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Audio/Video Home Theater Setup Guide

by November 06, 2004
Setting up your AV system

Setting up your AV system

We have other articles which will help you actually connect your home theater system. This article assumes that you are indeed getting sound and video through the components and that you are ready to move on the the next phase of configuring and tweaking the many settings and physical options associated with all of that AV gear.

Once you've got your Home Theater audio system wired and producing sound there are a few simple steps you should take to ensure your system is configured correctly. Home Theater calibration professionals can attest to the fact that a majority of Home Theater systems suffer unnecessary bottlenecks in performance that can be easily overcome with a few minor adjustments. Here is what to look for on your Home Theater system.

  • Simplicity: Keep wiring simple but optimized, using as few cables and wires as possible. Keep your lengths short and be sure to use the highest resolution settings - and cable options - that you can. This doesn't mean you have to pay a fortune, but if you just bought a new DVD player with HDMI upconversion, you don't want to use the yellow composite video cable it came with.
  • Polarity: Double check speaker wire's polarity (the plus and minus/red and black) for consistency. If you choose the "striped" wire for negative, be sure to keep that consistent with every speaker connection. Typically this means red to red, black to black. Switch them and you're going to ruin your sound and lose your bass response.
  • Interconnects: Make sure you have all of your short "interconnect" cabling correct. If you are using analogue cables, make sure you don't switch your left and rights. If you used digital cables, be sure to verify you have that selected in the AV receiver for that input.
  • S/PDIF: Use a digital connection (optical or coax) whenever available (except for HDMI).
  • HDMI: HDMI carries both audio and video signal in digital form and is the preferred method of connection for most uses. Try to use this type of cable whenever possible as it will deliver the highest audio and video quality in most cases.
  • Speaker Positioning: Nothing affects the sound of your system like the positioning of your speakers. Experimenting with positioning offers near limitless possibilities for tweaking your sound. In general you want to place the main speakers evenly across the front of the room, with surround speakers slightly elevated and  firing at the listening position from the sides (or from behind if you have no side walls.) The Surround Back channels are meant to be somewhat higher and directly behind the center listening position.




Front on top, rear at the bottom. The television/display should face the seating area
from the center speaker position.


Loudspeaker positioning basics

When setting up speakers in a real world living space, it helps to think of invisible cones of sound emanating from the speakers themselves. Anything coming in contact with that cone before and after it reaches the seating position is going to affect the sound. Things likely to come in contact with that cone of sound include plants, bookshelves, couches, chairs and small furry creatures. Try to keep anything from blocking the sound before it reaches the seating area. Obvious problems might include a chair in front of a speaker (even if the chair is below the speaker it will affect the ability to move the air in front of it). The key is to experiment, experiment and then experiment some more with speaker positioning in your home theater room.

Things to pay particular attention to:

  • Obstructions: Don't let objects block the path of sound before it reaches the audience. If living space requires such compromises, try a system of temporarily removing blockages for film viewings. Sound travels in waves, and is easily diffracted and dispersed which can contribute to poor intelligibility (causing you to turn up the volume.)
  • Speaker Toe-in: "Toe-in" is the angle to which the speakers are pointed at the center listening area. Some speakers do better with more toe-in and some do best when they are firing straight ahead. This is something you'll need to experiment with, but in particular listen for the widest soundstage when the image of the audio opens up (best to use music for this.)
  • Room Acoustics: Every room is different when it comes to acoustic properties and the room adds much to the sound quality. Learn as much as you can about the interplay between acoustically dampening and reflective materials and how it works in your room. You don't want your room too reflective or lively (lots of reflective materials such as uncovered hardwood floors and glass). This will lead to an overly bright sound. Conversely it is possible to go overboard with acoustic dampening (using excessive drapes, acoustical panels and shag carpet for example.) An anechoic chamber is fine for testing speaker design but doesn't make for the most pleasing home theater!
  • Center speaker: Inarticulate dialogue is a common problem. Position the center speaker toward the ears of the audience. If your center speaker small in size and sounds like it's being drowned out by the surround field, adjust the level higher. It should be raised off the ground and pointed to head level of the listening area from above or below the display.

Editorial Note
For more information on speaker and subwoofer positioning and set up, please reference the following articles:

Loudspeaker Placement Guidelines

Subwoofer Placement Guidelines

Component Setup and Calibration

There are several things you must do to audio components after they're connected. Most DVD players and A/V receivers have their own way of doing the same things and might even have a different name for certain settings. Consult your owner's manual for exact instructions to apply this checklist to your system.

Receiver setup

  • Bass management: Large/Small speaker settings. Set all speakers to small, let your subwoofer handle the low frequencies. Find a comfortable crossover setting, it might not always be THX's recommended 80Hz. We have an article on bass management settings dedicated to this topic in greater detail.
  • Dynamic Range: This is a setting for Dolby Digital signals and will condense the difference between loud and soft portions of movie soundtracks. If you find yourself constantly adjusting the volume during loud portions of DVDs then consider setting the level to 'Medium' or 'High'. If you are a home theater purist and/or have a decent room that can handle dynamic sounds, then 'Off' is the setting you want to use.
  • DSP modes: We recommend users turn Off all DSP modes with limited exceptions for some THX modes. Only experiment with DSP when you're ready to play with the sound and have everything else buttoned up. 'German Bathroom' can be fun to play with  
  • Dolby Pro Logic II or IIx: Dolby PL II and IIx are primarily used for two channel (stereo) sources and PL IIx can also be used for discrete 5.1 sources to expand them to 7.1. Double check to see if the PL II or IIx settings are saved for each input selected. IE: Setup "music" appropriately for CD input, switch to VCR and see if your CD settings carried over to the other inputs. PLII presets and saved settings per input are convenient features and often overlooked when shopping for an A/V receiver.
  • Dolby Digital/DTS: Enable automatic detection of Dolby Digital/DTS for digital audio inputs. This should override any Pro Logic II or DSP setting you have chosen. There should be an indicator on your receiver's front panel to let you know which audio format is detected.

DVD Player setup

  • Bass Management: Large/Small speaker settings. Only one component should handle bass management. Receiver, DVD player or another specialty component such Outlaw's ICBM. If another component is handling bass management set all speakers to large or turn off bass management.
  • S/PDIF: Use your DVD player's digital audio output only (coax or optical). Do not use the RCA stereo output if you already have the digital output connected to the receiver.
  • Bitstream/PCM: Set audio output to bitstream. The only reason you wouldn't want to use bitstream is if you're not using the DVD player's digital audio outputs. Almost all DVD players have PCM set as default, PCM will not send Dolby Digital or DTS to the receiver even if the DVD player is compatible with those audio formats. Countless new DVD player owners will listen to stereo PCM transmitted to their receiver over digital outputs, wondering why the receiver isn't detecting Dolby Digital or DTS.
  • Audio filtering or effects: Disable any audio noise reduction, filtering, DSPs or any other audio effects your DVD Player might provide. The A/V Receiver can handle these. Experiment with these settings later, after you've heard the "true" sound of your system.
  • Aspect Ratio: Enable widescreen mode (16:9) assuming you have a compatible display for this aspect ratio. Disable zoom. Depending on your viewing preferences, zoom/stretch modes may be used on 16:9 displays when watching 4:3 program source material to utilize more screen area. There should be an independent setting on your display to enable these modes when viewing 4:3 program material.
  • Video output: Always use the best possible video output available on your TV. If your TV is High Definition you MUST use either Component outputs (R,G,B) or digital video such as DVI or HDMI to get a de-interlaced video signal to your TV. S-Video is your best option for non-digital TV.
  • Progressive Scan: Enable progressive scan if your DVD Player has this feature and your TV is Digital or HD.
  • Other Video Features: Black level, brightness, filtering etc should all be initially disabled on the DVD Player. In most cases all of the video tweaking should be done on your display. However, if you cannot achieve an accurate picture, you should then look at tweaking using the DVD player video adjustments.


About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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