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Home theater, as it was meant to be

No matter the price of your setup, it can look and sound better after some fine-tuning. Two low-cost DVDs can show you how.

May 29, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

A new home theater setup can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and for that you expect it will arrive in perfect adjustment.

Well, maybe.

Among video- and audiophiles, there's a feeling that no matter the cost of a home system, it will need some tweaking once it gets in place to obtain optimal brightness, contrast, sharpness, color and sound balance.

This type of testing and adjustment used to call for expensive instruments that only a trained technician could love. But now there are a couple of low-cost DVDs for sale or rent that even nontechies can use to make these adjustments fairly simple. Just pop one of these discs into your setup's DVD player and follow the detailed instructions, which mostly involve staring at test patterns or listening to tones, and then making the appropriate tweaks.

These DVDs are neither cure-alls nor instant remedies -- it takes several hours to go through all the step-by-step testing and fine-tuning called for on the discs. And they aren't perfectly applicable to all systems (the video tests don't work as well on plasma screens as they do on traditional cathode-ray-tube sets). But often, the result is a more rewarding home theater experience.

I tried the "Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up" from Ovation Software (www.ovationsw.com) and "Video Essentials" from Joe Kane Productions (www.videoessentials.com).

The big advantage of "Sound & Vision" is that it's widely available for about $20. "Video Essentials" is no longer being produced, and its update has been delayed, but it can still be found at rental shops or through Internet rental venues such as Netflix (www.netflix.com).

If you do go the rental route, be sure a strip of blue-tinted film is included with the disc -- the test DVDs use the strip for color tests.

Both discs are clearly aimed at folks who have fairly sophisticated, expensive systems with surround sound. But even if your setup consists of a smallish, regular old tube TV and a couple of stereo speakers, you can reap benefits. Of course, you'll need a DVD player to use the discs.

"Sound & Vision," produced in conjunction with Sound & Vision magazine, kicks off with a fairly lengthy tutorial on home theater. It points out that sound quality is perhaps even more important than picture to the home theater experience. "It's what brings the picture to life," says Julia, who along with Dave is the overly jovial host of the DVD.

That section is aimed at helping buyers choose their first setup. Unfortunately, most consumers will probably get this DVD after they've already bought a system.

"Video Essentials" is a bit more technically oriented but mostly steers clear of jargon. Its simple, informative animations are a welcome relief from the Julia and Dave show.

Both discs say TVs are usually set by manufacturers at too high a brightness level for home viewing ("Video Essentials" comes close to calling this a conspiracy), so they'll look good in a showroom. The DVDs begin their picture tests with the related brightness and contrast settings. (On many televisions, the "contrast" setting is called "picture," a fact that "Video Essentials" helpfully points out.) You adjust these settings by looking at a series of black and gray bars and then increasing or decreasing the levels.

Sharpness is next, with both discs pointing out that too much of this value is worse than too little. If it's set too high, unwanted outlines appear around objects.

Using the blue strips, color is tested and adjusted. Even for males like me with mild color-blindness, this process is fairly simple and when done, the picture seems well color-balanced. At least to me.

The sound tests consist mostly of tones coming from each speaker in turn -- the goal is to get them all on an equal level from the perspective of the main viewing position.

Both DVDs make the point that sound adjustment is easier and more accurately achieved with the use of a hand-held sound-level meter that costs about $40.

In the end, using these DVDs produced almost equal results. The most dramatic picture changes on my 8-year-old, 27-inch tube TV were in sharpness and color. The picture is now more lifelike and pleasant to watch.

The sound balance is dramatically improved, especially after I honed the settings with the use of a meter. This greatly enhanced the experience of listening to a movie with 5.1 Dolby surround sound.

In general, the "Video Essentials" tests were easier to carry out, although "Sound & Vision" produced a more sophisticated color balance (ironically, "Video Essentials" left the colors far too bright, even for me).

A modest investment in either DVD will probably lead to better viewing and hearing of movies at home. And isn't that why you spent all those dollars on your setup in the first place?

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