Whether you just bought a new HDTV set over the holidays or have had one for a while, you’d be surprised how much better you can get it to look with just some minor adjustments. We also have some suggestions for those you want to go the extra mile or buy an add-on or two.
Make Sure You Use the Right Cables Source: Redmere
Most TVs offer a wide assortment of inputs including composite video and audio that use yellow, red and white RCA connectors and provide the lowest quality signal and no HD. S-Video connectors that use round black connectors, are a little better, but still no HD. Component hook ups use 3 video and 2 audio RCA connectors and are still analog, but will get you HD and are the next best thing to HDMI. There are sometimes when component beats HDMI because component doesn’t use HDCP copyright protection and can be used on devices like the Slingbox to placeshift programming. The best connector overall is HDMI with its small rectangular connectors which provide a high quality digital connection for audio and video. Our advice is, use HDMI and avoid the super cheap HDMI cables, on the other hand, don’t get fooled into buying expensive cables from the salesperson at your local big box retailer. Most HDMI cables work just fine for most programming, while some are better than others. Reasons to spend the extra money for a high speed (Category 2) capable cable include “Deep Color,” lossless audio, 3D content and Audio Return Channel (ARC) where the TV HDMI port feeds audio out to a device like a soundbar. One other HDMI technology to consider is RedMere which is an “active” cable that can prove useful for long HDMI runs like to a projector in the ceiling or just in case you want a very thin HDMI cable.
Tip: If you want to buy cables from the place the professional installers buy from, check out Monoprice or check out HDMI cables on Bizrate.
Get Your TV Set Out of Showroom Mode
Most TVs come out of the box in “showroom” setting that puts a bright and high contrast picture on the screen so it looks good in a brightly lit store. At home your setting will typically be more subdued and your TV’s can be toned down with just a few adjustments that usually can be easily found in your TV’s menu:
The brightness control typically sets the black level, which should be lowered from the factory setting but not so low as to make dark objects disappear into a dark background.
The contrast control, sometimes called “picture” adjusts the white level and which should also be lowered but not so much that details in light objects like clouds get lost.
Newer sets make it even easier to change from showroom mode with presets that can be assigned to different inputs like a “movie” mode for your Blu-ray player. If you’re using an AVR (audio video receiver) you’ll only have one input to the TV and won’t be able to assign presets to your different devices like game consoles and DVD players.
Calibrate With a DVD or Blu-ray DiscAlthough you can improve your picture with just a few manual adjustments, the next step up is to use a DVD or better yet a Blu-ray disc to calibrate your TV. Test discs that include tutorials and step-by-step instructions are not that expensive. The least expensive version is one that comes on many DVDs. George Lucas saw to it that THX certified DVDs provide a set of calibration tools under the setup menu. If you don’t already own a THX DVD like “Star Wars,” try Netflix or your local library for one of the DVDs listed on this web site. The THX Optimizer will guide you through a set of test patterns so you can adjust contrast, brightness, color/tint, aspect ratio, and sharpness. In case you mess up, most TVs have a default setting you can use to restore the factory settings.
For around $25 you can invest in a calibration disc that may include a set of filters you look through or hold up against the screen to help set color levels. Spears & Munsil’s Blu-ray calibration disc gets high marks from users but you’ll have to wait until March, 2013 for the 2nd edition. Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials (DVE) is another popular one as well as the Monster/ISF HDTV Calibration Wizard. Tutorials on the discs explain how to perform the tests and what the tests mean.
Disney offers a how-to guide with test patterns on a 2 disc set that sells for $39.99 ($27.49 last time we looked on Walmart). You can check out the companion PDF guide for free.
Tip: If you’re feeling adventurous, you can download a disc’s worth of test patterns for free on the avsforum site which you’ll have to burn onto a disc.
Hire a Pro or Calibrate Like a Pro
If you can afford about $300 to have a specialist from someplace like Geek Squad come to your house, you’ll get someone trained to use professional equipment like this colorimeter which suctions onto the front of your TV and provides feedback for adjusting the settings. You can always purchase the gear they use like this SpyderTV analyzer which starts at around $139. SpectraCal also sells an affordable calibration package like the CalMAN 5. You can also use them to calibrate monitors which can be important for creative professionals using tools like Photoshop.
Add Speakers or a Sound Bar
As TVs get thinner and thinner, it’s more of a challenge for TV manufacturers with serious space constraints to design good quality speakers. Don’t forget, studies have shown that viewers think the picture looks better when the audio sounds better so don’t make the mistake of buying a good quality high definition TV and then add a set of poor quality speakers or home theater system. We could write a book on adding speakers and other audio components to your HDTV set but we’ll just mention a few affordable and effective methods for improving your TV’s audio. The first thing you should consider adding is a subwoofer that will boost the bass. A good subwoofer will cost around $100. For the full immersive effect of surround sound you’ll need to purchase a set of speakers and place them around the room. A 5.1 speaker set which includes a subwoofer, could run you a few hundred dollars for a decent set. Another option is a sound bar that sits under the front of your TV and “projects” simulated surround sound.
Place a Light Source Behind Your TV
Lastly, one of the cheapest and easiest ways to make your HDVT set look better is to place a light behind the set. We’re not talking about the backlight in the LCD TV but all we’re saying is placing a light source called “bias lighting” can reduce eyestrain especially with 3DTVs because your eyes don’t have to react to dramatic shifts between light and dark. Antec makes an LED strip bias light that is reasonably priced.