Home Theater Troubleshooting Tips

How to fix common home theater problems

You finished setting up your new home theater system and big-screen TV. You turn everything on and...nothing happens. Don't dial tech support or a repairman just yet. Before you grab the phone, there are some practical things you can do that may get your system running. We detail them below.

What to Do When Nothing Turns On

Check all power connections. If everything is connected into a surge protector, make sure the surge protector itself is turned on and plugged into the wall. Believe it or not, this is one of the most common reasons home theater systems and/or televisions don't power up the first time. 

Surge protectors are designed to stop fluctuations in electricity caused by electrical strikes or sudden disconnects and reconnects. It should be changed every few years to ensure it still works properly. When choosing a new one, be sure to select a surge protector and not a power strip.

What to Do When There's No TV Reception

Make sure your antenna, cable, or satellite box is connected correctly to your television. If you have a standard cable or satellite box, make sure it's connected to the antenna/cable connection on your TV and your TV is tuned to channel 3 or 4 (depending on area). If you have a high-definition cable or satellite box and an HDTV, make sure you have the box connected to your TV via HDMI, DVI, or component video connections.

If you have your HD cable or satellite video and audio outputs routed through a home theater receiver, make sure it's turned on and set to the appropriate input so the HD cable or satellite signal is routed to the TV.

What to Do When Picture Quality Is Poor

If the picture is grainy or snowy, it could be the result of an incomplete cable connection or bad cable. Try a different cable and see if the result is the same. If you're on cable, your cable company usually provides free service to check your main line for any defects. If using an antenna, change its position to get better reception, or try a better antenna.

Another factor could be watching analog signals on an HDTV. Make sure the channels you're watching are HD ones.

What to Do When Colors Are Off

First, check to see if the color is bad across all input sources. If so, make sure you have your TV's color settings set to your preferences. If you don't like fiddling around with the individual color and picture setting controls, most TVs offer up a series of presets that have titles such as Vivid, Cinema, Living Room, Day, Night, etc. Once you select one of the preset options, you can tweak it slightly to improve color, brightness, contrast, etc. further.

However, if everything looks good except, say, your DVD player, and it's connected to your TV via component video connections (which are composed of three cables—red, green, and blue), make sure they're matched up correctly with the component connections on your TV. This is a common mistake as it's sometimes hard to distinguish the green and blue connectors if the lighting in the area is dim.

What to Do If The HDMI Connection Doesn't Work

You have a DVD, Blu-ray Disc player, or another component with HDMI connected to an HDMI-equipped TV, but when you turn them on, you don't get an image on the screen. This occurs sometimes because the source and the TV are not communicating. A successful HDMI connection requires that the source component and TV recognize each other. This is referred to as the "HDMI handshake."

If the "handshake" doesn't work, the HDCP (High-Bandwith Copy-Protection) encryption that's embedded in the HDMI signal isn't being recognized properly by one or more of the connected components. Sometimes, when two or more HDMI components are connected in a chain, such as a media streamer or Blu-ray Disc player through an HDMI-enabled home theater receiver (or HDMI switcher) and then to the TV, this can cause an interruption in the HDCP encryption signal.

The solution is usually figuring out a sequential turn-on procedure for your setup—in other words, does the sequence work best when you turn the TV on first, then the receiver or switcher, and then the source device—or vice versa, or something in-between?

If this solution doesn't work consistently, check for any announced firmware updates addressing "HDMI handshake" issues with your components.

What to Do When The Surround Sound Doesn't Seem Right

The first thing to check is the DVD, TV program, or another programming source in surround sound. Next, check all speaker connections and make sure they're correct, according to the channel and polarity.

The next thing to check is how you have the Blu-ray Disc/DVD player, cable, or satellite box connected to your home theater receiver. To access Dolby Digital/DTS surround sound, you need to have either an HDMI, digital optical, digital coaxial, or 5.1 channel analog connection going from the source component to the home theater receiver. Only these connections are able to transfer a Dolby Digital or DTS-encoded soundtrack.

The Dolby TrueHD/Atmos, and DTS-HD Master Audio/DTS:X surround sound formats, which are available on many Blu-ray Disc movies, can only be transferred via HDMI connection.

If you have RCA analog stereo cables connected from a DVD player, or another source component, to a home theater receiver, the only way to access surround sound is with Dolby Prologic II, IIx, or DTS Neo:6 settings, if available. These processing schemes extract surround sound from any two-channel audio source, including CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl records. When using this method with Blu-ray Discs/DVDs, it isn't the same as a true Dolby Digital/DTS signal you get from digital or 5.1 channel analog audio connections, but it's more immersive than a two-channel result.

Another thing to remember is that even with true surround sound material, surround sound isn't present at all times. During periods of mainly dialogue, most sound comes from the center speaker only, with ambient sounds coming from the rest of the speakers. As the action on the screen gets more complicated, such as explosions, crowds, etc., or when the music soundtrack becomes more a part of the film, you notice more sound coming from the side and/or rear speakers.

Also, most home theater receivers offer automatic speaker setup programs to balance the sound coming from them. Some of the systems include MCACC (Pioneer), YPAO (Yamaha), Audyssey (used by several brands), AccuEQ Room Calibration (Onkyo)), Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (Sony), Anthem Room Correction (Anthem AV).

Although there are some variations on how these systems operate, they all make use of a specially provided microphone that's placed in the listening position and plugs into the receiver. The receiver then generates test tones that are sent to each speaker that are, in turn, sent back to the receiver through the microphone. The receiver analyzes the test tones and can set speaker distance, speaker size, and speaker channel level in relation to the listening position.

In addition to the above automatic speaker setup, you can always opt to use the receiver's manual speaker setup menu. Here are some reference articles that can aid in manually setting up correct speaker balance: How Do I Position My Loudspeakers and Subwoofer For My Home Theater System? and Correcting Low Center Channel Dialog. If something still doesn't sound right, you may even have a bad loudspeaker that could be causing the problem.

What to Do When A DVD Won't Play, Skips, or Freezes Often

There could be several reasons for this. One reason is that some DVD players, especially ones made before the year 2000, have difficulty playing back recordable DVDs. If you're having trouble playing a homemade DVD, check the disc the recording was made on, and, if it's a format other than DVD-R, this could be the culprit. Recordable DVD formats, such as DVD+R+RW, DVD-RW, or dual layered (DL) recordable DVDs have varying degrees of compatibility with DVD players.

However, if you also have trouble playing DVD-Rs, it could even be the brand of blank DVD-R used to make the DVD. There's no guarantee that a specific homemade DVD will play on all DVD players, but DVD-R's should play on most of them.

Another reason a DVD might not play at all is that it's from the wrong region or made in the wrong video system.

Rented DVDs are prone to skipping. When you rent one, you don't know how it's handled and it could be cracked or full of greasy fingerprints that can cause some DVD or Blu-ray disc players to misread the DVD.

Lastly, it's possible the DVD player may be defective. If you suspect this, first try using a DVD player lens cleaner, and also try cleaning the "problem" DVDs. If this doesn't improve DVD playback, then consider exchanging the DVD player for another one, if still under the exchange or warranty. However, take the "problem" DVDs with you to your dealer and see how they play on other DVD players in the store first to rule out any problem with the actual DVDs.

What to Do When Turntable Volume Is Very Low or Distorted

With renewed interest in vinyl records, many are not only dusting off their old records but they're attempting to reconnect their old turntables to their new home theater systems.

One issue to contend with is that many newer home theater receivers don't have dedicated phono turntable inputs. As a result, many consumers are trying to connect their turntables into the receiver's AUX or other unused input.

This doesn't work because the output voltage and impedance of the turntable cartridge are different than the audio outputs of CD players, VCRs, DVD players, etc., as well as because of the requirement of the turntable for a ground connection to the receiver.

If your home theater receiver doesn't have a dedicated phono turntable input, then you need to purchase an external phono preamp or a turntable that has a phono preamp built-in. Many new turntables not only provide built-in phono preamps, but also USB ports that allow connection to a PC or laptop for converting analog vinyl records to CDs or for flash/hard drive storage.

It's also a good idea to change the cartridge or stylus if your turntable was in storage for a while. If the cartridge or stylus is worn, it could cause the music to sound distorted. Of course, another option is to purchase a new turntable that may already have a phono preamp built-in.

What to Do When Radio Reception Is Poor

This is usually a matter of attaching better antennas to the FM and AM antenna connections on your home theater receiver. For FM, you can use the same type of rabbit ears or outdoor antenna used for analog or digital/HDTV television reception. The reason for this is the FM radio frequencies actually lie between the old analog television channels 6 and 7 if you reside in North America. Wisconsin Public Radio offers an excellent resource for checking and improving radio reception.

Having Trouble Streaming Audio/Video Content From the Internet?

Internet streaming has definitely become a big part of the home theater experience. Although most enthusiasts prefer physical media, many are definitely attracted to the convenience of going online and simply downloading music and movies.

While there are a growing number of TVs, media streamers, and home theater receivers that provide built-in W-Fi to make access to music, movies, and TV programming easier, depending on the capabilities of your wireless router, as well as the distance of your Wi-Fi-enabled TV, media streamer, or home theater to your router, your Wi-Fi signal may be unstable, causing signal interruptions, as well as decreased streaming capability.

In such cases, check your TV, media streamer, or home theater receiver for an Ethernet connection. While this option requires a less convenient (and unsightly) long cable run, the signal is more stable, which is especially important for streaming video content.

If switching from Wi-Fi to Ethernet doesn't solve the problem, another important thing to check is your actual broadband speed. The reason this is important is that even if you have no difficulty streaming music, the broadband speed required to stream video needs to be faster. This may require a call to your ISP (internet service provider) to see if you can access the speeds necessary to stream a stable video signal.

Additional Home Theater Troubleshooting Tips

Things can end up being connected improperly while setting up any home theater system due to both inadvertent oversight or lack of knowledge. This can result in thinking there's something wrong with the system's components. However, many of the most common problems you run into can be easily remedied, especially when reading the user manuals before setting everything up. Here are a few more tips to keep in mind:

  • Make sure everything is connected according to the correct signal path.
  • Make sure you have your power cords plugged in (do this after everything else is connected).
  • Make sure that everything powers on.
  • Make sure you went through any required setup procedures. This may be via onboard or remote control and can be done in conjunction with an on-screen menu system.
  • With HDMI, note any power-on sequence between components that works or doesn't work.
  • Make sure if you want to view or listen to a source that you select the correct input on your TV and/or home theater receiver. Also, if you don't hear any sound, make sure you have your volume controls set high enough to hear the sound, or you don't have a MUTE function turned on.
  • For DVD players, make sure you're playing a compatible DVD or CD disc.

You cannot play Blu-ray Discs on DVD players, but you should be able to play DVDs on a Blu-ray Disc player. Standard music CDs should be playable on both DVD and Blu-ray Disc players. By the same token, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs won't play in either a Blu-ray or DVD player, but Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players can play Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, and CDs.