Why I’m Sharing This
Like many of you, I often find myself pondering how to improve my home theater and whether those upgrades are worth the investment in terms of time and money. Time is valuable, and most of us do not have an abundance of money, so it can be challenging to determine which upgrades will deliver a noticeable improvement, especially when sifting through the information available online.
So, I put together a list to provide some first hand experience on the best upgrades I have added that I genuinely believe have elevated my home theater experience and immersion, and I hope it helps spark inspiration for you. Plus, I am eager to hear about any upgrades that you have found to be game-changers for your experience.
Feel free to share your favorite additions in the comments below, and together, let’s create a valuable resource for anyone looking to improve their systems. Your insights can help others make informed decisions on how to level up their setups!
Adding Height Channels
My introduction to height channels, much like many of us, came with the wide spread adoption of Dolby Atmos, even though Atmos is more than just adding height channels; read more about that here. My initial foray into the world of height channels involved taking my $500 Onkyo 7.2 receiver and repurposing a pair of 30-year-old outdoor speakers I had lying around to create a makeshift 5.1.2 system. It was far from a professional setup; I simply aimed the speakers at a 45-degree angle toward the ceiling and set the receiver to its Atmos up-firing mode.
At that time, there was a limited selection of content available in the Atmos format, mainly confined to the demos on the Dolby PC app and the game Tomb Raider. However, what I recall most is how impressed I felt when I first heard sounds coming from above and enveloping me, beyond what my conventional 5.1 setup could achieve. From that moment on, my primary objective became the pursuit of enhancing that experience further.
After experimenting with various Dolby Atmos speaker configurations after the years, I have concluded that having a minimum of four overhead speakers provides the best audio experience, only going to six overhead if the space is large and has multiple rows. A configuration with only two ceiling speakers can create a sense of overhead sound, but lacks pinpoint accuracy in sound placement.
In the case of up-firing speaker configurations, I find them to be quite limiting and would recommend using them only as a last resort. This is primarily because they require an almost perfect room with a reflective ceiling to be used effectively, and even then the benefit they provide is small compared to proper ceiling mounted speakers. Up-firing speakers do a decent job at recreating sounds that are diffuse, like wind or rain, but they lack the ability to provide precise imaging, making it challenging to accurately track sounds like a helicopter overhead or a baseball flying right above your head.
Some will argue that the next section regarding calibration is more important than adding more speakers. To some extent, they are right – ensuring your current setup is good or even great before expanding is very important. However, from my perspective, tinkering with height channels and exploring the world of 3D sound is what truly ignited my passion for this hobby, motivating me to delve as deeply as possible, so it takes the top spot for me.
The formal definition of home theater calibration is the adjustment of audio and video equipment to align with performance standard. However, to me, calibration is being able to improve the performance of your system with your current equipment, based on measurements, best practices, and personal taste. Most people start with calibrating their systems to some agreed upon standard, and after that, adjusting it to their taste.
For many people, the topic of calibrating their system, either audio or video, can be a daunting task as it can get confusing and you can easily become lost. Calibration has proven to be a budget-friendly tool to improve my setup without needing to change my equipment. A properly calibrated system can outperform a non-calibrated system that costs significantly more. That is why we have designed calibration guides for both audio and displays to help cut some of the difficulty out and allow your system to punch above its weight class, and you can access all of them on our Products & Services page.
Given the choice between the two, I would say that calibrating the audio of my system had a more substantial impact than calibrating my projector.
The goal of audio calibration is to make sure your speakers accurately reproduce audio. It is not as simple as it sounds as there are many variables that can affect the sound, which we discuss in further detail in our article “What is Room Equalisation (EQ) and Why Should You Care?” So, in this article, I will keep it simple and talk about the basic ideas and improvements I have made that had the most impact.
- Speaker Placement: Speaker placement tops the list because if your speakers are not positioned correctly, they will not deliver accurate sound reproduction because of either the room or location, and no amount of EQ or other calibration measures can compensate for that. I make sure to prioritize this aspect when setting up my home theaters as everything else having to do with audio calibration is so much easier to navigate once the speakers are placed properly.
- Room Treatment: Room treatment in audio aims to improve the sound quality by addressing acoustic issues like echoes, reverberation, standing waves, and reflections, which can degrade the sound quality. By minimizing the room’s influence, audio EQ adjustments become much simpler as you are correcting less issues. Although I did not measure my room before installing room treatment, I can confidently say that it has significantly improved the absorption of reflections. I have noticed that my theater is notably quieter in terms of background noise and decay time compared to other rooms in my house.
- Speaker Delays: This had a more significant impact than I initially believed. I used to rely on the automatic setup process that most receivers offer nowadays. However, after spending the time, I realized that the auto-calibration process does not always set the speaker delays (distances) accurately. I suggest the trust but verify method for setting distances. I heard a large improvement in overall soundstage depth and imaging when I was finally able to set the delays correctly.
- Equalization: This is what most people think of when you say the words audio calibration, as it involves adjusting the frequency response of each speaker using filters to match a target curve. This is definitely the largest part of calibrating audio and allows you to adjust the sound coming from your speakers to ensure the best sound overall. Once properly equalized, the audio from my system became more clear, more detailed, and more precise. For help with speaker equalization, we have numerous guides to help you depending on your equipment, check them out on our Products & Services page.
For all of our posts on audio calibration check out the Audio Guide section of our website.
Properly Managed Bass
While this topic can fall under the umbrella of audio calibration, I believe it has the most significant impact on the system’s audio performance. For this reason, I have separated it as its own dedicated upgrade section, as it is where I started my process of learning audio calibration.
Properly managed bass is configuring your home theater system so that the bass frequencies are reproduced accurately and evenly across all seats. This involves setting the crossover frequencies between your speakers and subwoofer correctly, as well as EQ’ing your subwoofers so that they blend seamlessly with the other speakers in your system.
The aspects that had the largest bass improvement, in order of effect are:
- Properly Setting Crossovers and Delay: This significantly impacts bass performance, and it is unrelated to EQ filters. Instead, it involves fine-tuning the crossover point and delay settings within the AVR. Incorrect crossover or delay settings can make your subwoofer noticeable as a separate component rather than a seamless extension of your main speakers. Once set correctly, even without EQ, the subs disappear, and the bass seems to originate from the designated speaker or direction. This is better experienced, as it is challenging to explain in words. If you would rather avoid delving deep into full audio calibration, I recommend at least ensuring your crossover and delay settings are correctly configured. For help in setting up the crossovers on your system, check out our article “What Crossover to Choose for Your Speakers.”
- Equalized Response: As I mentioned earlier, equalization involves adjusting the frequency response to align with a specific target curve. Achieving the correct equalization ensures that you hear bass frequencies as desired. Personally, I prefer strong bass, and to achieve the best settings I EQ my subs to flat and use Dynamic EQ in Audyssey to account for our perception of bass frequencies. I found that this gives me the best results of bass at all volumes.
- Multiple Subwoofers: Next I want to talk about multiple subwoofers. Using multiple subwoofers in a home theater system provides benefits such as even bass distribution, reduced distortion, increased sound impact, and better control over room acoustics. It allows the flexibility in subwoofer placement, improved consistency in sound quality across various seating positions, and the ability to fine-tune bass response. Having added 3 subs, this resulted in bass that is more accurate, more responsive, more enjoyable without any muddling of the sound, and allowed extra headroom. One of the best tools I have used when equalizing multiple subwoofers is a program called MSO, which creates the EQ filters for all of your subs that best fit your target curve; you can learn more about this here.
Display calibration is the process of adjusting the settings of a display to ensure it accurately reproduces colors, brightness, and contrast according to established standards. Similar to audio calibration, there are established calibration standards, but there is no widely accepted method to achieve them, aside from costly programs that assume you know the topic and often exceed most people’s budgets.
I had always wondered how much improvement I could get from calibrating my projector, but I was never able to have any success due to the lack of useful information online. However, this changed when I discovered Simple Home Cinema’s Display Calibration Guide, and Roland’s approach to teaching it. The guide walks you through the calibration process, offering clear explanations to ensure you not only learn how to calibrate, but also understand the reasons behind each step and process. The approach of the guide is what drew me into the philosophy of Simple Home Cinema and what led me into writing for them as well.
The results were immediate, despite my status as a novice in display calibration. My picture appeared stunning and more lifelike than any previous experience I have had with a home projector. So if you are on the fence about learning this for yourself, do it, you will be glad you did.
You can access all of our calibration guides for displays on our Products & Services page.
Darkening the Room
One of the most budget-friendly upgrades I have undertaken is darkening my theater room. Why opt for a darker environment? Well, the less light present in the room and reflected from the screen, the more immersive your viewing experience becomes. It has the effect of both increasing the contrast of the display and also drawing you in more to the screen as your eyes cannot see much more around you.
When I say ‘dark,’ I do not only mean painting the walls black, but also minimizing the room’s reflective surfaces. While painting is one effective option (see more about good paint colors here), there are several other ways to achieve this. You can opt for a darker floor, lay down a dark-colored rug, use curtains in a darker hue, or incorporate darker furniture.
Painting or putting in a new floor was not an option for me, so I had to get creative when darkening the room. My initial purchase was a black rug, covering the entire area in front of my seating arrangement and the screen. In places where I could not paint, I turned to black felt, which I found on Amazon, and hung it on the walls using thumbtacks. This simple solution allowed me to achieve an even darker effect than standard black walls, all without the need for actual paint and its removal (I rent).
At first, I focused on the wall where the screen was mounted, but soon I realized that extending this to the ceiling also had a significant impact. If you are contemplating a similar project, I would recommend covering at least the first 3 feet (about 1 meter) of all the surrounding walls near the screen for the best results. The image below shows where I initially installed about 3 feet of felt on the ceiling. However, I have come to realize that more is better, so I have extended it to 6 feet. I am also considering adding felt to the first 6 feet of the walls. The darker the better.
Dimming my room had a significant impact; it further immersed me in the content, allowing my surroundings to fade into the background and enabling me to fully concentrate on the screen. Moreover, by absorbing ambient light instead of reflecting it back onto the screen, it notably improved the image’s contrast and deepened the black levels. This dual effect not only made darker scenes more enjoyable, but also contributed to a more lifelike and realistic overall viewing experience.
Tactile Response: Bass Shakers
I recently added bass shakers to my home theater, and I could not have been more pleased with the results. Bass shakers, also known as tactile transducers, enhance low-frequency audio effects by converting them into vibrations you can feel. They are typically mounted under furniture and connected to the audio system, adding an extra layer of immersion to movies, games, and music.
I chose the Dayton Audio BST-300EX, which I fine-tuned to deliver tactile bass down to 10Hz. Despite their affordable cost of less than $400 for shakers and amp, these shakers took my home theater experience to a whole new level.
The most vivid example of this can be illustrated by the opening scene of John Wick 4. If you have seen this movie in theaters, you will recall the opening scene with powerful, building-shaking bass when John Wick is pummeling a punching bag. When that scene is brought into the home, the difference between experiencing with and without the shakers is massive. Without them, you can sense the strength of the bass, but it lacks the jolting and visceral impact it is meant to have. However, with the shakers engaged, that jolting sensation returns, completely altering the perception that the room itself is being struck, almost as if John Wick is punching my house. I recommend these to anyone who wants to be able to feel bass and not just hear it, you will be mad at yourself for not doing it sooner; I know I was.
Explore our comprehensive bass shaker reviews and how bass shakers work in our articles “Elevating My Home Theater with the Dayton Audio BST-300EX Bass Shaker” and “Integrating Bass Shakers into Your Home Theatre.”
This section outlines the methods I have used to automate my home theater over the years, encompassing the use of smart lights, smart plugs, and 12-volt triggers. The goal has always been to simplify tasks and enhance user-friendliness, resulting in a more enjoyable experience when sitting down to watch or listen to content. All of these upgrades are worth it and add that little bit of extra comfort to the room to make it enjoyable.
Smart Lights: My home theater features Philips Hue smart lights, which allows both manual and automatic control. For example, when I power on the projector, the lights dim, signaling the theater’s activation. They adjust as the projector stabilizes, and I have also created settings for different activities, like dining, sports, and music.
For more information on how smart lights can be used in home theaters, check out our article “Smart Lighting for Home Theater.”
Smart Plugs: Another valuable addition I have incorporated into my theater setup is the use of smart plugs. These smart plugs have proven to be versatile and cost-effective in automating devices that might otherwise be challenging to control. I rely on them to manage cooling fans for both my AV rack and projector, as well as to power down various devices in the room while the theater is in use. Smart plugs are great for powering AV devices and providing remote control. However, for me, the next item on my list is the easiest way to automate AV equipment power.
For more information on how smart plugs can be used in home theaters, check out our article “Automating Your Home Theater with Smart Plugs.”
IOT Relay: This is a recent addition to my home theater that I introduced when installing my bass shakers. I needed a solution because the amplifier I was using for the bass shakers could not be turned on/off along with the rest of the AV equipment. It would have been really annoying to have to turn this amp on and off every time I used my system. This device solved that problem by enabling you to control up to three devices automatically using the 12-volt trigger from your AVR or projector, and to make it even better, it was just plug and play.
For more information on how this device works, check out our article “Add Auto On/Off to Your AV Gear with This IoT Control Relay.”
Never Reaching Perfection
I would like to emphasize an important point about upgrades: never restrict yourself from enjoying your system before you have added a specific component. This mindset can quickly diminish your current system’s enjoyment, leading to potential resentment and dissatisfaction. Because if you do, you forget the joy that this hobby brings to you. Always take the time to enjoy the system you built and appreciate the time and effort that you have put into it.
With that said, please do not hesitate to share in the comments below what upgrades/improvements you have made to your system that you feel take it over the edge!