Home Theater Set-up DVDs
all about calibration discs
Squeezing a lot more out of your system
without calling a professional!
You have upgraded to one of the latest big screen LED TVs or to a new AV receiver. You followed the user manual to the letter and got into great lengths to install your equipment the professional way. It is time to fire your system; everything is set for the big event but... Is it really so?
To get the best out of your system, you need to calibrate your gear. Setting up your system by following the user manual alone is not enough; you need a reference against which to calibrate your equipment. It is here that home theater step-up discs come into play.
Disney WOW: World of Wonder is definitely the ideal HD set-up disc for the beginner but not only.
It delivers clear explanations of both HDTV concepts and also of the audio test signals and the video test patterns found on this Blu-ray calibration disc. It is the ideal disc to go for if you want to learn about your HDTV and how to set it up.
More details available in our review here.
Buy from amazon.com
While some may look at getting a new TV or an AV receiver as the final step in the process of getting a better picture or better sound, yet this is just the beginning. The truth is that you can do a lot better and squeeze even more out of your system by following a few basic tips and by investing in a suitable home theater set-up DVD, also known as calibration disc.
Unfortunate, it is estimated that 90% of all HDTV owners never tweak their TV display and audio settings for best performance; instead, they settle for mediocre picture and sound. We are not saying that just by following a few key tips and by investing in a suitable set-up DVD, you can do away with professional calibration. This is not the case. There are instances when you cannot do without professional help, especially if you need to open the back panel of your TV. But there are many situations where a good quality set-up DVD would do a lot towards helping you achieve better picture and improved sound.
The good thing about set-up DVDs is that you do not need to be a qualified AV professional to use one of these calibration discs to optimize your system performance. In addition, most of these calibration discs come with extremely informative guides aimed at the beginner who would like to get a better understanding of AV system basics. Furthermore, set-up DVDs are relatively inexpensive; when you have spent thousands of dollars on new gear, it surely cannot hurt spending 20 to 40 dollars more on a suitable calibration disc. The end result is a more rewarding home theater experience.
In this Guide to Home Theater Set-Up DVDs, we first introduce you to basic system calibration. In the process, we present a few basic but important 'set-up tips' that you can follow to improve overall system performance even without having access to a set-up DVD.
However, relying on your perception of what appears to be the right settings has its serious limitations. We therefore introduce you to 'Home Theater Set-up DVDs' and their role as a means for both the beginner and the professional to calibrate system components.
We conclude this series by reviewing a number of home theater Set-up DVDs and A/V Calibration Tools to help you choose the best calibration system for your needs. Choosing the right set-up disc is important as system calibration can turn out to be really intimidating especially for the new comer.
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Many new owners of HDTVs and home entertainment systems leave their system default settings untouched—often ending up with a harsh, too-bright and over-saturated TV picture and unbalanced sound.
But default system settings are in most cases configured by manufacturers to make an impact at your favorite electronic superstore. In other words, these are not optimized for the living room or home theater, but to help the sales rep get the sale!
Luckily, more and more HDTVs include a 'Home Use' in addition to a 'Store Demo' mode; the user is prompted to select one or the other upon first startup. Selecting the Home Use mode will produce a less bright picture that is more comfortable for the typical ambient light conditions in the home. Instead, selecting the 'Store' mode will produce a much brighter picture that is more suitable for the showroom environment.
The problem here is not going for a bright TV picture if your home environment needs one; today's plasma and LED HDTVs as well as the latest home theater protectors can all produce TV images that look much brighter than ever. Rather, the whole issue is that you need to balance the TV picture with the light conditions in the room; and to balance your TV picture correctly, you cannot just opt for the manufacturers' default settings.
You do not have a set-up DVD in hand? No problem! There is a lot one can do to improve the picture quality and overall home theater sound performance, even by just following through the simple set-up guidelines found on most equipment user manuals.
But irrespective of the user manual that come what a TV or AV receiver, there are a still few key steps that would not cost anything, yet they can help you get the most out of your system.
Steps like controlling the room lighting to reduce the ambient light with no direct light shining on the screen, and proper adjustment of the brightness level to get as much detail as possible in shadowy parts of the image, can do a lot towards a more rewarding TV viewing experience.
Similarly, a properly set contrast that still yields detail in the bright parts of the image, and a correct sharpness level with any edge enhancement disabled, will deliver better results.
Likewise, correctly set the levels for color saturation and hue (tint) for more natural looking flesh tones, while choosing the right color temperature setting, will make the picture look more realistic and closer to what the director intended.
For a quick TV set-up, just follow through the process detailed in our Basic Television Set-Up Tips' box shown under the right column; do not expect a perfect result but these simple steps will help you get an improved image that is significantly better than most out-of-the-box settings.
Alternatively, click here to download a pdf version which you can print and use as reference when setting up your HDTV.
Equally important is the proper setting of your home theater sound.
Setting up the system for correct balance between the surround, center and subwoofer speakers, with respect to the main left and right in a multichannel audio set-up is critical. A correctly balanced speaker system is one where the sound appears to detach itself from the different speaker sources.
Unfortunately many fail here, with the worst settings being mainly those related to the subwoofer. Often, users set the subwoofer levels too high; for many it is as if pumping in more power will yield better sound! In reality, a correctly set subwoofer is one that lets you 'feel' rather than 'hear' the bass.
Following through the quick set-up tips detailed above will result in improved picture and sound. Yet, if you want to squeeze the best out of your system, this is not enough. You need to calibrate your equipment.
Calibration is the process of changing the settings on your audio or video gear to maximize the device output performance. Calibration cannot be done without a little help; you need a reference source against which to calibrate your equipment. It is here that 'home theater set-up DVDs' come into use.
Set-up DVDs are usually divided into two major sections:
An orientation, how-to-guide to home theater systems and equipment set-up optimization.
A suite of video test patterns, reference footage, and audio test signals, to serve as reference when calibrating system components.
Often, the array of signals found on set-up DVDs can be further divided into basic and advanced, with each group designed for different users.
Video: The basic test patterns found on most set-up DVDs and the troubleshooting tools included can serve just about anyone with a minimum of home theater knowledge. Using the basic audio test signals and video patterns, a set-up DVD will walk you through the most important steps to calibrate and fine-tune system performance. Though different set-up DVDs differ, the end result is the same in that on completing the set-up process, you would have optimized the brightness, contrast, color temperature, sharpness and color saturation levels for your video display.
Equally important, the basic set-up would also guide you to a correct balance between the different channels in a multichannel speaker set-up.
Each section typically starts with an explanation of the adjustments and why you are making them. You'll see sample test patterns and adjustments simulated so you will understand the change before taking the plunge.
While brightness and contrast level adjustments are done with the help of the test patterns provided using the unaided eye, color adjustments rely on the use of color filters that are normally included as part of the set-up DVD pack.
Many simply skip these settings as somehow they feel intimidated by the whole process. Yet setting the correct levels for color and tint is relatively easy, whether by using the provided color filters or by using the special 'Blue' or 'RGB mode only' available on some of the latest HDTVs.
If this special Blue Mode or RGB Mode calibration is available on your TV, use it instead of the color filters provided with your set-up DVD; it yields more accurate results.
The issue with the color filters is that they may not necessarily match the correct color intensity on your TV; some set-up DVDs such as the Spears & Munsil set-up disc come with a dual filter—with one side having twice the density as the other, thus giving you three filter density settings in all when you fold the two sides over each other.
Sound: Most set-up DVDs such as Avia II (available in NTSC DVD format) and DVE HD Basics (Blu-ray version) include a number of audio tests signals to help you adjust the audio part of your gear and achieve the correct balance between the different sound channels in a surround sound set-up.
Setting sound levels is best accomplished with the test-tones provided on these set-up DVDs in conjunction with an audio sound level meter. It is true that you may proceed with the audio set-up using the unaided ear. You may even opt to do away with a set-up DVD and instead use the built-in test tones found on most home theater systems ...but results will vary considerably.
A sound pressure level meter is a must if you want to set the sound levels accurately. Sound pressure level meters are easy to use—normally it is just point and take the reading—and are readily available from any Electronics store, including amazon.
Setting up the sound using a sound pressure level meter and a set-up DVD is a straightforward job. Even inexpensive options like the RadioShack Analog SPL Meter or the digital Galaxy Audio CM130 SPL Meter pictured above, can do a great job in any home theater environment.
Some set-up DVDs like the DVE HD Basics and Avia II include a whole suite of specialized test patters and audio signals. These advanced test signals are mainly of use to advance users and professional system installers who know how to use and interpret the results.
Some of these advanced test patterns have to be used in conjunction with specialized test equipment like color analyzers and oscilloscopes, and therefore are best left for use by qualified trained professionals.
Once you realize the potential a set-up DVD holds, the main problem is one of choice. It is not that there are too many of them but finding a good set-up DVD that includes all the desired test patterns and audio test signals in one is not that easy. Rather, it seems as if some set-up discs are there to be complemented by others.
For example, while Spears & Munsil calibration disc—characterized by its flawless video test patterns—is easy to use even though it is not really for beginners, yet it does not include any audio test signals even though it includes some demo material that can be played in a choice of Dolby TrueHD 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, or PCM 5.1 lossless options. A calibration disc like Spears & Munsil is best complemented by a set-up DVD like AVIA II DVD or DVE HD Basics Blu-ray disc. You would find some overlap in content but we are not living in an ideal world!
On the other hand, while a disc like Joe Kane's DVE HD Basics comes loaded with a good set of audio test tones and even an interesting animated instructional video—again missing on Spears & Munsil disc—it lacks the deinterlacing or chroma alignment tests found on the Spears & Munsil disc. Thus, while Joe Kane's DVE HD Basics probably represents the best option for those looking for a single set-up DVD suitable for both beginners and more advanced users, if you want a more comprehensive set of test patterns and audio test signals covering both basic and expert level calibration, then we simply recommend both.
Admittedly, there are a few other set-up DVDs for home theater use apart those referred to in this article that are worth considering. In their own way, all calibration discs are capable of doing what they claim, helping you improve overall system performance.
Yet different set-up DVDs are different both in content and in the way they lead the user through with the optimization process; the reason is that different set-up DVDs are designed to target different categories of users. For example the much acclaimed Disney WoW home theater calibration disc is designed for beginners to intermediate users and as expected, is one of the easiest to use. On the other hand, DVE HD Basics is designed for the somewhat more advanced beginner to advanced intermediate user; instead, the Spears & Munsil calibration disc is more suitable for users with intermediate to advanced level.
This means that though you do not need to be a qualified professional to use one of these set-up DVDs—at least to complete the basic calibration process—picking up the right calibration disc will surely help make life a bit easier.
To help you discover which set-up DVD or Blu-ray calibration disc is most suitable for your needs, we have prepared a series of short Home Theater Set-up DVD reviews as well as detailed reviews covering the following products:
The original AVIA set-up DVD was replaced by the AVIA II set-up DVD; both discs are very similar in nature and content except that the new disc includes additional test patterns apart from an informative guide on HD TV technology.
DVE HD is a HD-DVD version of the standard definition DVE set-up DVD; it was released as a combo DVD/HD-DVD disc by Joe Kane Productions. No Blu ray version was ever released of DVE HD even after the fall of the HD-DVD format towards end 2008.
Instead, what we find in the Digital Video Essentials series is DVE HD Basics Blu-ray disc. DVE HD Basics does not contain the full set of test patterns found on the DVE HD or DVE setup DVD, but it is very close and represents one of the best and least expensive Blu-ray calibration discs presently available for the home theater enthusiast.
Strictly speaking, SpyderTV is not a set-up DVD but a colorimeter-based system that promises to deliver an easy-to-use solution designed to bring TV calibration to the home user at the fraction of the cost of an ISF calibration package.
SpyderTV was first released in 2005; eventually it was replaced by Spyder3TV and Spyder4TV HD. These come with an improved sensor for greater accuracy and improved software capable of calibrating both direct view and rear/front projection systems; the original SpyderTV was mainly intended for direct view displays only. Both SpyderTV3 and SpyderTV4 are practically the same except that Spyder4TV comes with a Blu-ray disc as the source for the video patterns instead of a DVD.