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Home Theatre Calibration:

A Review by: Alphonso Soosay

Home Theatre room “Calibration” is all about, programming the position and distance settings onto your Audio or Video Surround Sound equipment’s processor in order to capitalize on the quality of your playback device’s output. The modification in quality could be very minor, or very substantial, to the point where it seems as if you are using a complete different system. Surround Sound Calibration has to be programmed very carefully by a professional audio technician, or if you know how using a volume / spectrum analyser and Surround Sound Calibration disc.

There are several Audio Calibration discs available today: three of the well-liked ones have been selected for your use, 1) Avia Guide to Home Theatre, 2) Digital Video Essentials, and 3) home-theater-calibrationSound & Vision Home Theatre Tune-Up.  Each DVD disc is divided into two source sections. Section one is a general guide, useful when wiring your home theatre components together and placing your speakers in their permanent positions. Section Two is a collection of test patterns, for both audio and video, useful for calibrating your Home Theatre system. Each disc has distinct strengths, and buying the proper disc could make your life much easier.

Let’s start with the Avia Guide to Home Theatre.

The Avia Guide is the oldest of the DVD test discs, released in 1999.  Needless to say, home theatre components have changed to a great extent since 1999. The Avia Guide is geared principally towards cathode ray tube (CTR) direct-view sets (the television that has been sitting in your living room for years). However, most of the tutorial section’s advice still holds up, especially the sections on proper set up of a dedicated home theatre room; topics like ambient light management, speaker placement, and general acoustic advice have not varied much with advancements in technology.

The sections on preferred cable connections do not include DVI or HDMI because in 1999, there were no consumer-level electronics featuring these connectors. Furthermore, in the section discussing video technology, Avia talks about CRT projectors as well as LCD projectors; but not DLP, due to their relative scarcity in 1999, but it does not mean that it downgrades Aviv’s usefulness when calibrating DLP devices. The Avia Guide devotes as much time to multi-speaker placement and calibration as it goes to video calibration. There are sections on room acoustics and speaker placement for each set of speakers, as well as how to connect your speakers for the best possible sound quality. These calibration disc features a wide variety of test tones. In addition to the standard level adjustment tones for main and surround speakers, there are also several different test tones solely for subwoofer adjustment, to assist you in getting as flat a response as possible from your subwoofer. There is a separate section for tones used to verify that your speakers are now set up correctly. For fresh knowledgeable users, there is a “reference tones” section specifically for use with advanced equipment like a spectrum analyser. The audio section of the Avia guide can help you make simple calibrations as well as more in-depth adjustments; how seriously your fine-tuning you accomplish is entirely up to you.

The Avia disc has a substantial selection of video test patterns, covering many different aspects of home theatre calibration; some of these are relatively simple, and some are not. Patterns for the “big five” video adjustments (brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, sharpness) have audio and video descriptions to go with them. While the narrators refer more to CRT displays than digital projectors, the patterns themselves are useful for both, as they provide consistent source material. Other more advanced patterns can reveal the accuracy of your projector’s colour decoder, or with the help of some more advanced instrumentation such as a light meter or colorimeter help you to adjust colour temperature or grey-scale tracking. Direction on the Avia disc is simple and intuitive. Similar test patterns are grouped in sub-menus, which are clearly labelled. Each and every pattern has a paragraph or two of text that describes what the pattern is used for and how it is used. The Avia disc is a great choice for anyone who has never set up a home theatre before, but would like to learn and eventually perform more in-depth calibrations without deciding on hiring a home theatre technician. And while the narrators focus on CRT displays more than today’s digital projectors, this just means that the Avia guide can be used on almost any home theatre systems in your home. The concept is the same.

Digital Video Essentials: Digital Video Essentials is the follow-up to the successful Video Essentials from 1996. Released in 2003, DVE is fairly up-to-date in that it offers information primarily in the 16:9 aspect ratios, and includes an informative section on High Definition. DVE discusses some important topics for the first-time home theatre user, such as why the word “digital” does not automatically make a product better, or the effect of room environment on picture and sound quality. Unlike the other two discs, DVE discusses colour temperature thoroughly. However, it gives the user no way to set it, only an idea of what to look for. There are in-depth discussions on why progressive scan looks better than interlaced, and why component video is the best analogue connection choice.

Note: There are many topics included in the intro material that do not directly pertain to calibration.  While DVE has more material relevant to front projectors, it reviews about how difficult it is to set these devices properly, and strongly urges viewers to hire a Home theatre certified technician. The audio section of DVE goes into a discussion about the current state of audio technology, such as the differences between Dolby Digital and DTS, as well as different audio connections such as coaxial digital audio and Tos-link. It also has a guide on speaker placement for both 5.1 and 6.1 channel surround systems.

Like the Avia guide, DVE has many different test tones, and their level adjustment tones include a helpful visual diagram, highlighting which speaker the sound should be coming from.   However, the added tones on the Avia disc, which allow you to eventually use advanced equipment (such as a spectrum analyser) to tweak every aspect of your system are missing. Patterns for the major video adjustments have tutorials describing their use. DVE also includes a “troubleshooting” section, describing common problems that could arise when setting these levels for example, crushing of the grey scale in digital projectors, compared to CRTs. There are many advanced patterns, and this test disc is great for anyone who knows their way around a colorimeter. DVE can be used in conjunction with more advanced calibration devices to set your projector up perfectly. DVE is a good choice for advanced users of projectors and other high definition display devices. If you know what to do with the advanced test material, it will serve you well in calibrating your video system. If you are a new user with limited knowledge of the field, it could be beneficial to pick up one of the other two discs instead.

Sound & Vision Home Theatre Tune-Up: This disc is teamwork between the editors of Sound & Vision Magazine and Ovation Software, the people who brought us Avia. As such, the introductory material uses many of the same diagrams that Avia does, simply replacing the narration and the narrators with more up-to-date information. It also goes into some topics that were not covered in the other two discs; namely, Sound & Vision discusses how audio and video equipment puts off heat, and that not ensuring proper ventilation is a big mistake. It also discusses some of the downsides of long runs of video cable, and their effect on signal quality. Once again, however, there is no mention of DVI or HDMI; the disc once again shows its age, as well as how much has changed since 2001. There are short descriptions of the major audio test tones, explaining their use. For the most part, these test tones are taken straight from the Avia guide, and will help you to check the phase of your speakers, as well as balance their levels. Again, it is nowhere near as comprehensive as the Avia guide, but most people do not need that level of complexity, and this disc is perfectly adequate to properly balance your 5.1 to 7.1 channel speaker systems.

I believe this disc is best suited to beginners, as it gives a good overview of how home theatres work and what their setups involve. The basic five video adjustments are useful, and for those just starting out in the field of home theatre, this could help guard against becoming overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information available. If what you are looking for is a good discussion of how to set up a home theatre without the technical terminology or confusing advanced test patterns, if its your first time then try the Sound & Vision Home Theatre Tune-Up for your home theatre project. If you already own Avia, all you will receive from this disc is updated introductory material.

Conclusion: Each of these calibration discs fits a different style of user. For a beginner, Sound & Vision’s offering is more than enough to help you get your feet wet and perhaps arouse your interest. The Avia guide to Home Theatre is an excellent mid-range disc, with an enormous selection of test patterns and a helpful description for each, extending its usefulness from the new home theatre owner to the experienced video projector user. Conclusively, Digital Video Essentials offers updated versions of many of Avia’s most useful test patterns; it is still the most up-to-date of the three discs. And it sells for a much more attractive price than Avia at the moment.

Every “Home Theatre” owner must have a Surround Sound Calibration disc readily available for when calibration is required. If you do not own at least one of these discs, you can sure buy one through your nearest Blu-Ray, DVD Home Theatre stores.

Alphonso Soosay / 2005

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