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 repair shop yet. 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 to a surge protector, make sure the surge protector is turned on and plugged into the wall. This is one of the most common reasons home theater systems and televisions don't power up the first time.

Surge protectors 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, select a surge protector and not a power strip.

What to Do When There's No TV Reception

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

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

If you use 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 in HD.

What to Do When Colors Are Off

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

However, if everything looks good except, for example, the DVD player, and it's connected to the TV using component video connections (which are composed of three cables—red, green, and blue), make sure the cables match correctly with the component connections on the 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 player, Blu-ray Disc player, or another component with HDMI connected to an HDMI-equipped TV, but you don't get an image on the screen when you turn on these devices. This can occur when the source and the TV aren't 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 wasn't properly recognized 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 on the TV 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 ensure the connections are correct, according to the channel and polarity.

The next thing to check is how the Blu-ray Disc or DVD player, cable, or satellite box is connected to your home theater receiver. To access Dolby Digital/DTS surround sound, you need 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 can transfer a Dolby Digital or DTS-encoded soundtrack.

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

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

Even with true surround sound material, surround sound isn't present at all times. During periods of 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 or crowds, or when the music soundtrack becomes more a part of the film, more sound comes from the side and rear speakers.

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

Although there are some variations on how these systems operate, all make use of a 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. The test tones are, in turn, sent back to the receiver through the microphone. The receiver analyzes the test tones and sets the speaker distance, speaker size, and speaker channel level in relation to the listening position.

In addition to the automatic speaker setup, you can use the receiver's manual speaker setup menu. When manually setting up the speaker balance, position your loudspeakers and subwoofer correctly and correct low center channel dialog. If something still doesn't sound right, you may have a bad loudspeaker.

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

Some DVD players, especially ones made before 2000, have difficulty playing back recordable DVDs. If you can't play 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.

If you also have trouble playing DVD-Rs, it could 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-Rs should play on most DVD players.

Another reason a DVD might not play 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 been handled, and it could be cracked or have greasy fingerprints that cause some DVD or Blu-ray Disc players to misread the DVD.

If you suspect that the DVD player is defective, use a DVD player lens cleaner and clean the problem DVDs. If this doesn't improve DVD playback, exchange the DVD player for another one, if it's still under warranty. Take the problem DVDs with you to the dealer and see how the DVDs play on other DVD players in the store to rule out any problem with the DVDs.

What to Do When Turntable Volume Is Very Low or Distorted

With renewed interest in vinyl records, you may want to reconnect your old turntable to your new home theater system. However, your new home theater receiver may not have a dedicated phono turntable input. If you're thinking about connecting the turntable into the receiver's AUX or other unused input, this won't work.

This is because the output voltage and impedance of the turntable cartridge are different than the audio outputs of CD players, VCRs, and DVD players, 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, purchase an external phono preamp or a turntable with a built-in phono preamp. Many new turntables provide built-in phono preamps and USB ports that allow connection to a PC or laptop for converting analog vinyl records to CDs or for flash and hard drive storage.

Change the cartridge or stylus if the turntable was in storage for a while. If the cartridge or stylus is worn, the music may sound distorted. Another option is to purchase a new turntable that has 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 the home theater receiver. For FM, use the same type of rabbit ears or outdoor antenna used for analog or digital and HDTV television reception. The reason for this is the FM radio frequencies 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 or Video Content From the Internet?

Internet streaming has become a big part of the home theater experience. Although most enthusiasts prefer physical media, you may want the convenience of going online and downloading music and movies.

There are a growing number of TVs, media streamers, and home theater receivers that provide built-in Wi-Fi to make access to music, movies, and TV programming easier. Depending on the capabilities of your wireless router and the distance of your Wi-Fi-enabled TV, media streamer, or home theater to your router, your Wi-Fi signal may be unstable. This can cause signal interruptions and 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. This is important because 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 be connected improperly while setting up a home theater system due to inadvertent oversight or a lack of knowledge. This can result in thinking there's something wrong with the system's components. However, many common problems you run into can be 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 the power cords are plugged in (do this after everything else is connected).
  • Make sure that everything powers on.
  • Make sure you went through the 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.
  • If you want to view or listen to a source, select the correct input on the TV and home theater receiver.
  • If you don't hear any sound, make sure the volume controls are set high enough to hear the sound or that the MUTE function isn't 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. However, you can play DVDs on a Blu-ray Disc player. Standard music CDs are playable on DVD and Blu-ray Disc players. 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs won't play in either a Blu-ray Disc or DVD player, but Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players can play Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, and CDs.

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