Best Home Theater Audio Upgrades & Optimizations
At Audio Advice, we are HUGE fans of immersive home theaters. Whether you’re researching for a future home theater installation or exploring ways to enhance your current home theater, we’ve created a series of videos to walk you through upgrades to make optimizing your setup easier — including everything you need to know, from tweaking your picture to improving the acoustics in your room. In this particular video, we give you some tips for improving the audio in your theater or media room.
While you can always upgrade a part of your home theater to get even better performance, we thought it would be fun to go over some things you can do to improve your audio experience that only take a little time and knowledge.
Just like in the top 5 tips for improving video, we are following the 80/20 rule. Most of these tips could have a small book written on them to take fine-tuning as far as possible. These tips will get you most of the value, with just 20% of the work.
If you have a favorite tip you do not see listed here, we would love to hear from you. Please post your comments and suggestions for us to see in the comments section of our YouTube video.
Tip #1: Make sure your left & right speakers are set up properly
Hopefully, you have used our article on home theater speaker layout options or our free 3D home theater designer to find the right placement for your home theater speakers. This tip is about making sure your main in-room speakers are properly set up and positioned correctly. Most of us have a sweet spot where we prefer to sit in our theater that, 99% of the time, should be dead center of the screen. Your left and right speakers should be set up to be symmetrical to this spot. For home theater, we like them to be at a 45-60 degree angle from your primary seat. You want each of them to be the exact same distance from your ears with the exact same amount of “toe-in”— which refers to the angle the speaker is aimed toward the center seat. But, if you have some flexibility, playing with their position can be fun.
Make sure your home theater receiver or processor is set to playback just in stereo and turn off any room EQ. Find a favorite recording with a single voice that also has some acoustic bass if possible. You’ll want to use a tape measure to confirm your starting point is good, so measure from the back of your speaker to the rear wall on the rear corners of each speaker. Get both speakers the same. Now, listen and take note of the focus of the singer’s voice. It should be dead center in front of you. Also, pay attention to how focused and clean the bass tones are.
Next, if you have the room, try moving your speakers out about 12” further into the center of the room. Listen again and trust your ears as to which spot sounds better. After doing this a few times and moving around in smaller increments, you will probably come to a spot where you can detect much better sound. Then, try moving them closer together and further apart by just a few inches. Once you have that general position, you can adjust the toe-in until the vocalist is right in the center. Then use your tape measure to get both exactly the same.
If your speakers have spikes, make sure the spikes are set up so the speaker is level with no wobble.
Once you are happy with everything, run the audio calibration again on your home theater system or you can wait until we walk through it a little later.
These steps should make your sound more open, and your surround sound field seems bigger and more cohesive.
Tip #2: Subwoofer Setup
Getting your subwoofer set up & calibrated can make a huge difference in the way your home theater sounds. You can go from bass that is boomy with no definition, to deep bass where you can hear what type of muffler the cars are using in a chase scene.
This does take some experimenting, measuring, and listening to get your sub in the exact right spot and calibrated correctly for the room. You’ll have to experiment with crossover points and the delay of the subwoofer to get the best blend between it and your main speakers. This is so important to get right that we’ve created an entire video on it. You’ll find that after moving your sub a little bit and making a few adjustments in your setup you’ll notice your bass is much tighter, defined, and blends far better with your main speakers.
Tip #3: Update Surround Sound Settings
This tip is quick and simple but many people miss it in the initial setup of their system.
Many devices will default to outputting just plain old stereo as the company thinks the box will be hooked up just to TV speakers and they want that buyer to hear all the sound.
You want to go to the setup menu of each of your sources. Go to the audio section and make 100% sure it is set to output surround sound. If you see a choice between PCM or Bitstream, choose Bitstream. If you see stereo or Dolby, choose Dolby. Or it might be Dolby Surround.
There are still a pretty good number of TV shows and movies that are produced in either just normal stereo or even mono. Most modern home theater receivers have the ability to convert this type of signal into a more immersive audio experience and make it easier to understand the dialog at the same time.
To make certain you have this set correctly, you normally have to go into each of your active inputs on your home theater receiver. You will see a section for audio decoding, format, or something like that. Usually, there is a drop-down or section for stereo and mono. Find those and change the output to be your favorite surround sound mode, which for most people, will be Dolby Surround. Now, when a stereo encoded TV series comes on, your receiver will give you a better surround experience and move dialogue into the center speaker. The Dolby Surround playback of stereo has gotten so good that even most hardcore audiophiles set it as the default in their theaters.
Now, you know for sure you are going to get the best surround sound possible.
Tip #4: Proper Audio Calibration & Home Theater Receiver Calibration
You would not believe how many home theaters we visit where the customer has asked us to find ways to improve the sound and we find that the previous installer from another company did not even run any type of audio calibration!
This one is probably one of the most important steps you can do to assure you are getting the best sound. It will require a little bit of time, and for some home theater receivers, it is more automatic than others. But in all cases, it is so well worth it. If you have never calibrated your theater, many modern ones will just walk you through the process with an on-screen display. It's important to note some automatic systems get the distances wrong, so please check those with a tape measure and adjust if they are off.
It is important that you do the speaker set up and subwoofer set up before you run the calibration. And remember, if your subwoofer has its own calibration feature, run that first. Also, for almost all calibration systems, turn off any external sounds like HVAC systems, point the microphone upward and not at the screen, and finally, rerun the calibration if you’ve added or changed any furniture in the room.
After proper audio calibration, everything about the sound will improve.
Tip #5: Center Channel Optimization
There is no question that the most important speaker in your home theater system is your center channel. If you cannot understand the dialog in a movie or TV show, you will just not have an enjoyable experience.
We have seen many situations where the way a center channel speaker is placed in a cabinet or the wall construction it is mounted in or on top of can cause resonances that color the sound coming out. These resonances hide the tiny little details in the sound of the emotions the performer is putting into the scene. For some of you, there may be no issue at all, but we find many systems where this simple tip can make a substantial difference.
We have an entire companion video on how to optimize your center channel that goes over everything in detail, but I will quickly tell you here some things to try.
What we want to do here is to experiment with the placement of your center channel and the frequency where your center channel speaker crosses over to your subwoofer. That frequency is where the deeper bass tones are routed to your subwoofer. Normally, the default crossover frequency is 80Hz, but we find in some cases, raising this slightly will produce better results for the center channel speaker.
First, go into your audio settings for your home theater receiver and make sure you can make fine adjustments. If your choice is just large or small, you will not be able to make any changes to the crossover and will need to just try moving the speaker if you can. Find a clip from a movie scene that has deeper male voices speaking. Listen carefully and if any of those voices get chesty sounding, you have a resonance problem. Even if you do not hear it when you test, you will probably notice an improvement in clarity if you try these tips.
For those of you with an in-room center channel speaker, you should try moving it further away from the wall behind it. This could mean moving it forward on the cabinet it is on top of or moving its stand away from the back wall and closer to you. If your speaker is sitting on a cabinet, be sure there are some rubber feet between the speaker and the cabinet.
Moving it might fix it, but if it did not, try changing your crossover from 80 Hz to 90 Hz and listen again. Keep doing this until you go up to 120 Hz. In some rare cases, lowering the crossover may sound better — you can try going down as low as 60 Hz. If you have a cabinet or wall resonance issue, things will usually clear up at around 90-100 Hz.
After these adjustments, you should hear that dialog in general sounds much more effortless and you’ll be able to hear more subtle emotions.
Tip #6: Acoustics
Sound reflecting around your room can cause an echo effect that makes it difficult to hear the small details in the movie or TV soundtrack. You do not want a totally dead room, but too much reflection can make it very hard to even understand the dialog. At Audio Advice, we offer all kinds of acoustic panels you can purchase, but I thought it would be fun to clue you in on some tips on how to use things you might already have around your house. These will probably not be a permanent solution but will at least show you how important acoustic treatment can be in a great home theater.
What you want to look for are large flat surfaces where the sound might bounce off and make it to your ears just after the main soundwave comes directly from your speakers.
This trick requires two people. One of you will sit in your main chair while the other moves down your right and left sidewalls with a mirror held at the same level off the floor as your main speakers. Anywhere you can see the speaker from your chair in the mirror is a point on the wall that should be treated. Ideally, you would put acoustic panels in these spots, but just for a test, you can try hanging up a heavy blanket or tapestry on the wall just as a test.
In some rooms, a large flat wall at the back of the room can also cause a problem. Try treating the middle section and corners the same way you did the side reflections. If you really want to get this right, give us a call, chat with us on AudioAdvice.com, or stop by one of our stores and we can help you map out some absorptive and diffusive paneling for your exact room.
If you do have reflection problems and tried these tips, you should find the dialog much easier to understand and experience a more precise surround sound field around you. And it will not be long before you replace that blanket hanging on the wall with some real acoustic panels!
Tip #7: Finding & Eliminating Room Noises
Nothing is more distracting than hearing a recessed can light fixture or HVAC vent buzz when a long, low deep bass effect hits. It totally ruins the scene in the movie. Finding the buzzing light or vent is a lot harder than you might think! What causes the buzzing sound or rattle is a very specific frequency that excites the object.
Once you find where the rattle or buzz is coming from, you can normally use some blue tack to fix it. You can usually just place some of the blue tack in between the HVAC vent or recessed can trim ring and the ceiling to fix the buzz. If it is a lightweight door on a cabinet, you might need a rubber bumper.
To help you out, we have a full video where we slowly go across the spectrum of tones where we normally find rattles. I suggest for this test that you put your home theater system in “all channel stereo”. This will be an audio mode where every speaker gets a full-range signal. It may be called “party mode” or “all channel music” or something similar.
Play the test sweep over until you hear a rattle or buzz. You will notice the sweep shows the frequency on the screen. At the end of the sweep video, we have longer tracks of most of the frequencies to give you more time to find that annoying rattle. If you have multiple light fixtures or HVAC vents in the ceiling, you might have to get on a ladder to get close enough to detect which fixture is causing the problem. Or, you might just find putting blue tack on everything in your ceiling is faster than trying to find one.
Once you have fixed any buzzing or rattling be sure to set your system back to normal surround mode. Now you can enjoy those loud and rumbling scenes and only hear what is coming from your fine-tuned subwoofer!
We hope these audio tips have helped you improve your system. If you now have the bug for even more improvements, you might want to check out our free 3D home theater design tool where you can plan out your ultimate home theater. At Audio Advice, we've been designing and installing high-performance home theaters & smart home systems for our customers in North Carolina and the surrounding areas for decades. In fact, we've delivered more custom theaters than anyone in the Southeast! We are now offering Home Theater Design no matter where you live in the United States! If you are interested in a custom home theater or upgrading your current system, give us a call at 888.899.8776, chat with us, or stop by our award-winning showrooms. We can't wait to help you build your ultimate home theater!
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