If you read our previous post about setting up the picture on your new HDTV you should have a great picture that’s wowing anyone who comes over. But as we said the picture is only half the story. A great sounding home theater will bring the experience to life and give you feel of being in the action. Unfortunately tuning sound is even more nuanced than tuning the picture and can be full of pitfalls and false information. In this post let’s dive in and discover what we can do to get the most out of our speakers and really bring our entertainment up to par.
The first question some people have is “My TV has speakers, why do I need more?” This question is valid and you’ll no doubt be able to hear what you’re watching with no problem. However modern televisions have focused on slim form factors and minimizing borders. While this is great for your home décor it is awful for sound. Speakers in modern HDTV’s tend to be smaller and even pointed at the wall behind your TV to maintain that beautiful form. This means your sound will be thin and you’re hearing it indirectly as it bounces around the room. While that might be fine for some people I want my viewing experience to be the best possible.
As with the TV tuning article we need to start with speaker placement. While this doesn’t need to be as exact as placement of the screen you certainly want to position your sound for the best possible immersion for the most of your seating arrangement. This will mean rotating your speakers ever so slightly so they actually face the viewers. This also means positioning your subwoofer so that you get great reverberation from its surroundings and mounting your rear speakers high enough so that their sound isn’t getting completely absorbed by the back of the sofa. Also like the TV there’s no perfect placement and this will be dependent on the room the system is installed in. Just put on some music and trust your ears. Does the right side sound weak? Adjust the speakers so that they’re focused on you. Does the bass sound hollow? Move the sub a little closer to bare wall to help with the reverb. Soon you’ll see (or hear) how it all comes together. As a note you never want to place the sub in the middle of the room or under the sofa. Bass needs reverb to sound good and your best source will be hard walls and solid-sided furniture.
Another large variable to consider is the room the sound is in. Sound is a wave that can bounce off objects and this is especially true of hard solid objects. While this is can be useful for a subwoofer a room with solid bare walls and a hardwood floor can sound tinny or hollow. If you have this problem a large rug and window curtains can go a long way to reducing harshness.
Once your speakers are set you’ll want to deal with fine tuning, or “EQ’ing” your sound. This process can be difficult for those without sound experience but by following a few guidelines you’ll be able to easily get a hold of the concepts. This is also an area where many people often make mistakes. The primary mistake I’ve heard is too much bass. People like the “feel” of bass and consider it to add to the immersive experience but too much of a good thing will certainly do more harm than good. Bass is not as precise as treble and can “muddy” other sounds. For instance you might have an action movie where the characters are talking while action is going on in the background. In this situation too much bass will “feel” great but it will make the characters harder to understand. One technique to finding the right balance is to gradually add bass until this occurs then dial it back a bit. Unfortunately this process isn’t perfect as different soundtracks are EQ’d differently. So take time and don’t get stressed out when your system is perfect until one show or movie throws it way off. Adjusting sound is a process that will take time and patience to get perfectly.
Remember that when you adjust sound you are only adjusting your particular setup to the environment it’s in. Shows, movies, and music are all adjusted before you experience them to the creator’s ideal and it’s not your job to try and fix them individually. Instead you want to adjust your system over a wide range of media to get the best experience from everything and not just that one song you love. Because of this it’s often unnecessary to make large changes from the stock, or “flat” EQ. Instead focus on small adjustments and only make them when needed. If your system sounds like it’s an old radio consider lowering the mid-range, if your speakers sound small and weak dial in more bass and drop the treble. If your highs and lows sound great but dialogue is way off raise the mids back up a bit. But if you notice that your treble is maxed out while upper bass ranges are gone completely it might be time to set everything back to zero and start over.
Another pitfall of sound adjustment is attempting to change everything at once. When tuning sound, variables can be the enemy. Perhaps you’ve worked with your receiver for an hour adjusting the sound only to find out your television’s build in EQ is set to “Action.” Well you quickly reach the point where you’re fighting yourself. The best practice is to set everything to default or “flat” and work on adjusting one device at a time. You also want to start with whichever device offers the most range of adjustment which is usually your receiver. It’s most often the case that once the sound is correct on one device you won’t have a reason to adjust the other devices. One exception will be subwoofers that offer their own on-board adjustment.
With sound there are more advanced options you might encounter. Phase is a setting that can be difficult for first time adjusters. Phase is the amount of delay between the subwoofer and the other speakers. The reason this is important is that sounds can cancel out other sounds (like in modern Noise Cancelling Headphones). One of the best ways to set phase without professional equipment is to play a song with a steady and prominent bass line and adjust till the sound is the most “full.” Another adjustment you might encounter is the crossover. This device will block certain frequencies from speakers so that subs are not trying to play higher sounds and your component speakers aren’t trying to replicate lows. Adjust this so that you’re not getting any distortion as a speaker tries to reproduce a sound out of its range.
Finally I want to touch on equipment. While there are several tools that assist pro audio guys in properly setting up a system the home theater enthusiasts will usually benefit the most from the simpler tools offered by THX in their “THX Tune-Up” app for iPhone and iPad. These tools are also found on any THX certified DVD or Blu Ray. If you want to go a little more in depth you can find test CD’s online for a reasonable price. While to the amateur adjusting sound may seem like a black art it’s really just a process of understanding your settings and trusting your ear and the worst case scenario will always be setting it back to zero and starting over. Good Luck!
We managed to get a early hands-on look at Sonos' new S5 all-in-one speaker system last month, and if that got you intrigued you'll no doubt be pleased to know that the rig is now available in the US for the slightly premium price of $399. That will get you all the usual wireless connectivity you'd expect from a Sonos ZonePlayer (minus the need to purchase additional speakers), plus support for the Sonos Controller iPhone app (but no actual iPhone / iPod dock), and of course some "room-filling" sound, which we found did actually live up to its promise. Still confused about the whole thing? Head on past the break for a video.
Liberty Technology now has Sonos products available! Ease of use, value, audio quality - the Sonos system is by far the most advanced whole house audio system on the market. And it goes great with Paradigm speakers!