Best Practice: AV Systems Setup Checklist

Aylett_System Design Checklist

The best equipment does not necessarily give you the best performance. It is essential that every system be set up correctly so as to maximise the performance of the installed equipment. For many automation systems, it is either going to work, or not. There is little or no grey area. For AV systems, however, it is not enough to simply get a picture or hear a sound; Every system needs setting up correctly.

The following is a simple and basic checklist to use on every AV system you encounter. Please feel free to format it as your own company’s checklist. These steps are not calibration, they are the basic steps necessary when a system is being commissioned and should take no longer than 15 minutes to complete.

Remember, Panic in Private. If you have never set up a particular AV processor or display device before, do this at your office so that when you are on site there are no surprises.

Tools Required
A SPL (Sound Pressure Level) Meter:
This can be a handheld SPL meter, or an App on a phone. For iOS, use Audio Tools by Studio Six Digital. It does not have to be calibrated for basic setup at this level.
A Tape Measure:  Minimum of 8m length. Alternatively, laser measures can be used.
Signal Generator: An app on a phone is sufficient. The tone needed is a frequency sweep from 20Hz to 15Khz. A long 3.5mm mini jack (Phone end) to 2 RCA (Processor End) will be needed to connect the phone to the AV receiver. This needs to be long enough to reach the processor from the listening position.

Aylett_The Mini DSP UMIK-1 is an excellent and inexpensive microphone for use in audio setup that can be connected to a PC , phone or tablet
The Mini DSP UMIK-1 is an excellent and inexpensive microphone for use in audio setup that can be connected to a PC, phone or tablet.

Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark 2nd Edition Blu-Ray test disc.
Any video setup disc will work fine but for Blu-ray and HD content please ensure that the disc is a Blu-ray and not a DVD as they may use a different colour space.
Two of your favourite Blu-ray discs. Ensure one is 1.78:1 and one is 2.40:1 and that both have HD audio.

Audio Setup
1. Speaker Mounting:
Speakers need to be held rigid and be free of vibration. Ensure that all transit covers are taken off the drive units. Ensure that the speaker is supported correctly. If it is sitting on a shelf, stick three rigid rubber feet to the bottom of the speaker. If the speaker is fitted into a soffit or cabinet, ensure that any space around and behind the speaker is filled with foam sheets to minimise resonances.
If they are floor mounted - 
     a.  On carpet use the spikes provided. These pierce the carpet and leave no lasting damage to the carpet.
     b.  On hard floors, use the screw in rubber feet if provided. If not provided, stick three rubber feet to the base of the speaker and place the speaker on the floor.
2. Speaker cable termination: Bare copper wire is not to be used. If the speaker has spring clips, tin the speaker cable and heat shrink the end. Place the tinned cable into the spring clip. For binding post, use soldered 4mm plugs, or spades. Take extreme care to check polarity (+ and - the correct way round from end to end)

Modern AV processors need setting up correctly for best performance
Modern AV processors need setting up correctly for best performance.

3.Set up the processor - 
     a. Input into the processor the speaker arrangement. If one or more subwoofers are in the system, all speakers should be set to ‘Small’ regardless of their physical size.
     b. Set the subwoofer crossover on the processor to 80Hz. When using really small ‘satellite’ speakers, set this to 100Hz. On the sub amplifier, or on an active sub, turn the ‘Crossover’ control to either ‘Off’, or to as high a frequency as it will go.
     c. Many processors have an ‘Auto’ setup mode. Bypass this as much as possible for the next steps as doing it manually usually gets better results.
     d. Set up delays/distances. Use the tape measure to measure the distance between the speaker, and the prime listening position. Use a helper for this and measure to the tip of your nose when seated in the prime position. Input this distance for all speakers.
Some processors need an ‘offset’ from one of the speakers. If this is the case, use the centre channel as the reference and input the relative distance differences to the other speakers.
     e. Set up levels. Set your SPL meter (The below example is SPL Pro on Audio Tools) Aylett SPL Graphto ‘Slow’ and ‘C Weighted’. Bring up the levels test tone on the processor. Adjust the overall volume until the noise reads around 80db on your SPL meter. The exact number does not matter too much. Set each speaker’s level until they all match +/- 0.5db. This step CANNOT be done by ear. Do not be tempted to turn the rear channels up higher so the client can ‘hear them better’.
     f. Bass level is very difficult to set using an SPL meter. Set it as best you can. You may need to adjust the volume control on the sub amp/active crossover.
     g. Plug in your signal generator to the system. Set to ‘Full range’ and ‘Sine’. Slowly raise the frequency from 20Hz to around 15,000 Hz. make sure the volume on the processor is set so an SPL meter on slow reads around 90db. This is loud. As you go through the frequencies, listen out for rattles and vibrations. As you hear a rattle, look into it and try to fix the cause. Carry on until the room is rattle free.
     h. Listen to the system. Play some music that you are familiar with. Simple female or male vocals are best as we Humans know what this should sound like in the real world. The bass should not be boomy or overwhelming. Adjust the bass level if you feel it needs adjusting to sound in balance. Play both of your test Blu-Rays and listen to the system.
     i. Write down all the settings and file them for reference.

Video Setup
Today’s display devices tend to be setup really well out of the box. The below steps should, however, still be followed to ensure that the display is performing correctly.
1. Warm Up: Ensure that the display device has been switched on and showing a picture for at least 30 minutes.
2. Turn off picture processing: Switch OFF features such as ‘Dynamic Contrast’, ‘Ultra Black’ and ‘Real Colour’. These features vary from TV to TV but generally, rather than improving the picture, they destroy shadow details and colour fidelity. The only setting to leave switched ON is ‘MPEG Noise Reduction’. Select a ‘User’, or ‘Cinema’ setting to start the process. NEVER use ‘Vivid’. This setting is designed to make a screen bright in showroom conditions. It will destroy shadow and highlight details. 
3. Adjust the lighting in the room to the level most likely when the users are watching TV. Insert the Spears & Munsil Blu-ray into a player. Go to the ‘Top Menu’ and select ‘Video Calibration’ on the left hand menu.
4. Set up brightness (To set White Level): Select ‘Brightness’ on the right hand pane of the disc menu. Turn the brightness control up until all four bars are visible on screen. Do not worry if the two left most bars are not visible. Then turn the brightness down until only the two right hand bars are visible. The one saying ‘2%’ should only just be visible. 
5. Set up contrast (To set Black Level): Select ‘Contrast’ on the right hand pane of the disc menu. Turn the contrast control all the way up. You should see the numbered boxes all turn to white. Then turn down the brightness until you can see as many of the individual numbered light grey bars as possible.
If you are having problems with either brightness or contrast, refer the setup to a video specialist as it is likely that the display or player Gamma needs adjusting.
6. Set up colour: Select ‘Colour and Tint’ on the right hand pane of the disc menu. Follow the on screen instructions to adjust colour. You may meed to fold the blue filter  in half to double up on the blue filters. Adjust the colour control on the TV. 
7. Set up sharpness: Select ‘Sharpness’ on the right hand pane of the disc menu. Sharpness is subjective unlike the other three video adjustments. You are trying to strike a balance between minimising artefacts, and getting getting a crisp and sharp look to the picture. Do not be tempted to just turn sharpness all the way up. The picture will NOT be sharper, but will be full of artefacts. Adjust the sharpness control until the lines look crisp and sharp, but you cannot see any sharpening artefacts.
8. Watch a movie: Put on one of your favourite films. Skin tones should be natural and colours should be accurate. You should see details in highlights (the brightest parts of the picture such as snow, or white dresses) and shadows (the darkest parts of the picture such as a black suit).

The above steps are only the basics but should be performed on EVERY AV system and display device. They are the tip of the iceberg to what can be done on a high performance system. You will evolve your own processes that are specific to the products you use and may be slightly different to the above.
If you install Media Room or Cinema systems it is definitely worth taking some high performance AV calibration courses. CEDIA, HAA (Home Acoustics Alliance), ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) and THX all run excellent practical courses that will allow you to calibrate systems to a standard way above what is described above.

Peter Aylett is a world-renowned speaker and lecturer in residential technology, and the Technical Director at Archimedia, a multinational high-end residential integrator in The Middle East. He is also currently Chair of CEDIA’s International Technology Council Applied Content Action Team, and a regular contributor to HiddenWireswww.archimedia-me.com.