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 . . .
3. Upgrade Your Cables ($50 and Up)
Let's get one thing out of the way: cables make a difference. How big of a difference depends on how well-tuned your eyes and ears are. Ten years ago, when I started riding motorcycles, I couldn't tell the difference between a set of cheap tires and a set of expensive tires. Now, the difference is night and day, but it took time for me to develop my senses enough to notice it. It's the same with AV cables. This is still a controversial topic even here at HomeTheaterReview, much like audio racks.
Sadly, many people just use whatever cables came with their gear, or whatever was cheapest at Best Buy. I'm not saying you need diamond-tipped, gold-plated cables wrapped in Chinchilla fur - just good, quality cables from a reputable company like WireWorld, Transparent, or Kimber Kable. WireWorld HDMI cables, for example, start at about $5 to $15 per foot and are available from authorized dealers. Transparent now sells some of its entry-level cables Internet-direct for around $100 per interconnect, HDMI, or speaker cable - affordable and worth the investment.
4. Add Lighting Control ($100 and Up)
We talk a lot about home automation here at HomeTheaterReview. Companies like Crestron and Control4 are leading the way when it comes to smart homes, but you need to get them installed through an authorized dealer and they can be pricey. There are cheaper ways to get the tricked-out effect of a million-dollar theater without breaking the budget. Home Depot and other home-improvement stores offer dimmers that can be installed by a handyman for under $100. These options allow you to have better control over your lighting, which can improve the real-world contrast of your HDTV and give you a better psychoacoustic experience for your audio (although simple dimmers also can create hum and/or noise).
More programmable lighting controls can be had from companies like Lutron for a few hundred dollars and can be worth their weight in gold. Going to the next level, you might want to invest in some track lighting that can add spotlighting, task lighting, and highlights to your key components. More sophisticated lighting controls allow you to control different zones to create lighting scenes that are beneficial for movies, music, reading, and beyond.
5. Add a Second Subwoofer ($399 and Up)
You can't have a 5.1 or 7.1 system without that "point one" speaker, which is also known as your LFE or subwoofer. One big subwoofer can drastically impact the sound of your audiophile or home theater system, but the addition of a second subwoofer can also have a positive effect on your sound. A second subwoofer can help smooth out the low-frequency sound in your room and provide a more uniform low end. It's important to try different physical locations for your second subwoofer, including side walls, in the back of your room, and elsewhere. Finding a good physical location for your subwoofer is important before you start to engage in equalization in your AV preamp or receiver.
So there you have it: five tips designed to get your audiophile or home theater system rocking harder for less than $500. Have you attempted any of these suggestions in your system? If so, how did they turn out? Let us know in the comments below.
Check out our gallery of 11 AV Products Under $100 below . . .