The Custom Installer: Got Picture, No Sound?

My friend Jon is a wiz with pretty much anything mechanical, and he has a Rain Man-like gift for motors. Whether it's a pool pump, a lawn tractor, or a car, Jon is the man to call. What amazes me is that he can often diagnose my motor problems over the phone with only the most basic description. Unfortunately, though, he almost always has to make a house call, since the repairs are usually complicated and require parts most people don't have on hand.

When Jon has a problem with his home theater, the roles reverse. Lucky for me, diagnosing a misbehaving system can be pretty easy. I can often give the necessary direction over the phone.

The most common system problem (after simply forgetting to turn something on) can be boiled down to "I have a picture but no sound." Incredibly, this can often be fixed by literally pressing a single button. The trick is knowing which button to press.

Start by turning your receiver's volume to a moderate level. Next, check that the receiver's Mute button isn't engaged.

Assuming that gremlins - or pets or your know-itall nephew - haven't been behind your system unplugging cables, the problem likely resides with the receiver. Mercifully, its display will almost always tell you what the problem is. So take a close look at the readout, because the smallest detail could be the key. Checking on the following four pieces of information solves about 90% of the problems I'm given over the phone:

1) Signal source This tells you whether the receiver is looking for an incoming digital or analog signal. It's helpful here to know how your system is hooked up. For instance, while the audio on a CD is digital, most people use analog cables (red and white cords with RCA jacks) to connect their CD players. All digital receivers have a button, usually marked something like Signal Select or Input Mode, that toggles between the analog and digital inputs. If yours has an Auto option, use that. Selecting the wrong input is probably the source of more problems than anything else.

2) Tape Monitor If I had a nickel for every Tape Monitor "problem" I've fixed, I could buy some chicken tenders at McDonald's. This looped output/input was a great way to monitor recordings and add equalizers back in the day, but now the button just causes problems. Unless you know what you're doing with it, you want Tape Monitor off.

3) Input If your receiver is displaying "Ext. In" or "Multi Chan Input" on the readout and you're not listening to a DVDAudio disc, a Super Audio CD, or some other externally decoded source, then this is the problem. Usually, pressing one of the surround mode buttons will set everything right, but some receivers require you to press the input-mode button (see item No. 1).

4) Speakers If your receiver can handle two sets of front speakers, your display will indicate which set is engaged. A button, usually labeled Speakers, toggles between A, B, A&B, and "-" (for turning off both sets). In almost all cases, this should just say A. If it says anything else, that could be the problem. See if toggling back to A restores your missing sound.

If you go through these four steps and still can't get sound, you might have a more serious problem. But don't despair - yet. There are still some things you can check before calling in a professional.

Switch your receiver to Tuner. Since the AM/FM tuner is built into the receiver, using it will eliminate lots of variables like incorrect inputs. If you get sound, your receiver's amplification is still working.

Now switch back to the input that was giving you trouble and find the Test Tone button on your remote control. Engaging this will cycle static through each of your speakers, which will confirm that they're all connected and functioning. If you still don't hear anything, this might be a good time to start thinking about getting a new receiver.

If you did hear the static, you've narrowed down the potential problems to just a handful. Sometimes a power outage can cause a receiver to lose settings like the digital input assignments or can cause a DVD player to turn off its digital audio outputs. Check both of these. If you still don't get sound, make sure that all of your cables are firmly connected to the correct jacks.

Beyond that, you'll need to do a little sleuthing, swapping cables and inputs around to try to track down the culprit. While cables rarely go bad on their own, the plugs can come loose if they've been frequently connected and disconnected.

Fortunately, home theater systems don't tend to crash unless they're tampered with. But once you get the hang of troubleshooting, you'll be able to fix problems like a pro. Now, if we could only say the same thing for cars.

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