Once your new HDTV is set up and connected to your home theater, it might seem that you can just power up and watch your favorite shows. But not so fast. You'll first need to calibrate your set to get an optimal picture. And as for the sound, you'll need to make sure that your speakers are put in the proper place to ensure immersion in high-quality audio. These tips will walk you through those steps, so you can finally relax and enjoy all your HD content.
Calibrate your picture
Now it's time to calibrate your picture to make sure that it's accurate. The right color, contrast, and brightness settings can vary widely depending on your particular viewing environment; they can also vary depending on your source material, such as movies, games, or TV. Using standardized test patterns can help you optimize these settings for the best viewing experience.
For quick and easy "free" calibration, you can use pretty much any disc with a movie recorded in THX audio. THX DVDs and Blu-ray discs have calibration tools in the DVD setup area. Just click on "THX Optimizer" and follow the on-screen instructions. Before you start any calibration, though, adjust room lighting to your normal viewing level; turn sharpness down to normal; and make sure the color temperature is set to 6500 degrees Kelvin (the video standard, sometimes referred as D65). Some TVs offer Warm, Normal, and Cool color temperature options; check with your manufacturer as to which setting comes nearest to 6500K. For example, on Panasonic plasma HDTVs, Warm is the closest setting.
The THX Optimizer will then lead you through five test patterns for adjusting settings. Onscreen instructions for each will tell you what to look for, and what parameters to adjust. It's best to go through this procedure while standing close to the screen. (As you might expect, the THX Optimizer also includes surround-sound setup tests.)
For pro-level calibration, hire a consultant (Best Buy's professional calibration service runs about $300; independent AV consultants can be found online) or do it yourself with a high-end setup disc like Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials (DVE). DVE comes in both DVD and Blu-ray versions. Get the latter if you have a Blu-ray player, as the disc includes both 1080p and 720p test patterns. Both versions come with a set of red, green, and blue filters that you can hold over the screen to aid in color corrections, which are hard to make by eyeball alone.
DVE also has a video tutorial that leads you through basic calibration. It includes many additional test patterns and an extensive manual explaining how to interpret them. You'll become a video expert with this disc.
Most new 120 and 240Hz LCD HDTV sets boast that they use their fast refresh rates to smooth out motion blur, which can occur at normal 60Hz refresh rates. These smoothing or "de-juddering" technologies are variously called Motion Flow (Sony), Motion Picture Pro3 (Panasonic), Movie Plus (Samsung), and TruD (Sharp), but all basically interpolate additional frames to reduce motion blur.
Some people love the effect, which results in a very smooth and stable image. Others hate it, saying that it looks unnatural, especially for film sources; film's lower native refresh rate gives it a distinctive feel that is different from video. So you may want to turn off or reduce smoothing for film sources (along with turning on the 24Hz playback mode if your TV supports it), and maintain smoothing for video sources. Experiment with the smoothing setting and different sources to determine what looks best to you.
See every pixel
Even if your TV has a native resolution of 1920 by 1080, you're not guaranteed to see every pixel of your Blu-ray movies. Many HDTVs use overscan, which means that the set first upscales the original image slightly (typically 2 to 10 percent) and then cuts it off at the edges. Overscan helps eliminate the edge noise common to standard-definition sources, but it is bad for true HD signals, reducing resolution and introducing interpolation artifacts.
If news tickers at the edge of your screen are slightly cropped off, you likely have overscan deployed. Check your set's manual for a mode like Zero-overscan, Full Pixel, 1:1 Pixel, Pixel for Pixel, or Dot by Dot. Also use this mode when you're displaying an image from your computer; otherwise, small type will likely be distorted and unreadable. Be sure to set your PC's output resolution to match that of your TV.
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 peksy 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.
Stream HD video from your PC and other devices
With so many free online video sites popping up, from Hulu to Joost to the sports-oriented ESPN360, not to mention YouTube, your PC can also be a great source of free HD programming to supplement those over-the-air channels. To watch PC-based video on the big screen, all you need to do is connect your PC to your TV. Many newer systems — both desktops and laptops — have HDMI outputs, so you can hook them up directly to your TV, if the PC is close enough.
Use a media player box
If such a direct connection isn't possible, a media player box will grab video (and music and photos too) from your PC over your home network, then deliver it to your TV via HDMI. The Apple TV is one such option that streams whatever video you have in iTunes, as well as YouTube and even Hulu, if you install the Boxee add-on to Apple TV. My current favorite media player is the Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite, which can play most any video on your PC, download BitTorrent videos directly to the built-in hard drive, and access Netflix Instant movies using PlayOn PC software.
Upgrade your game console to HD
If you have a Sony PlayStation 3 or Microsoft Xbox 360 Elite, you already have an HD-capable console. However, you'll need to upgrade from SD cables to HDMI versions to see the extra pixels in games such as Halo 3. The PlayStation 3, with its built-in Blu-ray drive, also doubles as a native HD movie player, while the Xbox 360 Elite doubles as an upconverting DVD player.
While you're at it, be sure to change the video output setting of these consoles to 720p or 1080p, depending on your TV's maximum resolution. The PlayStation 3 has a second setting for 24Hz Blu-ray movie playback, where you can choose Automatic, Off, or On. If you have a TV capable of 24Hz 1080p playback, set this to On. You must use HDMI cables and specify HDMI in the various PlayStation 3 display settings for this to work.
Nintendo Wii owners are out of luck, since the Wii outputs only 480p — higher quality than SD, but not full HD. (Your AV receiver or TV can upscale the signal, however.) Original-Xbox owners have it better. While they don't have HDMI ports, they can get 1080i output by using component cables, which carry analog HD video.
Optimize Netflix, Amazon and iTunes video
To get the best results when viewing video from streaming sources such as Netflix Instant, Amazon Unbox, and iTunes on your HDTV, follow three basic rules. First, make sure your source device (Apple TV, Roku box, TiVo, Xbox, PC, and so on) is set up to output at the maximum resolution your HDTV can support, such as 720p, 1080i or 1080p, and that it is connected via HDMI if available.
Second, for PC sources, use the 1:1 pixel mapping mode on your TV (variously called PC mode, Full Pixel, Pixel for Pixel, or some similar name), and check that your PC is set to output at the native resolution of your HDTV, such as 1920 by 1080 for most 1080p displays or 1366 by 768 for many 720p plasmas. This setting will ensure that scaling doesn't distort the pixels.
Finally, for all types of streaming sources, make sure that you have a rock-solid Internet connection. If your wireless connection is not up to the task, you'll soon know it from all the dropouts and glitches in your video. In that case, you can switch to a wired connection like ethernet, powerline, or coax.