Assume your favorite TV-watching position -- it's best you get this news resting comfortably.
Your home theater, from speakers to subwoofer to television set, could be as out of whack as that coughing, wheezing, left-in-the-rain lawn mower sitting out in the neighbor's backyard.
What? A home theater needs more than white-glove handling. To look and sound its best, a home theater requires calibration using test tones and test patterns. It's an ugly thought, all right, but less than an hour with a good test disc will add sonic and visual sparkle to any home theater.
"Avia Guide to Home Theater" ($50, Ovation Software, www.ovationsw.com), is one of only two DVD discs to combine the necessary audio and video tests. "Video Essentials" ($50, Joe Kane Productions, www.videoessentials.com), is the original reference tool, first on laserdisc and now on DVD, for both professionals and owners of high-end home theaters.
"Avia," an ambitious production written by David Ranada, technical editor of Stereo Review's Sound & Vision magazine, covers everything from home theater basics for first-time buyers to video test patterns for the professional. Because of its scope and easy navigation, it is regarded as a more accessible test disc than "Video Essentials."
Rudimentary audio calibration is available in any home theater, without a test disc, by using the basic test tones from your audio-video receiver. Simply adjust the volume level of each channel until the test tone reaches the same level in every speaker. This can be done by ear, but more accurate calibration requires a sound-level meter. (RadioShack sells an excellent analog-display sound-level meter, catalog No. 33-2050, for $35.)
"Avia" packages many more tests to optimize your system's audio performance. Here, a sound-level meter is an essential tool. "Avia" devotes a chapter to using one, so don't be intimidated. But "Avia," despite its thoroughness, is not notable for its audio reference tones. Many less-expensive, if less-extensive, CD test discs devoted to proper home-theater audio settings are available.
But "Avia" surpasses all those discs because it includes video tests for home theater owners -- 180 in all, compiled by Ovation Software President Guy Kuo -- to adjust their television sets, too, so that the picture approaches the studio monitors used by film directors and video mastering engineers. You'll see the film as it was intended, adjusting only basic picture settings for color, hue, brightness, contrast and sharpness.
A maladjusted television -- like virtually every set you'll ever see in a showroom, with controls boosted to extreme levels to attract attention -- creates picture flaws and can even lead to the picture tube's premature failure. If a contrast control is set too high, for example, it can burn an image into the screen and put excessive strain on the power supply, leading to picture tube failure.
Using only the five basic video tests patterns in "Avia" will invigorate your television. It just might take awhile to realize you're looking at a better picture. Because televisions customarily come from the factory with brightness (also known as black level), sharpness and other settings souped-up for a more exciting, although inaccurate, picture, a properly calibrated television can disappoint at first. Give it a week, say the professional technicians.
The disc's "Basic Video Adjustments" segment includes a narrative on how to use each test pattern, followed by 90 seconds with an actual test pattern to adjust your set. For accurate settings, some of the patterns must be viewed through one of the supplied blue, green and red filters. If 90 seconds aren't enough, you can access each test via a separate Video Test Patterns menu. Making some of the narrative information available as liner notes would have been helpful. Without a written reference, you'll probably want to go through the test procedure at least twice to ensure accuracy.
You might discover the TV's new settings have dramatically lower levels on virtually every control, particularly sharpness. Resist the temptation to declare your new picture inadequate and return to the old settings. In time, I noticed greater clarity, a sharper picture -- even though the sharpness level had been reduced to near its low point -- and greater dimensionality on my 32-inch Sony. With "Avia," I also revitalized a 15-year-old set I had presumed doomed to the town dump. It looked, oh, five years younger.
Although it would cost several hundred dollars for a technician professionally to calibrate a television, Ovation Software might have priced itself out of a much larger audience by asking $50 for "Avia." It's a shame, because every home theater owner could benefit from this disc. Maybe Ovation, or someone else, will come out with an abbreviated version for the price of a DVD video.
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