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Home Theater Hacks
By Brett McLaughlin
November 2004
More Info

How do these hacks stand up? Comment on a hack from the book by choosing the associated "Discuss" link below. You can also view the code from any of the hacks by clicking on the "Listing" or "Code" links. A number of hacks have been selected to be featured online in their entirety; you may view those hacks by clicking on the hack titles that are linked.

Jump to: Buying Gear  | Video Components  | Audio Components  | High Definition  | Speakers and Wiring  | Subwoofers  | Connectivity  | Calibration  | Do It Yourself  | Remote Controls  | HTPC  | TiVo

Buying Gear

HACK
#1

Master Theater-Speak
You're not going to get very far in the world of home theater if you don't understand how the techies talk. Learn the lingo, and you won't get bullied into buying something you don't want; you'll also understand how different components interact, and you'll end up with a much better setup.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#2

Audition Before You Buy
There's no substitute for listening and watching equipment in action before buying. However, there's as much science as there is art to choosing a good home theater. Preparation and a few tricks will help you pick the best system for you.
[Discuss (468) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#3

Buy from Chain Stores with Skepticism
Buying from a local electronics store has the advantage of letting you check out gear in person, but you'll have to endure crowds, obnoxious music, and frequent interruption from salespeople along the way.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#4

Buy in Person from Electronics Boutiques
An electronics boutique offers the advantage of in-person tryouts without many of the downsides of a larger chain store.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#5

Shop Intelligently at eBay
Although ebay.com isn't the best place to buy all your gear, it's a great source for certain types of gear, often at lower-than-normal prices.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#6

Find High-End Equipment Online
Online sites such as audiogon.com and videogon.com provide high-end gear, both new and used, at low prices.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#7

Buy Cabinets for Your Gear
Purchase the best cabinets you can afford for your gear to ensure that it runs as cool as possible, and looks good doing it.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#8

Plan Your Room Décor
Take your theater to the next level by adding creative lighting, wall sconces, seating, and decorations.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Video Components

HACK
#9

Get the Right TV
Getting the right television to provide that picture isn't trivial, but here are plenty of good tips to help you pick the right unit.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#10

Your TV's First Steps
After the credit card has taken a hit, there are several tasks you need to take care of right away on a new television set. This will allow you to get the TV in the house and make sure it's working, and will guard against early burn-in.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#11

Move Your TV Safely
Even if you have a professional deliver your TV, you might eventually need to move it—to a new home, to a new city, to a new state. Avoid losing thousands of dollars by following a few simple instructions.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#12

Fix Panasonic's Picture Glitch
Many of Panasonic's 16 x 9 rear projection TVs have a nasty picture glitch: if power is lost, the picture looks odd, with the top and bottom cut off, and the convergence goes screwy on you. A little service menu magic will get you back to normal in no time.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#13

Figure Out Aspect Ratios
This hack explains the difference between the 4:3, 16:9, and 1.85:1 aspect ratios. You'll learn what TV is best for you, why black bars are good, and how to make sure you get the "theater" in home theater.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#14

Avoid Cheap Projectors
One of the more difficult decisions you'll encounter in the evolution of your home theater is whether you should add a projection system to replace your television. However, this isn't always a matter of adding quality; sometimes you're trading picture depth for picture size. Make sure you understand the difference between a better picture and a bigger one.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#15

DVHS on a Budget
The high-definition craze is beginning to affect every type of video component, and your old VCR is no exception. DVHS allows you to tape HD material, but it comes at a high price. With a little trickery, you can get all the benefits of DVHS at a fraction of the cost.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#16

Cover Black Bars with Letterbox Mattes
Cover the black bars that appear on the edges of your screen with mattes, creating a better-looking image and sharper picture.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#17

Improve the Picture on Rear Projection TVs
Taking the protective reflective screen off a rear projection television increases black levels, reduces glare, and makes for a much-improved picture, especially during daylight hours.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#18

Paint Your Theater a Neutral Color
Although your walls are certainly not a video component, they can make a dramatic difference in how your display devices are perceived. Neutral colors might not be as impressive with the lights on, but they sure make a difference with the lights off.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#19

Backlight Your TV
Watching a large TV in a dark room can cause a lot of eyestrain. By placing a simple light behind your TV, you create the illusion of depth, resulting in less eyestrain and a more pleasant viewing experience.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#20

Add Metal Plating to Support a Center Speaker
Most home theater television sets have a large center speaker sitting on top of them. This is generally the ideal placement, but over time, a heavy speaker will warp your TV set. A simple piece of metal on top can solve this problem.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#21

Squeeze Your TV into Your Basement
Sometimes, you'll find that your perfect TV just won't fit into your perfect room. In these cases, you might be able to take some drastic steps and disassemble enough of the TV to get it where it belongs.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Audio Components

HACK
#22

Get the Right Receiver
The brains of your home theater are always going to be in your audio processor. Most folks at least begin with a receiver, which has to handle the demanding task of preamplification and processing, as well as pumping out power to your speakers. Getting the right receiver is crucial.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#23

Watts Are Meaningless Without Context
One of the easiest ways to be fooled in receiver and amplifier selection is in the wattage that the component puts out. Learn how to take the raw wattage number and turn it into something meaningful.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#24

Amplify the Front Soundstage
Take your sound to the next level by using separate amplifiers for your front soundstage—the right, left, and center channels.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#25

The Mythical Burn-In Period
Running your components and cables for some arbitrary length of time when they are first purchased isn't helpful, but letting them power on and sit for a few minutes before watching movies or performing calibration is.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#26

Use Gain Offset to Regulate Volume
Avoid the annoying volume switch between television programs, DVDs, and even different CDs using your receiver's gain offset feature.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#27

Use Dynamic Range Compression to Regulate Volume
Dynamic Range Compression can lessen volume of Dolby Digital playback material.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

High Definition

HACK
#28

Ensure You Can Get HD Programming
Although high definition is certainly the future in video, it might not make sense for you to go to an HDTV unit. Learn what should push you over the edge—and what shouldn't.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#29

Get the Right Type of HD Set
As with any other component, tons of options are available when it comes to buying HD televisions. Learn which is best for you.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#30

Add a Set Top Box
Once you've got an HDTV set, you'll need something to pull in HD signals and pass them onto your television. Learn what to look for, and what to buy.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#31

Properly Size Your HD Image
Once you've got your HD signal coming in, you'll need to ensure that it appears properly on your television set. Otherwise, you'll miss important detail and lessen the HD experience.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#32

Get the Right Antenna
An over-the-air antenna can provide you crystal-clear HD broadcasts. Learn how antennas work, where to mount them, and what commercial offerings are good buys.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#33

Erect an OTA Antenna
Once you've got an antenna, there's as much knowledge involved in mounting it correctly as there was in selecting i. If you don't hire an installer, you're going to need some basic knowledge to get things right.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#34

Don't Use Portable Signal Strength Meters
When working with an OTA antenna, you'll waste your time by trying to use a portable signal strength meter. Understand why, and avoid this common mistake.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#35

Resolve Problems After Buying an HDTV
There are a handful of tips you can follow and tweaks you can make to your setup after adding HD-capable devices. These are fairly random but all together they can make a huge difference in quality and operability.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Speakers and Wiring

HACK
#36

Organize Your A/V Racks
With hundreds of cables involved in connecting your components, you'll need to be careful and logical in placing each audio or video unit on shelves or racks. You also should take care to label and group cables and components.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#37

Get the Right Speakers for the Job
Speakers are the most obvious features of any home theater, and they can turn even a lousy movie into an in-depth, surround sound experience. Learn how to choose the best speakers for your room.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#38

Select the Perfect Rear and Side Speakers
The primary decision in choosing a rear or side speaker is selecting a monopole, bipole, or dipole unit. Learn the difference, and when each is appropriate.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#39

Little Speakers Can Create Big Problems
Speaker manufacturers are enticing more and more consumers to go with small, mini-, or micro-speakers for even the front and center channels. Although these speakers might look great, they just can't do what the large speakers can do.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#40

Add Bass Shakers to Feel the Lows
Everyone's home theater has bass, but with bass shakers, you can ensure that your listeners not only hear the bass, but also feel it.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#41

Lower the Resonant Frequency of Aura Bass Shakers
Although bass shakers in their default configuration add some punch to your home theater, you can tweak the resonant frequency of the Aura models to create an even deeper shake and better performance.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#42

Use Subwoofers as a Poor Man's Bass Shaker
If you love the idea of shaking to low-bass frequencies but can't afford a "real" bass shaker, you can make do with some low-end subwoofers and clever placement.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#43

Convert In-Wall Speakers to In-Ceiling Speakers
Sometimes that great set of in-wall speakers from your last house just won't work in your new house. However, it's easy to convert in-wall speakers to in-ceiling speakers, saving hundreds of bucks on a new set.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#44

Banana Plugs Trump Bare Wires
If you want the absolute best connection between your receiver/amplifier and your speakers, use one piece of cable and connect the bare wires at the ends to the terminals. However, there are times when a whole lot of convenience trumps a tiny bit of signal.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#45

Use the Same Speaker Wire Lengths (Not!)
As long as the length of wire connecting your various speakers is fairly similar, you'll get great results and sound, without interference or adverse delays.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#46

Use Thicker Wiring for Longer Runs
If you're running cable for any length greater than 20 feet, use at least 12-gauge speaker wire.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#47

Bi-Wiring and Bi-Amping Speakers
You've probably been told by your home theater buddies about how they've bi-wired their speakers—or maybe they've bi-amped them—or both. Learn what all these "bi" terms mean, and which you want to put into play in your system.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Subwoofers

HACK
#48

Learn Sub Talk
Before diving into subwoofer placement and optimization, you need to understand the basic terminology. This is more than just background; it will help you isolate problems with your subs, and even spur you on toward considering building your own sub one day.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#49

Choose the Right Subwoofer
Buying a subwoofer involves a lot of knowledge about enclosures, wattage, and drivers: get the scoop on all of these in this hack.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#50

Match the Sub to Your Room
When you choose speakers, you spend as much time analyzing your room size and dimensions as you do choosing the actual speakers. When you're selecting a subwoofer, you need to do the same.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#51

Hook Up Your Subwoofer Correctly
Getting the best from your sub involves more than plugging in a cable or two and popping in a movie. Learn how to optimally set up your subwoofer, connect it to your audio system, and ensure it meshes with your existing speakers.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#52

Optimize Subwoofer Placement
Once you've selected a subwoofer, you can figure out the best location for it with a little patience, a lot of trial and error, and a six-pack.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#53

Use Multiple Subwoofers
As the size of your theater room grows (along with your budget), you might want to add a second subwoofer to really rattle your windows. However, you'll need to take great care in placing the second subwoofer so that it helps your sound rather than hurts it.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#54

Remove Subwoofer Hum
A common subwoofer problem is hum—that low buzzing that seems to fill all the empty spaces in your movie soundtracks and annoys dogs and low-flying birds. Learn how to isolate the hum, analyze it, and remove it.
[Discuss (1) | Link to this hack]

Connectivity

HACK
#55

Cable Basics
Understand what makes a good cable, and understand which is the best cable for the job.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#56

Watch Out for Entertainment Centers
There's a tendency to want to load expensive equipment into expensive containers—usually a high-dollar, all-wood entertainment center. Watch out, though, as this could cost you time, energy, and all kinds of frustration.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#57

Don't Be Swindled into Buying Overly Expensive Cables
Many salespeople will try and get you to spend thousands of dollars—just on cables! Often this is just modern-day snake oil, so be wary of what you hear.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#58

Use Your Receiver for Video Switching
Run all your theater's non-component video sources through your receiver, and switch devices through the receiver.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#59

Understand Component Video Switching
One of the most frustrating things in home video is running all your component video-capable devices into your video output. Get around the limitations of your processor and monitor with a little knowledge about component video bandwidth requirements.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Calibration

HACK
#60

Choose the Right Seating Distance
Sitting the correct distance from your television is the first step in getting the best picture from your display unit.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#61

Get the Best Calibration Tools
Purchasing a few simple tools, such as calibration DVDs and a sound meter, allows you to take your home theater from an out-of-the-box experiment to an in-the-theater experience.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#62

Choose the Right Calibration DVD
Calibration DVDs are the most efficient and cost-effective way to optimize your audio and video components.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#63

Calibrate Speakers with a Sound Meter
With a calibration DVD and sound meter in hand, you can play a test pattern and set levels for your speakers.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#64

Set the Receiver's Reference Level
Setting a receiver's volume to the reference level is not the mystical task it often appears to be; in fact, a receiver's reference level is whatever your theater needs it to be.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#65

Avoid Using THX Optimizer
Recent DVDs, especially those that are THX-certified, contain a THX Optimizer to calibrate your system. Although this might seem like a feature, avoid using THX Optimizer if at all possible.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#66

Avoid Using Internal Test Tones
Most receivers and preamplifier/processors provide test tones to measure audio levels from each speaker. These tones aren't an accurate representation of your entire system's sounds, and you should consider them to be a rough guideline at best and problematic at worst.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#67

Set Your Speakers to "Small" in Your Receiver Setup
Avoid setting your speakers, even if they are towers, to the "large" setting in your receiver's setup menus.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#68

Hack Your TV's Service Menu
The key to almost all tweaks in TVs comes through the service menu. However, getting to this menu is usually undocumented, and you'll need some help in finding it.
[Discuss (3) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#69

Clean the Optics on RPTVs
With a paper towel and some know-how, you can clean your RPTV optics and drastically improve your picture.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#70

Reduce Focus Problems on RPTVs
Most rear projection TVs have issues with focus; if you get the right side in focus, the left side of the screen blooms, and vice versa. By adjusting the lenses, you can greatly reduce this effect.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#71

Reduce Lens Flare on RPTVs
Lens flare can dramatically decrease the black levels on an RPTV. Learn what lens flare is, and how to knock it out of the equation on your RPTV.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#72

Focus Your Front Projector
Focus on a front projection system is just as important as it is on an RPTV, but the steps to get there are completely different.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#73

Don't Mess with Odd Screws
Ever run into a strange-looking screw, and spend hours trying to find just the right tool to get it open? Chances are that screw is for your protection: proceed with caution.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#74

Annual Home Theater Tune-Up
All the calibration in the world won't do your theater any good if you don't keep it in tiptop shape. Tuning things up every 12 to 18 months will keep your theater sounding and looking good.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Do It Yourself

HACK
#75

Build Your Own Speaker Stands
One of the most common do-it-yourself projects is the speaker stand. Almost everyone needs them, you can make them cheaply, and they'll be a great starter project.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#76

Add Rollers and a Stand to Your TV
A television is a tremendous pain to move, even if it's going only six inches. With some MDF and a few casters, you can add mobility to your TV set.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#77

Construct a Screen for Projection
If you've got a projection-based system, you've probably already realized that without a screen, projectors are just about useless. Good screens can cost big bucks, unless you know how to build one yourself!
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#78

Mask Your Screen
Whether you built your own screen or purchased one new, adding masks to the top, bottom, and sides will create a true movie-style experience in your home.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#79

Construct Speaker Cables Using CAT 5
Speaker cables are one of the most overlooked items in your system. Building your own cables allows you to get maximum performance at a minimal price.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#80

Home-Grow Your Power Cables
Although building your own power cables won't really save you money, it can increase the efficiency of your system, at far less than professional prices.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#81

Build a 16-Bay UHF Antenna
If you're in a weak signal area, you might need more than an off-the-shelf antenna can provide. By stacking two eight-bay antennas, you can really pull in broadcasting from further away.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#82

Ground Your Outdoor Antenna
Whether you build an antenna on your own, install a prebuilt antenna, or have someone else build it, grounding is a critical part of installation.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#83

Build a Lens Hood for Your RPTV
In the unending quest to remove any interior light from your RPTV, a lens hood can provide a fairly easy approach to getting the best picture possible from those CRTs.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Remote Controls

HACK
#84

Add a Programmable Remote
Once you have your basic home theater components, you need to buy a good programmable universal remote. It's worth more than luxury seating, theater lighting, and great cabinets combined.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#85

Program Your Remote with ProntoEdit
Download and set up the ProntoEdit software for programming your Marantz and Philips remote controls.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#86

Create Custom Graphics for Color Remotes
Most high-end color remotes allow you to create custom graphics and icons. These can turn a decent-looking setup into a killer one and really spruce up your control system.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#87

Learn IR Codes the Smart Way
When you just can't get your programmable remote to learn that certain code from the manufacturer's remote, you might have to do things manually. There are tons of tricks to get to harder IR codes.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#88

Work around Proprietary Remote Systems
Sometimes you'll find that even the trickiest tricks won't get your remote codes to work correctly. In these cases, you might have a proprietary system that just won't play nicely. Learn how to work around even these problem children of the remote control world.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#89

Disable NetCommand for Faster Response
For users with a NetCommand remote control and Mitsubishi TV, certain functions can be extremely slow. Disabling NetCommand can help out, and it's easy if you know the right code sequence.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HTPC

HACK
#90

Choose the Right Display Resolution for Analog-Input HDTVs
When it comes to HTPC, there are literally 10, 15, even more possible resolutions. Because you're in control of the machine, you need to ensure you're displaying things optimally.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#91

Add Custom Resolutions with PowerStrip
Breaking the 640 x 480 display resolution barrier is easier, and more flexible, if you add PowerStrip to your HTPC setup.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#92

Adjust the Overscan on Your HDTV Display
Fixing the horizontal and vertical overscan on an HDTV's display isn't trivial; if you're not careful, you can ruin a carefully planned custom resolution.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#93

Play Video Games in Custom Resolutions on HDTVs
If possible, you can have a killer gaming experience by using higher, custom resolutions for playing video games.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

TiVo

HACK
#94

Must-Skim TV
Slide through boring baseball games, pausing only for crowd-pleasing catches and game-tying errors. Cram that unnecessarily lengthy reality show into a scant 15 minutes of onscreen viewing.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#95

Navigation Shortcuts
Remote control shortcuts mean cruising through the TiVo menu system at high velocity.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#96

The 30-Second Commercial Skip
Forget about fast forwarding through commercials; blaze through in just three to five clicks of your remote.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#97

Streaming Internet Audio Broadcasts to TiVo
Stream SHOUTcast Internet audio alongside your own MP3s to your HMO-enabled TiVo.
The Code
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#98

Signing Up for the Home Media Option
Expand your Series 2's capabilities with TiVo, Inc.'s software upgrade.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#99

Remotely Scheduling a Recording
With the TiVo Home Media Option, remotely scheduling a recording is as easy as going to and making your selection.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

HACK
#100

Moving Shows Between TiVo Units
Of course you could just extract a television show from one TiVo and insert it into another, but there's an easier way to transfer from one unit to another.
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]


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