Philips Pronto or Universal Brand remotes that will do everything you want to do, from a single remote.

Most of the better universal remotes can be programmed from your PC. Some are very simple, such as the Harmony remotes, and others more advance. They have the ability to program macros – one button operation. If you want to watch a DVD, you hit “watch DVD” and the remote sends out multiple commands: Turns on the TV and turns it to the right input, Turns on the AV Receiver and switches to the DVD input, turns on the DVD and starts to play it. All from the single touch of a button.

Hit the wrong button? Just hit “watch DVD” again and it will fix everything for you. So now we’ve given you 10 easy ways to really enjoy your Home Theater System. If you take the time to take care of the details, you’ll be amazed at the difference these simple steps can make.

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