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Simple Tips to Improve Your TV Viewing Experience

Great home theater accessories don't guarantee clarity of picture, sound

spinner image Couple watching television
Dennis Fischer Photography / Getty Images

You're blown away by the image quality of televisions on sale at your favorite electronics retailer, but when you take one home, somehow it doesn't look or sound as good as the in-store experience.

Don't fret. It's not you or your new TV.

Your new flat-panel television just needs a bit of tweaking to get the most out of it. And no, you don't need a degree in electrical engineering to pull it off.

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Nor do you need to hire anyone — even though the big box store salesperson may suggest you do so.

The following are a few simple tips and tricks to optimize the picture and sound of your new investment. And yes, this advice works to spice up your older home theater setup, too.

Update your box, cables

The first step to getting a good picture is to make sure your main TV source, such as your cable or satellite box, is the best your provider has to offer — or rather, the best you can afford.

If you haven't bought or rented a box in a couple of years, make sure you have at least a high-definition, better known as an HD, receiver. A 4K box is even better.

You would be surprised how many people haven't updated their TV box in many years. Cord cutters who use only streaming services or over-the-air, antenna-based TV reception don't have to worry about that.

But if you prefer to get your content online with services such as Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu or Netflix, make sure you have a fast internet connection for smooth streaming and go with an unlimited data plan if your provider offers it. You won't want a slowdown in the middle of a movie if you hit some sort of data cap.

Use only an HDMI cable to handle your audio and video, which you can pick up even from your local dollar store.

Quick trick

While not every audio-video enthusiast will agree, a tip to vastly improve the picture quality of your television is to turn up the contrast almost to full and reduce the brightness to below half.

This little-known trick makes blacks blacker and colors richer. It also it gets rid of the washed-out look some entry-level TVs have.

Another approach, especially if you watch a lot of TV during the day and have a lot of light coming through the windows that you can't control, is to pump up the brightness on your TV a great deal. Sometimes new TVs are set to deliver high brightness by default, which is how the big box stores tend to have them, but you can tweak this easily in the television's settings.

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Calibration counts

Rather than spending a couple hundred dollars to have someone properly set up your television for you, many Disney, LucasFilm and Pixar discs have a bundled calibration tool called THX Optimizer.

It can be found in the Special Features or Set Up area of the disc. A free app, THX Tune-Up, also is available for Android on Google Play and iOS in the Apple App Store.

If you're using a disc, simply follow along with the prompts using your DVD/Blu-ray remote, and let the wizard calibrate your home theater's video and audio settings. The latter relates to your audio-video receiver and surround sound speaker setup.

The test will take you through contrast, brightness, color, tint, aspect ratio (4:3 and 16:9), speaker assignment, speaker phase and subwoofer crossover.

Disabling the ‘soap opera’ effect

One more thing you might want to change is often referred to as the soap-opera effect.

While your high-definition or 4K picture certainly looks sharp, you might see something a bit odd about the image. You can't quite put your finger on it, but that TV show or blockbuster movie you're watching almost looks like it was shot with a cheap camcorder instead of high-end video camera.

You're certain Grey's Anatomy wasn't filmed on the same set as The Young and the Restless though it appears to be so!

The soap-opera effect is really called “motion smoothing” or “motion interpolation,” designed to decrease motion blur and make movements seem smoother and more lifelike. Your new TV might see low frame-rate source material and try to fill in the gaps between frames with additional ones the TV generates, to help smooth out fast motion.

If you're not a fan, enter the Settings menu on your television to turn off the feature or least adjust its intensity.

Where to sit

How far to sit from your TV boils down to personal preference, but a general rule for an HDTV is 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal screen size.

With a 60-inch TV you can sit 7 1/2  to 12 1/2 feet from the screen. But the high pixel density of the newer 4K Ultra HD TVs means you can sit up to 30 percent closer than you can to an HDTV.

If you still haven't bought the television you want to set up in your home, you might measure your wall space before buying a TV or use painter's tape on the wall to envision the area of your new television to ensure you buy the right size.

Personally, I subscribe to the adage “bigger is better.” So see if your budget and space allow for a huge TV to best replicate the movie theater experience.

Sounding off

Many home theater enthusiasts add a surround sound system, which includes an audio-video receiver and at least six speakers. This is called a “5.1 system"; the point-1 is the low frequency subwoofer, often placed in a corner of the room.

The other five speakers are for front left and right audio, rear left and right, and a center channel, which typically sites just above or below the TV, where about 80 percent of the movie's dialog comes from.

If you don't have the budget, space or technical know-how to set up a surround sound system for your home theater, at least consider one of the newer soundbars to add some boom to your room.

Sitting just below your television, sound bars house multiple speakers in a horizontal enclosure and deliver multichannel sound — or in some cases simulated surround sound — from your games, movies, sports and TV shows.

Many sound bars include a wireless subwoofer to place somewhere else in the room. Plus most sound bars let you stream music from your smartphone, tablet or computer via Bluetooth connectivity.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geekspeak into streetspeak.

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