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How to Get the Most Out of Your Home Theater – Without Spending a Fortune

By Steve Faber

So you’ve scraped and saved, now you’ve finally gotten together a semi- respectable home theater system. You want even more, but the idea of spending another few thousand on new front speakers doesn’t cut it. What can you do?

There are ways to get the most out of what you have without breaking the bank. There are several areas you can look at to ensure your theater is set up correctly and performing at its best.

Cables and Interconnects – It’s imperative the signals are transferred from your source components to your speakers, going through various components along the way, with the least amount of degradation. Make sure your audio, video and speaker cables are all of good quality and that none are old and corroded. You can use contact enhancer to be sure the connection is really good. If you need any quality cables, check here: Make sure to use the highest level of A/V connection your system supports. i.e. if you can use a component or DVI video connection from your DVD to your display device then do it.

Calibration – Your video display will definitely not look its best without proper calibration. Manufacturers have a dismal record when it comes to calibrating sets at the factory. Most are TVs designed to look their best on the showroom floor, not in your home theater. In fact, a CRT based rear projection TV can have its life dramatically shortened by improper calibration.

The contrast is invariably set too high to make the set stand out in the showroom environment. This sells more TVs but causes premature tube wear. (That sells more TVs too, I guess) Proper video calibration will correct the problem. I have used Joe Kane’s Digital Video Essentials for years and the Video Essentials laser disc before that. It is a great tool to help you get the best out of your home theater. Pick one up here:

Acoustic Improvements – These encompass a whole host of different things, from acoustically treating the interior of the room, to quieting down your projector. Whenever you lower your noise floor, you effectively increase your dynamic range. In addition, acoustic treatments can dramatically improve dialogue intelligibility, bass response and imaging.

One of the best in the “bang for the buck” category is to put a 1” or 2” thick, acoustic panel on the two side walls of the theater to reduce the “first reflection”. The first reflection is the sound that leaves the front speaker and takes a longer path to your ears by bouncing off the side wall on the way. Since it takes a longer path, it takes more time and arrives later than the direct sound that went straight from the speakers to your ears. The net effect is a loss of dialog intelligibility.

To find the correct placement for the acoustic material, sit at the listening position, place a small mirror on the side wall and move it until you can see the front speaker. When you can, that is the spot to center the acoustic panel.

Another, even cheaper, tweak is to optimize your subwoofer placement. For years people have been told “Bass is non-directional. You can put your sub anywhere”. That is, simply, BS. While low bass is fairly non-directional, the tonal quality and amount of bass is tremendously affected by subwoofer placement. A simple trick is to place the sub at the listening position (at ear height), then move around the room (at sub height) until you find the place with the best bass quality. If possible, that’s where you put the sub.

You can build a hush box around your projector to minimize noise from it. Make sure you use adequate ventilation to maintain proper cooling. That cannot be emphasized enough. As a partial measure, without having to build a whole box, you can place acoustic absorption material on the ceiling above the projector. If your projector is close to the ceiling, this will kill the noise that normally bounces off the ceiling and into the listening room.

I hope this gets you started down the path to even more enjoyment from your home theater and saves you some money at the same time.

Steve Faber has almost 15 years in the custom installation industry. He is a CEDIA certified designer and Installer 2 with certifications from both the ISF and THX. His experience spans many facets of the industry, from the trenches as an installer and control systems programmer, and system designer, to a business unit director for a specialty importer of high end audio video equipment, a sales rep for a large, regional consumer electronics distributor, and principal of a $1.5M+ custom installation firm. He currently is senior sales engineer for Digital Cinema Design in Redmond, WA. He is on the web at

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