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Calibrating Your Home Theater System

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Did you like the way the demo big-screen TV looked in the dealer's showroom? Or the way the speakers sounded? Think that's the way your new system should look and sound in your home? Well, you're wrong. To get the best performance from any new video display, you have to move beyond the factory default settings to fully calibrate the brightness, contrast, and color settings. In this article, Michael Miller shows you how to calibrate your entire home theater system for both video and audio performance.

Did you like the way the demo big-screen TV looked in the dealer's showroom? Or the way the speakers sounded? Think that's the way your new system should look and sound in your home?

Well, you're wrong.

Almost all new television sets come set up by the manufacturers to "pop" on the showroom floor. They crank up the brightness and color levels to look their best in the brightly-lit store—and to look brighter and more colorful than the competitor's sets. (It's a fact that the set with the brightest picture in the showroom sells the best.) Unfortunately, this hyper-accentuated picture is not the right picture for your living room. You want a picture that looks more natural, which will require some readjusting.

It's the same thing with audio. Most dealers pump up the bass and overpower the rear speakers in an attempt to impress you with room-shaking surround sound. Adjust the system the same way in your living room, and you'll find the long-term listening experience quite unpleasant.

Fortunately, there are specific standards designed to help you get the optimal picture quality on your new big-screen TV. There are also similar standards for audio quality from your system's speakers and audio components. Calibrate your system to these standards and you'll have a terrific looking and sounding home theater system.

But what are these standards—and how do you make the appropriate adjustments? Read on to learn more.

Calibration Discs

Proper calibration of your audio and video components is difficult to do by eye or ear alone. Your eyes and your ears can deceive you, especially when you're focusing on one particular element of your system's performance. This is why proper calibration of your system is facilitated by proper use of a calibration disc.

A calibration disc is a DVD that contains dozens—if not hundreds—of test patterns and calibration tests. When you follow the instructions on the DVD, you end up adjusting your TV and audio system to produce the optimal results. The adjustments can be as simple as tweaking the standard brightness, contrast, color, and tint controls, or as complex as making fine adjustments to the set's technical service menu. How detailed you go in calibrating your system is up to you.

My favorite calibration DVD is Ovation Multimedia's AVIA Guide to Home Theater. The AVIA disc includes a 40-minute guide to home theater basics, a variety of video calibration patterns and tests, and an equally large number of audio calibration tests. You also get a box full of colored filters to help you calibrate your display's color and tint levels. The disc retails for $49.99. (An AVIA PRO six-disc test suite is also available that sells for $400; it's for hard-core professionals only.)

What kind of calibrations are we talking about? Here's a top-level overview of what you can calibrate and test with the AVIA disc:

  • Grayscale and video levels
  • Video geometry and convergence
  • Letterbox geometry
  • Widescreen enhanced video
  • Video resolution
  • Color adjustment
  • Overscan and pixel cropping
  • Main speaker setup
  • Subwoofer setup
  • Audio verification/evaluation
  • Audio reference tones

There are close to 200 separate test patterns and calibration routines on the AVIA disc—more than most users will want to go through, to be honest. Suffice it to say that whatever you want to adjust, you can find that calibration somewhere on the AVIA disc.

Another popular calibration disc is Digital Video Essentials (DVE), from Joe Kane Productions. It features tests and patterns similar to the AVIA disc, although it's a little more technical in nature. The consumer version is a single-disc DVD that comes with a blue filter for color calibration; it sells for $24.99 and is available in both NTSC and PAL versions. The Professional version is a six-disc extravaganza with tons of high-definition patterns and tests; it sells for $295 to professional installers and technicians.

Also good, but not quite as comprehensive, is the Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up DVD, from the folks at Sound & Vision magazine. This is an easier-to-use disc than either AVIA or DVE, although it offers only a subset of the tests that they provide. It's also lower priced, at just $21.95.

If you don't want to spend the bucks on one of these fancy calibration discs, you can always use the rudimentary test patterns present on some commercial DVDs. The best of this lot is the THX Optimizer found on certain Lucasfilm THX-certified DVDs. Although it doesn't have near the calibration functionality as the AVIA or DVE discs, it's better than trying to make adjustments by eyeballing the picture yourself.

Professional technicians, of course, have even more options available to them. Ovation Multimedia, for example, distributes the OpticONE color analyzer, a $2,000 piece of test equipment that can create automated video calibration reports. If you choose to have your system professionally calibrated, this is the sort of equipment the technician will use.

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