Easy ways to improve picture quality and sound on your TV

Take your home-entertainment experience to the next level

Published : January 2014

Out-of-the-box picture settings could be cramping your TV’s style, our experts warn. Many new models are set to a power-saving mode to meet Energy Star standards, which can result in a dim or washed-out picture. Too bright or garish? The TV might be set to Vivid or Dynamic mode. Here are our tips on getting the best picture your TV can deliver:

Choose a picture mode

This one-step solution adjusts many settings at once. Freeze on an image with faces and detail. Press the menu button on the remote and find picture settings, then picture mode. Try the THX mode if your TV has one, or use Movie, Cinema, or Pro for a natural-­looking picture. Natural or Standard mode might trade color accuracy for brightness.

Fine-tune other settings

If you want to go further, turn off any dynamic backlight or contrast and power-saving controls, which cause brightness to vary.

Turn off digital noise reduction (DNR). It's intended to reduce graininess, but it can make images look unnaturally smooth.

If even cinematic movies on your LCD/LED set look like daytime soap operas, turn off motion smoothing, which removes the natural judder in film and makes it look like video. On some sets, that's linked to blur reduction, so turning off one feature also turns off the other. (On some TVs you can adjust certain settings only in the Custom or User picture mode, which may be in an Advanced or More Options menu.)

Tackle brightness and color

In addition to adjusting black levels, tweak white levels. Freeze on an image with near-white shadows, set contrast to the max, then lower it until you can see subtle details. In "color temperature," select warm or low. Set tint/hue and color controls at the midpoint. Adjust tint and color so that flesh tones and colors look natural.

What's wrong with this picture?

We split the image above diagonally to show how the picture looks before (upper-right) and after (lower-left) it's adjusted. Here are the problems and how to fix them.

Problem A: There’s a white 'halo' outlining his head.

Fix: Turn off edge enhancement, which exaggerates edges and creates a cartoonish look.

Problem B: His skin pores and her hair strands appear coarse.

Fix: Set sharpness to zero and inch up only if the image looks soft.

Problem C: You can't see the folds in the black shirt.

Fix: Raise brightness (black level) until you can see the details in dark scenes.

Problem D: He looks sunburned, and her bangs look red.

Fix: Adjust the color and tint controls, lowering the red if skin tones look too ruddy (or adjusting green if they look sick).

Upgrade the sound

The Sonos Playbar (mounted beneath the TV) can improve your listening experience.

The super-svelte profile that makes your TV look so stunning might also be responsible for its unimpressive sound. When there's not much room for speakers, sound quality can suffer. Only a dozen or so of the 170-plus TVs in our Ratings have very good sound, and only one (the Bose VideoWave II Entertainment System) was judged excellent.

But there's an easy way to get better audio: Add a sound-bar speaker system to your setup.

These long, narrow enclosures are designed to sit below or above your TV set; many can be wall-mounted. Most sound bars are powered, so they don't require an external amplifier.

Many sound bars use signal processing to create virtual surround sound, with varying degrees of success. (None matches a home-theater system with multiple speakers.) Many sound bars come with a powered subwoofer, often wireless, which helps improve the bass response. More use Bluetooth wireless technology for playing music from portable devices, and a few receive Internet radio stations such as Pandora and Spotify.

Great choices

One of the best sound bars we've tested is the Sonos Playbar, which has front-center, right, and left speakers. It's expensive at $700 (in part because you can use it in a wireless multiroom music system). The Vizio S3821w, $160, provides very good sound on a budget.

Two other basic, low-priced models that didn't quite make our stringent recommendation list still offer much better sound than the average TV: the Toshiba SBX4250, $220, and Yamaha YAS-101, $250.

Editor's Note:

This article also appears in the March 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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