What you hear is just as important as what you see in a home theater setup. If you take a few minutes to calibrate the speakers on your audio-video receiver, you can create a better balance between sound and vision.
What is calibration?
Placing your speakers within a room and connecting them to a receiver are only the first steps in getting the most out of your audio system. The goal of calibration is to get the best listening experience from where you usually sit when watching movies.
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Calibration requires adjusting your speakers for the frequencies they carry, their distance from you and their volume levels. Calibration overcomes less than ideal room configurations or speaker placement — for example, maybe you couldn’t put your center speaker at ear level or your room has a post on the left side that reflects sound.
What settings need to be adjusted?
Three main settings in receivers comprise calibration: speaker size, speaker distance and speaker level.
The receiver decides which frequencies to send to each speaker. In speaker parlance, size refers not to physical dimension but to frequencies speakers can handle. "Large" speakers get both low and high frequencies. "Small" speakers get only higher frequencies. When you calibrate, you need to select large or small for each speaker. Most speakers in home theater surround sound systems are "small," so the low frequencies are sent to a speaker called a subwoofer.
This helps determine the amount of delay the receiver introduces so the sound from speakers placed at various distances from you reaches your ears at the same time.
This setting equalizes the volume of all speakers, which creates the illusion of seamless sound in front of you even though it’s coming from individual speakers.
How do I calibrate my speakers?
Many of today’s receivers include auto-calibration. You place a microphone where you will typically sit, and it listens for a series of test sounds from all the speakers in order to calibrate the system.
Auto-calibration isn’t perfect, though. In most cases you’ll get the fastest results by running auto-calibration first, and then using manual calibration to make adjustments for your personal preferences.
You can download apps for your smartphone to help do this, such as the iOS app The Real SPL Meter or the Android app Sound Meter, both of which are free. The apps measure sound in a unit called decibels. On newer systems, the sounds may be off by only a few decibels, but on older ones it may be off by a noticeable 10 or so.
You'll want to test your speakers in the 70- to 80-decibel range (close to maximum volume). To test if speakers are close in volume, play a uniform sound through each speaker. Most receivers can generate the sound for you through the setup menu. Measure the level of the sound from one speaker and then compare it with another. If a speaker is much louder or softer than another, you can adjust it individually through your receiver using the speaker level setting, usually found within the receiver’s setup menu.
If you don’t take the time to calibrate your speakers, you’re not getting the best performance out of your home theater. A few minutes of effort can greatly improve your overall sound.