You've read the reviews and put together a great home theatre system, but until you take some time to properly set up your components, they won't perform to the best of their abilities.
A home cinema system not only needs to look good, it needs to sound good too. (Credit: Bowers and Wilkins)
To help you get the most out of your new, or existing, home cinema we've assembled this checklist, which will help you quickly improve the sound of your system.
1. Navigate the speaker set-up menus
Every 5.1/7.1 A/V receiver has a set-up menu, but if you've never explored the options, your sound is probably out of whack. The first step is easy enough: select speaker size — large, small or none — for the left- and right-front speakers, the centre speaker and the surround speakers. As a rule of thumb, speakers with 6-inch or bigger woofers are considered large.
Next, grab a tape measure and input the full set of speaker-to-listener distances. The receiver will then make sure that the sound from all your speakers reaches your ears at exactly the same time. Some receivers require you to input that information as milliseconds rather than feet/metres — just remember that 3 milliseconds are roughly the equivalent of one metre (or 1ms equals 1 foot for the non-metric).
Finally, you'll need to make sure that all of the speakers are equal in level. Your receiver can send a test tone to each speaker, which will help you adjust the relative volume of each channel. As the sound jumps from speaker to speaker, the loudness should stay the same. You can adjust the level of each speaker by ear or you can...
2. Buy a sound level meter
There are some excellent, but fairly inexpensive, sound level meters on the market that will ensure more accurate level matching. The Analogue Sound Level Meter from Dick Smith is inexpensive (AU$40) and easy to use — just make sure to set the meter to "C" weighting as it will more accurately tailor your system for the high volumes of most movie sessions.
While the Apple apps store now sells several decibel meter applications, they still depend on the iPhone's microphone, which is tailored to the human voice and not setting up home theatre systems. It might be fun to test these cheap apps out, but think they could have problems setting up the ultra-low frequencies of a subwoofer.
3. Ensure that speaker cables are connected correctly
With that tangle of cables looming behind your A/V receiver, it's all too easy to mix up which wire goes where, and getting the "+" and "-" connections wrong can sound really weird. The good news is that many receivers come with automated set-ups these days, and this takes the hassle out of setting up your system. Just plug in the supplied microphone, stick it on your chair and be vewwy vewwy quiet. It should only take a couple of minutes, but be warned, it will be loud!
But these routines aren't perfect, and they can screw things up, so if you don't trust your receiver — or have one without a set-up routine — then it's best to do it yourself. We've often found that starting with the automated system and then tweaking with a sound meter is the most effective way to do it.
Many receivers have a "test tone" option, which makes it easy to double-check that the test tones are coming out of all the intended speakers during set-up. DVDs such as Sound & Vision: Home Theater Tune-Up offer a bevy of additional tests. The Avia Guide to Home Theatre, also from Ovation Software, is a more advanced version as it has more tests and goes into greater details than the other disc. Digital Video Essentials is another test DVD that is available for PAL TV systems that also provides advice on how to adjust your home theatre for optimal results.
4. Tweak subwoofer-level and crossover controls
Test tones and meters aren't the final arbiters in the bass department. If your sub's bass is boomy, thick or uneven, first try lowering its level (volume) control — most folks crank their sub louder than necessary. In reality, you shouldn't even notice that your subwoofer is there. It should be supporting the other speakers, not drowning them out!
Next, if your satellites are very small — and we're talking Bose-sized satellites here — the crossover control should also be set to its midpoint or higher. Bigger speakers produce more bass on their own, so they sound best with the sub's crossover knob set at or near the bottom of its range. Finally, moving the sub out of the corner and closer to one of the front speakers may produce smoother, flatter bass.
5. Purchase speaker stands or brackets
Pulling speakers out of bookcases or from the tops of cabinets and placing them on floor stands or wall brackets can radically improve their sound quality. Stick a couple of Blu-Tack blobs underneath the corners — between the speaker and the stand — to tame cabinet vibrations.
6. Optimise speaker placement
Even if you don't go for stands or brackets, just remember that it's important to place the front speakers with their tweeters at — or as close as possible to — ear level. The left/right speakers should be equidistant from the "sweet spot" or primary listening position. If a speaker is within 45cm of a room's corner, angle it away from the corner and toward the main listening position. Indeed, "angling in" both speakers toward the middle can help with stereo imaging, or creating a better "centre" image, and will make for a more believable soundstage.
7. Tame uncooperative acoustics if possible
Rooms with wood or tile floors and lots of windows or mirrors always sound overly bright and zippy; a thick rug and/or window drapes will sop up some of the harshness.
8. Upgrade speaker/interconnect cables
Are you still using skinny, freebie wires? Moving up to higher-end cables can make a noteworthy improvement to your sound. While we're wary of the claims made by the makers of digital cables, selecting a different speaker wire can and does make a difference to the sound of your system. You don't really need to spend much more than AU$10 a metre, but experimenting can be fun.
9. Add a separate power amplifier
If your room is large and/or you really like to pump up the volume, you may need more power. Take a peek in your receiver's owner's manual or back panel to see if it has a set of pre-amp-out jacks for the left, the right, the centre, the left-surround and the right-surround channels. If your receiver is so equipped, you can go ahead and hook up a gutsy separate 100-, 150- or 200-Watt-per-channel amp to your receiver.
10. Buy matched speakers
If you're currently using a cobbled-together set of speakers, consider moving up to a matched package. Even a moderately priced ensemble will offer far more cohesive sound.
However, if you can't afford a full set then the three fronts (left, right and centre) are the most important and should be from the same series. It may even be economical to relegate old speakers to the rear effects and upgrade them with better models. One of the most enjoyable parts of the home theatre "hobby" is upgrading parts of your system (speakers, receiver, Blu-ray player) as it ages. Let the good times roll!