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The 20 Most Common Mistakes in the Home Cinema
Modern home-cinema technology is complex and often hard to install — it’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. We’ve put together this list of the 20 most common mistakes to help you get the best out of your home cinema.
Spot the mistake: How many errors can you see in this picture?
Modern home-cinema devices are cheaper, more powerful, and easier to install than ever before. But there’s still plenty of room for pitfalls — common examples include viewing distance, speaker positioning, and bad device setups. The sheer number of different devices and technologies on the market means it’s easy to run into these kinds of problems.
You need to be on the ball from the very start of the process: Before you even buy your TV, projector, or player, know what you need for your setup. Correcting problems afterwards costs more money and takes more time.
Home Cinema Mistakes 1 – 10
Mistake No. 1: Choosing a screen that’s too small
A 19-inch monitor like the Grundig Leemax (pictured) makes a great second TV for watching news and soaps, but it’s way too small for the home cinema.
Don’t be fooled by nonsense such as this: The TV shouldn’t be too big, because your guests will think you’re a couch potato. Or: Big TVs dominate and destroy the living room’s look, distracting the eye from the other furniture. There might be an element of truth in these clichés — everyone’s opinion is different, after all — but they’re the arch enemy of proper home cinema.
Cinema not only means that the sound should fizz, pop, and bang from all corners of the room, but also that the viewers should be able to immerse themselves in the picture — the eye should be able to move around the scene. If you can take in the whole image in one glance, you’re still just ‘watching TV’. You’ll do yourself no favours with a 26-inch display — 46 or 50 inches is more like it.
Mistake No. 2: Sitting too far away
Once you’ve decided on a screen size, you face the next important question: What’s the ideal viewing distance? The same rule applies as in the real cinema: The viewing distance determines whether the picture occupies the optimal 30 degrees of your field of vision — or just 10. We’ve often found that projector owners tend to choose the correct distance, whereas flat-panel TV owners often sit far too far from their screens.
There are several reasons for this — it can be to do with the living room’s design, or because there’s too much ambient light, or because of poor signal quality. In general, sitting too far from the screen means you won’t enjoy the full quality of superior source material such as Blu-rays — viewers simply cannot make out the higher detail in the picture.
Here are the correct viewing distances for various screen diagonals from 32 to 100 inches:
|Screen diagonal (inches)||Ideal viewing distance (m)|
NB: All of these refer to Full HD material, not standard-definition signals. The formula is simple: Screen diagonal x 1.5 = Ideal viewing distance.
At these distances, the picture will fill about 30 degrees of the viewer’s vision — as it does in the cinema. Classical TV, which the eye takes in within one glance, requires viewing distances about twice as large as those listed here.
Mistake No. 3: Mounting the TV too high up
“Fantastic!” some users think, “I can finally hang the TV on the wall like a picture.” But be careful: This much-cherished wish can also backfire — don’t hang the TV exactly as if it were a picture. If it’s too high, you’ll spend the whole time looking upwards, like viewers in the front row at a cinema. And if you’ve ever sat in the front row, you’ll be well aware of the neck pain you’ll get from two hours in that position. Even if your head is supported, this is still an unnatural viewing angle.
In fact, the most relaxed viewing angle is slightly downwards. In other words, the viewers’ eyes should be slightly above the centre of the picture. The bigger the screen, the harder this can be to do: There’s a limit to how low you can position your TV or projector screen.
Mistake No. 4: Leaving overscan and other image enhancements switched on
Device manufacturers attempt to produce an optimum picture in all viewing conditions — from bright daylight to the pitch-dark home cinema. Noise filters tackle noise in poor video sources, for example, and picture-cropping (overscan) hides blur or errors around the picture’s edges.
All these controls can, in certain cases, make sense, but they’re virtually never necessary with high-quality sources such as Blu-ray players. In fact, they often make the picture look worse — by excessively enhancing objects’ edges, for example, or by reducing the picture’s sharpness. So, start by switching off all automatic picture controls.
Mistake No. 5: Adjusting the lighting badly
Films, and indeed all images, are made up of light — regardless of whether this light comes from a lamp shining through a reel of film or from a digital projector’s lamp, or is produced pixel-by-pixel in a screen. Foreign light sources, on the other hand, are the last thing you want in the home cinema.
The only reason you’ll ever benefit from ambient illumination is if your screen is too small, and cannot fill the necessary 30 degrees of the viewer’s vision. With smaller screens, it can help to leave some light in the room in order to reduce eye strain. You could put a small lamp behind the TV, for example — or buy a Philips TV with Ambilight technology (a background lighting system that varies its colours to match the current picture), although this is clearly an expensive option.
But there’s one important rule to bear in mind: The ambient lighting should always be less bright than the screen, so that dark scenes remain clearly visible. Light should never fall directly on the screen; this will ruin the picture from the outset. Plasma TVs and projected images are particularly susceptible to outside light sources; LCD TVs are brighter and therefore suffer fewer problems.
Mistake No. 6: Setting the contrast too high
Stepped greyscale: When a display’s contrast is set correctly, all of the sectors of this test pattern will be easy to differentiate.
The contrast setting helps you achieve the correct balance between ambient illumination and screen brightness. If the contrast is set too high, the picture will look unpleasant in dark rooms — a problem that hits LCD TVs especially hard. This is because typical LCD TVs can output up to 500 candelas per square metre of light, which is only necessary in extremely bright rooms. For comparison: Monitors in the office generally need to output just 100 to 150 candelas per square metre; cinema screens even less.
It’s the contrast setting, and not — as many think — the brightness setting, that primarily influences the TV’s overall light output. Excessive contrast usually results from an exaggerated factory setup, but users have a tendency to crank the setting up because contrast-rich images seem sharper. Good contrast adjustment relies on the user keeping one point in mind: If you turn the contrast up too high, the picture will differentiate fewer details in dark areas of the picture.
Mistake No. 7: Putting the front speakers too far apart
With large projection screens, you should position the speakers immediately beside the screen. Smaller screens allow a slightly larger distance between the screen and the speakers.
In a genuine cinema, the front speakers are almost always behind the screen, but this is rarely possible in the home cinema. Bad positioning of the two front speakers is one of the most common mistakes: The speakers often stand too far apart. This might be fine for listening to music. In movies, however, it’s confusing if someone at the edge of the picture says something, but the sound comes from two metres away. Our tip is therefore this: Never place speakers more than half of the screen’s width away from the edge of the picture.
Mistake No. 8: Putting the speakers too close to the wall
A lack of space often leads users to place their speakers too close to the walls. The side walls can then produce reflections that disturb the overall listening experience. Larger floor-standing speakers should stand at least half a metre from the back wall. This means the rear reflections differ enough in delay time to avoid irritating the listener.
Mistake No. 9: Positioning the centre speaker badly
There’s one thing we really can’t stand: centre speakers sitting at floor level. These speakers reproduce people’s voices — and, if you think about it, people don’t speak out of their feet. Putting the centre on the floor means it is far too low.
The floor can also produce unpleasant reflections that make speech harder to understand, but this can be remedied by angling the centre slightly upwards. Better yet, position the speaker directly below the picture — although this is still far from perfect. The ideal positioning, which is often hard to achieve, is directly above the picture.
Mistake No. 10: Choosing a weak centre speaker or setting the centre too quiet
Never underestimate the importance of the centre speaker; it plays a crucial role in reproducing movie sound. Specifically, the centre transports the majority of the dialogue, as well as many other noises. It’s therefore especially important for the speaker to perform as strongly at high frequencies as the two main front speakers.
For sounds to sound the same no matter where in the room they come from, you should choose a centre that matches the main speakers — you can’t go wrong, for example, with a model from the same manufacturer (or, ideally, the same series).