Audiophiles and home theater buffs are always looking to eke out the nth degree of performance from their AV investments, but it's not always easy to keep pouring more and more capital into your system. Thousands upon thousands of dollars are hard to come by, so we've cooked up some under-$500 ideas for how to upgrade your AV system that will have a meaningful impact on the performance of your rig without affecting your FICO score.
1. Hire a Calibrator to Professionally Set Up Your Display ($250-$400)
We've said it over and over and over again: the importance of having your HDTV or projector professionally calibrated cannot be overstated. Your HDTV is a very sophisticated component; however, the major TV companies know that HDTVs that "push blue" sell better, especially in the big-box, "under-the-sodium-lights" stores. Their goal is not accuracy, but sales, which means it's your responsibility to ensure that your new TV looks its very best.
There are a few steps you can take on your own. The easiest, cheapest fix is to make sure that the TV is in the most accurate picture mode. Avoid "dynamic" or "vivid" picture modes at all cost. Many HDTVs are now set in a very dim "standard" mode out of the box in order to meet energy standards. Look for a THX or Movie mode. You can go a step farther by using one of many video calibration discs (for $25 to $50) to get another level of performance from your TV, but that simply doesn't compare with the level of performance that you get from a professionally calibrated HDTV. A top calibrator can get your TV's colors right, its blacks right, and even make sure that all of your attached source devices are set up properly. He or she will use a $5,000 to $20,000 light meter to measure your HDTV and calibrate it to reference standards for both 2D and 3D, if desired. Considering this service costs little more than the plumber you have to call when you clog up your toilet, we're talking about a very good investment of a few hundred dollars to make your HDTV look its best.
2. Acoustically Treat Your Room ($100 and Up)
I still remember investing in some Auralex acoustic foam years ago to deal with flutter echoes in my home theater. The room had a fairly high, curved ceiling and no carpet (which I eventually remedied), and I was hoping to make it sound more "dead." (You can easily test how your room handles flutter echoes - just clap your hands.) For a modest investment, I got a few foam panels that I installed in maybe 30 minutes, which made a huge difference in the overall sound of the room. Echoes were gone, high-end reflections were heavily diminished, and they also looked pretty cool. The best places to put acoustical treatments are the spots where the first-order reflections occur, which is about two to three feet in front of your speakers on the left and right walls, as well as the celling. If you have hard floors, using an affordable but sonically absorptive carpet can also help tighten up your sound without blowing out your budget.
Nowadays, Auralex and other companies make entire room treatment packages designed specially for home theaters and listening rooms. Most of these kits don't include bass traps, though, which is something I would also recommend. I bought one from GIK for about a hundred dollars. They don't need to be placed with much precision, as you can just stick them in the corners of your room and get pretty good results right out of the box. Products like the GIK that I used or the famous ASC Tube Traps work by sucking up the kinetic energy pushed out by your speakers and/or subwoofer and turning it into thermal energy. Bass traps can shave the "flabby/woofy" edge off your speaker/sub output and leave you with a tighter, snappier low frequency.
I really can't emphasize how happy I was, both with my initial amateur acoustic treatment for a couple of hundred bucks and with my current, more carefully planned one (which still cost under $500). It's one more step toward getting that "movie theater feeling" out of your home theater, and the low cost and ease of doing room treatment makes it a no-brainer. Plus, if you don't like the difference it makes (but you will), you can easily uninstall them. (Just make sure to use Temp Tabs or Velcro and not the spray-on adhesive that Auralex recommends, as it will strip the paint if you try to remove a panel.)
Want a free tip for better audio in your music or theater room? Remove any coffee tables or ottomans that are positioned between you and your premium seating positions. Coffee tables are evil, as they affect imaging and cause problems in first-order reflections. Ottomans aren't as bad, but can cause the same problems. Test out the concept by simply removing the furniture from harm's way and re-listening to one of your favorite demo tracks. The difference can be noticeable.
Click on over to page 2 for numbers 3, 4 & 5 . . .