High-def TVs can take some smarts to set up

How to get your new high-def set looking like it did in the store display.

Dec. 29, 2007 — -- So you finally bought the big-screen TV you've been dreaming about — or perhaps Santa was exceptionally generous this year. You excitedly open the box and plug the new set into the wall.

But for some reason, the picture doesn't look as sharp as it did at the store, or as clear as your neighbor's high-definition television.

Don't worry. Chances are there's nothing wrong with your new HDTV. You just need a little help setting it up for optimum performance. Here are a few pointers:

• High-definition programming. You might be able to receive some free high-definition broadcasts if your television has a built-in ATSC tuner (for over-the-air broadcasts), or QAM tuner (a way to get HD channels over basic cable). Still, chances are you'll be subscribing to high-definition programming through your cable or satellite provider. This involves upgrading your receiver box and paying a few extra dollars per month for access to the HD channels. (Don't worry; it's well worth it.)

If a channel is available in "widescreen" (16:9 aspect ratio), the television will automatically display it in this presentation. But if it's a standard definition (4:3 aspect ratio) channel, your TV will either show vertical black bars on each side of the picture, or stretch it (you can choose). The onscreen TV guide through your television provider will usually write "HD" before or after the name of the show or network name. Example: "HD —Lost" or "NBC HD."

•Use the right cables. That's so you can connect your high-definition components to your television. High-definition programming requires either component cables (red, blue and green), a digital visual interface (DVI) cable, or a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cable. This is in contrast with the red, yellow and white composite ("RCA") cords, or the round-ended S-Video cable.

An HDMI is the preferred pick for the ultimate in uncompressed digital audio and video quality. Look at the back of your TV and you'll see a few options; you might have to buy these cables separately.

• Want a quick, easy way to improve color? Turn up the contrast on your TV almost to full, and reduce the brightness down to below half. This little-known trick makes blacks blacker, colors richer and gets rid of the washed-out look some HDTVs have. Alternatively, find a THX-enhanced DVD, such as one of the Star Wars films or Finding Nemo, and use the disc's built-in video test, which walks you through setting up contrast, brightness, color and sharpness.

You can always have the home theater professionally installed and calibrated.

• Get a sharper picture. Leave the television's video setting on full-screen, but change your cable or satellite receiver box's video output setting to 720p or 1080i. Many TV viewers will instead use the TV remote to "zoom in" to see the picture with no vertical bars. But this will likely result in a blurry or pixilated image — or might cut off some of the picture.

• Listen up. George Lucas once said audio is half the movie-viewing experience. If you've sat in the middle of a good surround-sound system, you'd be inclined to agree. Rather than settling for your television's two-channel (stereo) audio, invest in an audio/video receiver that amplifies the sound to fill the room, and splits the audio into six or more speakers.

Those speakers would include two front speakers (usually placed on the left and right of the television); two rear speakers for the back of the room, at ear level; a center channel, which sits just below or above the television and delivers an estimated 80% of a movie's dialogue; and the multidirectional subwoofer that sits on the floor, emitting the low-frequency bass. This setup is usually referred to "5.1 surround sound," for the five speakers and ".1" for the subwoofer.

Subwoofers are multidirectional, so you can put them anywhere in the room. But many audiophiles say to place them in a corner to maximize the subwoofer's output.