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HOME CINEMA / HOME CINEMA IN A BOX

How To Upgrade Your Home Cinema

By SmartHouse Team | Thursday | 05/10/2006

Fancy a better home cinema experience? Instant improvement is just 20 tweaks away. SmartHouse shows you how.

We give you 10 tips on improving your home cinema sound and home cinema vision...so read on!

 

SOUND

1. Position your speakers correctly (part one)

To make your room 'sound' bigger (and more like a cinema), try to mount your surround speakers high up on the walls, tilted down towards your listening position (this is true of 5.1, 6.1 or seven-speaker systems). For the best punch and clarity across the front of your system, place your centre speaker at the same height as the left and right speakers, and try to site all three so they fire at your ears when you're seated.

2. Position your speakers correctly (part two)

There's little point in owning a potent speaker package if it doesn't have the room to breathe. Most big floorstanders need space to work at their best: if your room is on the small side, they could sound boomy, slow and 'congested'. You might be better off opting for bass-restricted satellite speakers, or bookshelf-type hi-fi designs, and then leaving low-frequency bass to your subwoofer.

3. Use dedicated speaker stands

For standmount speakers, invest in proper loudspeaker stands: this will improve every aspect of your sound, from imaging to bass. For floorstanding speakers, make sure they're mounted on spikes, rather than simply placed directly on the floor - it will give the same benefits as speaker stands. To protect your wooden floors, inexpensive spike cups can be a useful purchase.

4. Configure your speakers

Modern surround soundtracks offer tremendous dynamics, which can stress small speakers. To ensure proper speaker protection (and better sound), access your surround receiver's speaker set-up menus, and look for the size settings. Dig out your speakers' manual and look up their low-frequency cut-off point (shown in Hz). That's the figure you should enter for each speaker.

5. Adjust the delay settings

Ideally, every speaker would be equidistant from your seat - but all too often, rear speakers end up being positioned right behind your sofa, which can result in an unbalanced sound. Your receiver's delay processing, found in its set-up menus, can compensate: simply measure from each speaker to your seat, enter each value into the set-up menus, and you'll create a balanced soundfield.

6. Maximise your subwoofer

Slow, ponderous bass can ruin the home cinema experience. To get better integration and punch, put your subwoofer next to your seat, and then disconnect your speakers (at the receiver), except for the sub. Play something with a consistent bass beat and walk around your room, listening to the bass. It will sound louder in two or three places, so put your subwoofer in one of these 'node' positions.

7. Level speaker volumes

For the most cohesive sound, you need to level the volume of each speaker. Buy a test tone meter, set it to read 80dB and flick the switches on its fascia to 'Slow' response and 'C' weighting. Turn on the test tone on your receiver, point the meter straight up and turn up the main volume until you get a 75dB reading from the front-left speaker. Then trim each speaker to match that level.

8. Cables really do count

Home cinema relies on a convincing three-dimensional soundfield, with no sonic differences in level or tonality from speaker to speaker. That's why we recommend you use the same type of speaker cabling throughout your system - especially for the front three speakers. To preserve signal quality, buy the shortest lengths possible and avoid coiling up excess cabling. 

9. Consider more speakers

6.1 isn't a gimmick: it makes a big difference, especially in odd-shaped living rooms. You don't need specialist software, either: you can get the effect even from 'regular' 5.1 soundtracks. You'll hear more convincing panning effects, and an improved sense of scale and atmosphere. Virtually every receiver available offers 6.1 as standard, so your upgrade costs are fairly modest.

10. Tweak your acoustics

To correct a bright, brittle balance, add soft furnishings and bookcases; to inject life into proceedings, reverse that process. Pictures on walls provide a reflective surface for sound to bounce off, while rugs or curtains soak up high frequencies. Oh, and lash down anything that rattles for a better sound.

VISION

11. Control your lighting (1)
Rule one: your TV, whether it's CRT, LCD or plasma, will give a better picture in a darkened room. A properly blacked-out room can be even better, although it can strain
the eyes with a smaller screen: try positioning a light behind the screen (like Philips' Ambilight) to counter this. Even if you'd rather watch in a brighter room, you must try to avoid placing your screen so it faces windows or direct lighting (say, a table lamp).

12. Dark is best

Rule two: while the best modern projectors can be used in fairly bright rooms, the results are far from optimum. Ideally, projectors work best in a darkened room - and if you're after the best results, proper light-control, using blackout blinds, makes a big difference. If you've the luxury of a dedicated home cinema room, consider omitting windows altogether, painting your ceiling black and finishing walls in matt, muted hues.

13. Other light sources

Don't forget there are other small sources of light that can ruin the home cinema effect. If you have the option, use your remote control to turn off electronic displays, as found on DVD players, receivers and so on, and, ideally, mask over power indicator status lights on kit like subwoofers and power amps. It might seem fiddly, but it's surprisingly worthwhile. Alternatively, consider a rack with cabinet doors to hide your kit - but ensure it has proper ventilation.

14. Invest in a kit rack

On the subject of racks (above), remember that a decent equipment rack will make a useful difference to both sound and vision quality in a good home cinema. A solid, stable stand really can give you a better picture. Not only will it effectively isolate your source gear (especially your DVD player), it will also give your television set, particularly a CRT or rear-projection set, a boost. To get the most from any rack, ensure it is both stable and level - use a spirit level.

15. Optimise your cabling

Always use the best-available video connection option for your sources. The heirarchy of picture quality runs (bottom to top): composite, S-Video, RGB Scart, component, DVI and HDMI. If you find you've run out of suitable sockets for your sources, you can use video converters to turn one signal into another - this can be especially handy with some plasma TVs, which tend to be short of Scart inputs. We've used Scart to component converter boxes with great results.

16. More on cabling

As with audio cabling, it's a good idea to buy the shortest runs of cable you need. Video signals are vulnerable to quality loss over distance, especially if you use Scart. You should also avoid tangling your video cables up, either with each other or with other cables in your kit rack (especially mains). Finally,
buy the best cables you can afford: as a rough guideline, spend around 10 percent of your total video outlay on them.

17. Upgrade your DVD player
Holding out for a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player? We can't blame you, but you could be in for a long wait. If you've an extensive DVD collection and a good-quality display, it still makes sense to buy a new DVD player to make the most of your investment, especially if your current player doesn't have a digital video output. Upgrading from a component video signal to HDMI will deliver a substantial jump in image quality.

18. Calibrate your vision
If you've never tweaked your TV's standard video settings, you're doing your eyes a disservice. As standard, almost every TV is preset to ridiculously high levels of brightness and contrast, so as to appear more enticing on the shop floor. The basic rule of thumb is turn everything down - brightness should be about 45 percent, contrast 65 percent, colour about 50 percent. Turn off sharpness controls altogether.

19. More on calibration

If 'rules of thumb' don't quite cut it for you, you can get more precise adjustments by purchasing a DVD with THX approval (try Star Wars III). These discs feature an 'Optimode' section, which has simple but useful suggestions on how to adjust your picture. If you really want to do the job well, invest in specialist set-up DVDs: Digital Video Essentials (the PAL version) or the AVIA Guide to Home Theater (both on www.amazon.com) are superb.

20. Buy a projector

For the most realistic cinema experience at home, we always recommend a display that swamps your peripheral vision with the scale of the image in front of you - namely, a front projector. Fact is, films are made for the big screen - and no TV, not even a 65in plasma, can get close to the image sizes on offer from a good projector. Of course, size is no use if your big image is also rubbish - but you'll be amazed at just how impressive even a entry-level projector can be these days, especially if you follow our other tips above. Remember to budget an extra $600 or so for a good screen, too.

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