How to Improve the Picture and Sound on Your HDTV
Invest in Surround Sound
Just ask George Lucas (who helped usher in THX)--nothing will enhance your HD viewing experience more than great sound. While George would prefer that you buy a THX-capable system, plenty of lower-cost (and easier-to-install) alternatives are around.
The important thing is that you get dedicated speakers, rather than relying on the ones built into your TV. With flat panels becoming skinnier and bezels smaller, most HDTVs simply don't have room for anything but rudimentary sound. If the idea of running wires and setting up a surround-sound system turns you off, try a sound bar, a long horizontal speaker system that provides virtual surround sound with just one easy connection (or two if you add a subwoofer). Sound bars are great for small rooms, and good ones can be had for as little as $200. If you're more ambitious and want to go for 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround sound, read on.
Pick the Right AV Receiver
Unless you buy a home theater in a box, which includes both speakers and receiver (and sometimes a Blu-ray or DVD player too) in one handy integrated system, you will likely need to buy an AV receiver to decode sound and power your speakers. Surround sound comes in umpteen flavors, from companies like Dolby, DTS, and THX. Your DVD or Blu-ray box will list the formats offered for a particular movie; usually it has several. The most important are the venerable 5.1-channel Dolby Digital (found in most DVDs) and Blu-ray's lossless 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio encoding formats (5.1-channel sound has center, right, and left speakers at the front of the room, plus left and right side speakers, and a subwoofer, which can be placed anywhere; 7.1-channel sound adds two more speakers at the back).
You'll want a receiver that decodes all of those channels (unless your Blu-ray player has built-in lossless decoding), has sufficient power to drive speakers big enough for your listening room, and has sufficient HDMI and other inputs for your video sources. It should also provide 1080p upscaling of analog sources to HD and HDMI output. Other features, like multiroom support, are optional. Onkyo, Sony, and Pioneer each have a range of excellent receivers priced for different budgets.
Place Your Speakers Correctly
For a 5.1 system, the center channel should be placed just on or under your TV, with the left and right channels on either side of the screen, and two surround speakers to each side of your seating area, at ear level. The subwoofer can be positioned anywhere in this sound field, although it will usually be placed along with the center channel for ease of cabling, so that the long wires run only to the surround speakers. For a 7.1 setup, two more surround speakers are placed behind the seating area. Good locations to hide speaker wires include along or behind baseboards, and on top of picture rails.
Once you've placed your speakers and connected them to your receiver, you will need to run through the receiver's speaker setup and calibration routine. (The THX Optimizer mentioned on the preceding page includes surround-sound setup tests.) This calibration routine involves placing a microphone at certain points around the room to send feedback to the receiver, which will then correct any imbalances in the sound field and set the crossover frequency for the subwoofer. It may also check to be sure you've wired all your speakers in phase (using consistent red/black pairing throughout).
You don't need to have 7.1 speakers to enjoy the Blu-ray Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats. Both allow for 5.1-channel playback as well, either by combining or ignoring the two extra channels.
Hook Up Those Pesky Rear Speakers
Nobody likes running wires around the room to hook up the side and rear speakers in 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround-sound systems. Best Buy found that 40 to 50 percent of home-theater-in-a-box buyers never bothered to hook up their rear speakers at all, due to cabling hassles.
If you're cable-shy, use a sound bar, or get wireless surround speakers. Many newer home theater systems, including models from Panasonic and Sony, include wireless speakers by default, and you can convert almost any wired surround speakers with a wireless transmitter kit like RocketFish's ($100).
But for best results, try to wire your surround-sound speakers if you can. Flat, paintable speaker wire like DeCorp's Invisible Wire hides the evidence.
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