While it’s easy to drool over a killer OLED-clad, Dolby Atmos-enabled home theater setup, it’s a bit more difficult to actually afford such a luxury. But whether you have a kickass theater room or a $200 TV with some cheap speakers, there are still things you can do to improve the picture and sound—for very little money.
The darker your room, the brighter the TV looks—and if your TV is lacking in the contrast ratio department, those blacks can start to appear grey compared to the surrounding darkness. That’s where bias lighting comes in. Stick one of these LED strips on the back of your panel and it’ll reflect white light off the wall, causing your eyes to perceive those blacks as...well, blacker. Even if your TV has full-array local dimming, these lighting strips can help avoid eyestrain in a dark room, not to mention help you find your way to the kitchen when the popcorn craving strikes.
Power Practical makes some of the best bias lighting around, with their Pro line zoning in on that coveted 6500K color temperature. You can grab the large version for 40” TVs for $40, or the XL version for 55”+ TVs for $50. If that price is a bit too steep, the small version for $10 will do the trick just fine, albeit with the light spread a bit less evenly.
Is it me, or do TVs sit too damn low these days? I’m not really a mount-my-TV-on-the-wall kind of guy, but there’s barely any clearance under the screen for a decent soundbar or center channel speaker. Unsatisfied with wall mounting, and not about to buy another multi-hundred-dollar TV cabinet, I did some digging and came across a number of third-party TV stands like this one from Hemudu. For less than $30, you get a two-legged stand that screws into the VESA mounts on the back of your TV (the same ones you’d use to mount it to the wall), with adjustable height so you can fit just about any speaker(s) underneath it. Plus it comes with built-in cable management, so you can create a cleaner look atop your entertainment center
A few settings tweaks can go a long way to making your picture look better, as our friends at Lifehacker have discussed time and again. And while the free test patterns available from AVS Forum work great if you know what you’re doing, they aren’t the friendliest to beginners (especially since you have to get those MP4 files on your TV in the first place. For everyone else, there are calibration discs like Disney’s World of Wonder (or, for the slightly more savvy, the classic Spears & Munsil). Not only will they walk you through all the basic adjustments and explain how they improve your picture, they come with the blue filter you need to get the color saturation just right. They also have a few audio tests to make sure your surround sound is working properly, which is a handy inclusion. If you don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for a professional calibration, this will at least get your TV in the right ballpark.
Many speakers these days are “ported,” meaning they have a hole that sound travels out when the woofer’s diaphram moves back into the cabinet. There’s a lot of technical nuance here, but the useful bit is this: you can plug this port in different ways to adjust your speaker’s bass response. This is particularly useful if your speakers are rear-ported, causing reflections off the wall and bloating the low end. Some speakers come with port plugs in the box, but if yours didn’t—or you threw them away long ago like I did—you can sometimes buy them online by contacting the manufacturer. Alternatively, if you want something a bit cheaper—or your manufacturer doesn’t offer them—you can experiment with some upholstery foam. Try rolling up different amounts and stuffing it in to see how it sounds. Maybe you like your port filled to the brim, or maybe a hollow cylinder around the edges of the port hits that ideal sound. You may even find that the speakers sound best as-is, but depending on your room and tastes, a bit of DIY dampening can change the game considerably.
Running cables cleanly through the wall is cheaper than you think, but not everyone has the cash—or permission from their landlord—to do it properly. Instead of running ugly trip-hazard cables along your floor, though, check out Ghost Wire. It’s a super flat speaker cable that you can run under the rug, along the baseboards, or on the wall nearly invisibly. It’s the next best thing to cutting open your drywall, and with the right plan of attack, you can even paint over it and no one will ever be the wiser (unless they’re looking really closely). Grab a 25 foot spool for $30 and a few terminal blocks to connect them to your speakers, and you’ll be made in the shade.