This is not what the filmmaker intended…
It’s Friday night and you don’t feel like going out. You search for a movie to watch and pick out the latest action-suspense blockbuster. You choose the HD version for $2 more, thinking it’ll look and sound that much better. You’ve got a soundbar with wireless surrounds and a subwoofer that you bought on Black Friday to go with your 4K TV. The movie starts - but you can’t hear the dialog clearly, so you turn up the volume. Two seconds later there is an explosion that throws your subwoofer into protect mode, and it sounds like popcorn kernels are violently bouncing around in the cabinet. You quickly turn the volume down, and now you can’t tell if your surround speakers are working…
A lot of work goes into the creation of a movie. The sets, lighting, detailed costumes, makeup, stunts, special effects, dialog, sound effects, sound design, mixing, and many other elements all combine into the final movie you watch from your couch. Once you hit play, you want to know that you are seeing and hearing every detail the way the content creator intended, as if you were in his or her studio watching it.
THX was created in 1983 to address similar concerns, when movie theaters were not as advanced as they are today with dozens of speakers lined all around the auditorium and high resolution projection systems projecting bright 4K goodness onto a 100 ft screen. For over 30 years we have been involved with designing the highest quality audio and video performance environments for the world’s leading movie theaters and professional studios. Everything from the acoustic design of the room, audio and projector equipment performance, loudspeaker locations for even coverage, viewing angles for each audience member, and careful calibration of the entire system all combine for the ultimate listening and viewing experience.
By working on the development of specifications and verification of each component in the chain, THX makes sure that everything works together as an efficient and well performing system. We handle the details so you don’t notice them.
3 things to consider for a better experience
To get to a reference experience, THX has created programs and specifications to certify all the key components in a media playback setting to make it as easy as possible to build and recreate the experience you can get in a well designed and calibrated movie theater. To bring this into your home there are 3 key areas that need to be addressed:
- The room and environment
- Audio and video equipment
- Setup (system calibration)
We will go into more detail on these 3 topics in upcoming Medium articles, but here are a few things to think about and look for to help improve your setup today.
The room and environment
Get in the mood: If you are planning to watch a movie that was originally presented in a movie theater, THX wants you to get into the mood by creating an environment worthy of the time and effort the creators put into their work.
- Lights out: Turn down all unnecessary lights and close the shades so that there is minimal light reflected on the screen and you can see all the detail in the dark sections of the movie.
- Quiet please: Get the room as quiet as possible by shutting doors, turning off appliances and other noise sources so that you can hear all the details in quiet scenes.
- Consider your room acoustics: As you look around the room, are there hard flat surfaces like windows and hardwood floors that could act as a reflector of sound? If you can, draw the curtains or lay a rug on the floor to help prevent the room from sounding like an echo chamber.
- Seating: The best position to view your TV is when you are sitting front and center, or at least within the left and right edges of the screen. If you are too far off angle, the color saturation and black levels of an LCD screen may shift and not look as good as when you are seated dead-center. It’s also best to not allow the bottom of the screen to go too far above eye level to prevent neck strain.
Audio and video equipment
Set the stage: One of the biggest issues we see in a basic home setup is speaker placement and not paying attention to objects or boundaries that prevent speakers from having a direct, unobstructed path to the primary listening position.
- Location, location: Your left and right speakers should be at ear level and flank your TV set. Try to keep them within a foot from each edge so that objects that move across from one side to the other remain locked to what you see on screen. If you are using a center speaker or soundbar, it should be centered and directly below your screen. Again, make sure that nothing is obstructing and blocking the sound.
- Get surrounded: If you are willing to go the extra mile and add surround speakers, take them off the side table and get them 3–4 feet above seated ear level and to the direct left or right side walls (further back toward the rear is also fine). They should be far enough away so that they are not screaming in your ear when they come on; if you can reach them with an outstretched arm, they are too close. If you have more than 2 surround speakers and are looking to add ceiling speakers or those Dolby Atmos enabled speakers that reflect sound off your ceiling, you are a much more advanced user and have gone much further that the scope of this quick start guide. Check out THX.com and the Dolby and DTS sites for more advanced set-up recommendations.
- All about that Bass: Even if you just have 2 speakers or invested in a sound bar, you must, must have a good subwoofer in your system. So much of the “wow factor” you get in a great sound demo comes from deep bass notes and effects that you get from a subwoofer. Look for something with at least a 10 inch diameter woofer for smaller rooms (< 6 ft listening distance) and have one or more 12–15 inch woofers for much larger rooms (>12 ft listening distance). THX subwoofers go much lower than most and are capable of reproducing the lowest notes.
- We certify TVs too: If you have a THX Certified TV set, make sure you select the THX Cinema video mode preset for watching movies. In this mode, our engineers have collaborated with the manufacturer’s expert picture quality engineers to carefully calibrate and adjust brightness, contrast, primary (red, green, blue) and secondary colors (yellow, magenta, cyan), white point, grey scale tracking, as well as all those video settings deep in the menus, to make sure what you see on screen is as close as possible to what the studio and a professional colorist would want to see on screen in a controlled (dimly lit) room. This ensures skin tones and other colors look exactly like they should when they finalized the film and that all those hidden TV “features” are disabled and/or set to a studio prescribed setting. Our engineers know what settings are best so that you don’t need an engineering degree to determine what each control does. If you don’t have a THX Certified TV, look for a “Cinema” or “Movie” mode preset as a starting point and download our THX tune-up mobile app with built-in test patterns and images to help set some basic TV controls (available for both Android and iOS).
Fear not: As in all professional theater or studio installations, a lot of attention is given to proper setup and calibration as this is where critical problems are often found. In many cases, just knowing that every speaker is connected and that left is left and right is right will get you more than 50% of the way there.
- Basic settings: Start by using the built-in speaker test noise to make sure sound is coming out of the correct speaker. Sounds simple but many learn at this point that speakers are not connected or that their left and right surround speakers are swapped. Again, THX tune-up can easily help guide you through this process.
- Slightly less basic settings: If you get deep enough into the setup menu, follow these basic speaker settings as a starting point: Set all speakers to SMALL and set the crossover for all speakers to 80 Hz so that the subwoofer does all the work and, regardless of speaker size, bass is not forced into a speaker that can not handle it. This is the default speaker setting in all THX Certified AV receivers and ensures the electronic crossover correctly matches the acoustic response of THX Certified speakers to result in correct bass management. This results in a smooth transition from the main speakers to the subwoofer without any peaks or dips.
- THX Reference Level: To get the true THX reference grade experience, look for a THX Certified AV Receiver where we have measured and checked all inputs and outputs to ensure that all output levels are correct, frequency responses are flat as a ruler, distortion and noise levels are lower than can be detected by the human ear, and enough clean undistorted power is provided by the amplifiers to comfortably reach reference peak output levels with room to spare. As an added benefit, we’ve designed the internal architecture to provide the same perceived loudness levels you get in a calibrated studio or theater when you set the volume of a THX product to “0 dB”. [Advanced: To get this, use the internal test noise and make sure you measure 75 dBC Slow from each speaker with an SPL meter positioned at ear level in the center seat. Note that the result will be 85 dBC since the internal test noise is actually set to -10 dB to prevent exposure to high noise levels during setup.]
Now that you’ve made some simple changes to optimize your movie watching environment, you are ready to turn up the volume, hit play, and enjoy the movie. If you’ve followed some or all of these guidelines, you are that much closer to having a true THX cinematic experience. We’ve done our job when all the TV settings, speaker setup and other technical details disappear into the background and you find yourself lost in the film.
Stay tuned for our upcoming Medium articles where we go into greater detail on our specifications and testing process for THX Certified audio and video products.