Do I Need to Calibrate my Home Theater Receiver?

This video is part of our Home Theater Design Series that covers virtually everything about designing a home theater.

Maybe you’ve decided to make the move up to 4K video and have gotten a new TV along with a brand-new surround sound receiver that also supports 4K. You’ve connected everything up and are probably really proud you’ve got both picture and sound working. So, the big question is, do you sit back and enjoy what you’ve done for many years to come, or do you spend a little bit more time reading the manual to do a few more steps?

As a company with thousands of installations under our belt, we go behind lots of systems done by other companies. It may surprise you to know, there are an awful lot of home theater receivers out there, installed by alleged professionals, that had no more done than the wiring connected just like we described above. It's kind of funny, the audio-video world is one of the few areas where you can only halfway finish and things will still work! Imagine putting all of the ingredients of a recipe together, then not cooking the food!

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Why is calibration so important and why are almost all of our installation clients amazed when they hear the before and after? It really comes down to enabling your system to perform up to its best potential, and heck, it only takes some extra time!

You are essentially making adjustments that allow your system to deliver the sound to your ears that is as close as possible to what the engineer who mixed the soundtrack envisioned.

Home Theater Receiver

Let’s go over some of the steps and why they matter:

Level Calibration

This is one of the critical ones. When your receiver is brand new before calibration, every single speaker is going to get the exact same level of volume from the amplifier section. You might think, well that seems like the right thing, but it's actually not for a couple of reasons. First, you want the sound from each of your home theater speakers to be at roughly the same volume. It’s ok to turn your center channel up a little bit or boost your subwoofer for personal taste, but in general, your speakers should be close to each other in volume level. All speakers are not made equal and some speakers will play far louder than others with the same amount of power. Also, even the position in your room can affect how loud a speaker sounds as the room may reinforce or take away from the perceived output level.

Fortunately, all home theater receivers have what is called “a speaker level control”. This gives you a huge range of volume adjustment so you can get all of your speakers fully balanced out. All you have to do is turn on the receiver’s test tones, measure the levels and make adjustments up or down on each speaker until they are the same. You’ll likely need a way to make the measurements, but there are many free smartphone sound level apps made just for this purpose.

Speaker Distance or Delay

The sound engineers who create those amazing effects in today’s movies spend a great deal of time producing a soundtrack that fills the room with immersive sound. To get this magic to occur, the sound has to get to our ears at the same time from all of the speakers. Obviously, in a typical room, almost every speaker is a different distance from our ears. The good news is, every home theater receiver also has a way to correct this. You simply measure the distance each speaker is from your main seat, put in these values, and the receiver makes the corrections to allow to sound to arrive at your ears all at the same time.

Speaker Size or Crossover

Almost every home theater will have a subwoofer that is designed to handle the low bass tones and deep special effects. Not every speaker in a home theater can handle the deep bass, so it's better, if the speaker is small, to route the bass to the subwoofer. This takes the load off a small speaker, helping it to perform better, and frankly, a subwoofer or subwoofers will normally do a much better job on reproducing the deep bass. To route the bass to your subwoofer(s), you have to tell the system to do it as they usually default to all full-range speakers. Just like the levels, this is relatively easy, most speakers, unless they are very large, should be set to an 80 Hz crossover. In some cases, you’ll only have a choice of large or small. Small will equal 80 Hz. Doing this will send the deep bass sounds from those speakers to your subwoofer(s).

Room Correction

Many modern surround sound receivers have added a new feature that can actually correct for problems created by your room. Every room impacts the sound in a pretty dramatic way, reducing some frequencies and boosting others. Room correction or room equalization systems have gotten very good at eliminating a lot of these problems. Doing this step can make a HUGE difference in some rooms, but it can be a little daunting.

Speaker Fine Tuning

This one is the final icing on the cake and in some cases, if your speakers are in a fixed position, it may not even be possible. You’ll hear the biggest improvements with your main left, right, and center speakers, and your subwoofer. Ideally, you want your left and right speakers to be the exact same distance off the wall behind them and if they are angled, at the same angle. A tape measure and a little listening will help you here. Playing around with your subwoofer placement can also have a big change in the way your bass sounds if you have the physical room to move it around.

So now that you know why, you are probably ready to jump in and do your first calibration.

Calibrating a home theater receiver used to be a daunting task of menu after submenu that required a Ph.D. in owner’s manual speak to get a good outcome. Today’s home theater receivers have made the process much easier, and in some cases, it's all totally automatic.

Many will step you through the process with an easy to understand on-screen display. We do have one bit of advice: If your system automatically adjusts everything, we think it's a good idea to go back into the menus and confirm things don’t look wacky. We’ve seen distances and crossover points be way off. Most automatic systems seem to do a decent job with the levels. We suggest you recheck your distances with a tape measure and confirm your crossover settings are close to 80 Hz after the auto-calibration runs.

We hope this short guide has helped you understand why it's important to calibrate your home theater receiver. More importantly, we hope you have a big grin on your face after you’ve finished making your home theater even better!

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