Those who have read our reviews in the past will notice that every review mentions calibration, in one form or another. Calibration is, quite simply, changing the settings on your audio or video equipment in order to maximize the quality of that device's output. The change in quality can be very slight, or very large, to the point where it seems you're using a whole different system. Calibration cannot be done without a little help which can come either in the form of a professional technician, or a do-it-yourself calibration disc.
Three popular calibration discs are available today: the AVIA Guide to Home Theater, Digital Video Essentials, and the Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up. Each disc is divided into two major sections. Section One is a general how-to guide, useful when wiring your home theater components together and placing your speakers in their soon-to-be permanent positions. Section Two is a collection of test patterns, for both audio and video, useful for calibrating your system. Each disc has distinct strengths, and buying the correct disc could make your life much easier.
The AVIA Guide is the oldest of the DVD test discs, released in 1999 (which is coincidentally the year that Projector Central was founded). Of course, home theater components have changed greatly since 1999. The AVIA Guide is geared mostly towards cathode ray tube direct-view sets (the television that has been sitting in your living room for years). However, most of the tutorial section's advice still holds up, especially the sections on proper set up of a dedicated home theater room; topics like ambient light management, speaker placement, and general acoustic advice have not varied much with advancements in technology.
The sections on preferred cable connections do not include DVI or HDMI because in 1999, there were no consumer-level electronics featuring these connectors. Furthermore, in the section discussing video technology, AVIA talks about CRT projectors as well as LCD projectors; but not DLP, due to their relative scarcity in 1999, but this in no way reduces AVIA's usefulness when calibrating DLP devices.
The AVIA Guide devotes as much time to speaker placement and calibration as it does to video calibration. There are sections on room acoustics and speaker placement for each set of speakers, as well as how to connect your speakers for the best possible sound quality.
The AVIA Guide features a wide variety of test tones. In addition to the standard level adjustment tones for main and surround speakers, there are also several different test tones solely for subwoofer adjustment, to aid you in getting as flat a response as possible from your subwoofer. There is a separate section for tones used to verify that your speakers are now set up correctly. For more advanced users, there is a "reference tones" section specifically for use with advanced equipment like a spectrum analyzer. The audio section of the AVIA Guide can help you make simple calibrations as well as more in-depth adjustments; how much fine-tuning you do is completely up to you.
The AVIA disc has a huge selection of video test patterns, covering many different aspects of home theater calibration; some of these are relatively simple, and some are not. Patterns for the "big five" video adjustments (brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, sharpness) have audio and video descriptions to go with them. While the narrators refer more to CRT displays than digital projectors, the patterns themselves are useful for both, as they provide consistent source material. Other more advanced patterns can reveal the accuracy of your projector's color decoder, or - with the help of some more advanced instrumentation such as a light meter or colorimeter - help you to adjust color temperature or grayscale tracking.
Navigation on the AVIA disc is simple and intuitive. Similar test patterns are grouped in sub-menus, which are clearly labeled. Each and every pattern has a paragraph or two of text that describes what the pattern is used for and how it is used.
The AVIA disc is a great choice for anyone who has never set up a home theater before, but would like to learn and eventually perform more in-depth calibrations without hiring a technician. And while the narrators focus on CRT displays more than digital projectors, this just means that the AVIA Guide can be used on every video display in your home.
Digital Video Essentials (or DVE) is the follow-up to the successful Video Essentials from 1996. Released in 2003, DVE is fairly up-to-date in that it offers information primarily in the 16:9 aspect ratio, and includes an informative section on High Definition.
DVE discusses some important topics for the first-time home theater user, such as why the word "digital" does not automatically make a product better, or the effect of room environment on picture and sound quality. Unlike the other two discs, DVE discusses color temperature thoroughly. However, it gives the user no way to set it, only an idea of what to look for. There are in-depth discussions on why progressive scan looks better than interlaced, and why component video is the best analog connection choice.
The introductory portion of DVE felt random at times, jumping from topic to topic with little in the way of transitions. There are many topics included in the intro material that do not directly pertain to calibration. These explanations, covering everything from MPEG compression in DVDs to how HD signals are broadcast, may be confusing for the beginning home theater user, as they utilize a lot of technical jargon and are accompanied by diagrams on-screen that serve no purpose and are not referenced in the narration. While DVE has more material relevant to front projectors, it talks about how difficult it is to set these devices properly, and strongly urges viewers to hire an ISF-certified technician.
The audio section of DVE goes into a discussion about the current state of audio technology, such as the differences between Dolby Digital and DTS, as well as different audio connections such as coaxial digital audio and TOSlink. It also has a guide on speaker placement for both 5.1 and 6.1 channel surround systems.
Like the AVIA Guide, DVE has many different test tones, and their level adjustment tones include a helpful visual diagram, highlighting which speaker the sound should be coming from. While it does not have the enormous selection of tones supplies with the AVIA disc, there is still ample material with which to calibrate your speaker system. However, the added tones on the AVIA disc, which allow you to eventually use advanced equipment (such as a spectrum analyzer) to tweak every aspect of your system, are absent.
Patterns for the major video adjustments have tutorials describing their use. DVE also includes a "troubleshooting" section, describing common problems that could arise when setting these levels - for example, crushing of the grayscale in digital projectors, compared to CRTs. There are many advanced patterns, and this test disc is great for anyone who knows their way around a colorimeter. DVE can be used in conjunction with more advanced calibration devices to set your projector up perfectly.
Navigation, however, leaves much to be desired. While AVIA's menu system was lengthy, it had the advantage of placing all menu items in a given submenu on the same page, which let you see all of your options at once. DVE often has submenu items spread out over three or more pages, making it difficult to see what your choices are. Furthermore, unlike AVIA, the more advanced patterns are not documented on the disc. Documentation for these patterns is available from Joe Kane Productions' website in the form of a 70-page PDF file. It seems that DVE has trouble deciding on an audience. The introductory material is likely too simple for advanced users, while the test patterns for the most part go undocumented, which implies some sort of knowledge on the user's part.
DVE is a good choice for advanced users of projectors and other high definition display devices. If you know what to do with the advanced test material, it will serve you well in calibrating your video system. If you are a new user with limited knowledge of the field, it could be beneficial to pick up one of the other two discs instead.
This disc is a collaboration between the editors of Sound & Vision Magazine and Ovation Software, the folks who brought us AVIA. As such, the introductory material uses many of the same diagrams that AVIA does, simply replacing the narration - and the narrators - with more up-to-date information. It also goes into some topics that were not covered in the other two discs; namely, Sound & Vision discusses how audio and video equipment puts off heat, and that not ensuring proper ventilation is a big mistake. It also discusses some of the downsides of long runs of video cable, and their effect on signal quality.
Once again, however, there is no mention of DVI or HDMI; the disc once again shows its age, as well as how much has changed since 2001. Like AVIA, most of the introductory material is centered on CRT-based displays, and the narrators even say at one point that in order to obtain proper test patterns for front projectors, you would need to pick up a copy of AVIA. The disc is in the 4:3 format, though it does discuss the benefits of widescreen and urges people to invest in a widescreen TV of some sort. HDTV is mentioned in passing, but only as an interesting concept that you might want to keep in mind. The patterns included can be used to calibrate DLP displays, though DLP is not mentioned at all.
As for the test patterns, there are very few. Like the other two discs, there is in-depth discussion of the "big five" video adjustments, complete with visual demonstration and commentary. However, aside from a few selected grayscale and resolution patterns, that is the extent of the test material on this disc.
There are short descriptions of the major audio test tones, explaining their use. For the most part, these test tones are taken straight from the AVIA Guide, and will help you to check the phase of your speakers, as well as balance their levels. Again, it is nowhere near as comprehensive as the AVIA Guide, but most people do not need that level of complexity, and this disc is perfectly adequate to properly balance your 5- or 6-channel speaker system.
This disc is best suited to beginners, as it gives a good overview of how home theaters work and what their setup entails. The basic five video adjustments are useful, and for those just starting out in the field of home theater, this could help guard against becoming overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information available. If what you're looking for is a good discussion of how to set up a home theater without the technical jargon or confusing advanced test patterns, give the Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up a try. If you already own AVIA, all you will receive from this disc is updated introductory material.
Each of these calibration discs fits a different type of user. For the beginner, Sound & Vision's offering is more than enough to help you get your feet wet and perhaps pique your interest in the more advanced discs. The AVIA Guide to Home Theater is an excellent mid-range disc, with an enormous selection of test patterns and a helpful description for each, extending its usefulness from the new home theater owner to the experienced projector user. Finally, Digital Video Essentials offers updated versions of many of AVIA's most useful test patterns, and its introductory material, while sometimes steeped in jargon, is still the most up-to-date of the three discs. And it sells for a much more attractive price than does AVIA at the moment.
Every home theater owner should have a calibration disc on hand. If you don't already own at least one of these discs, you can pick one up through our DVD Store.