Hints for Better Viewing

Mark Fleischmann’s recent blog on ways to improve your system’s audio inspired me to do something similar for video. Of course you, the loyal readers of Sound & Vision already know much of this. But for those who don’t, or for (welcome) newbies, those who are helping friends avoid common mistakes, it’s useful to periodically emphasize that there’s more to getting you money’s worth from a flat screen set than merely plunking it down in what may at first appear to be the best location and turning it on. Getting your HDTV to sing is serious business. Here, of course, I’m referring primarily to flat screen sets; a projector with a screen is, in many ways, a different topic.

Most folks don’t give a lot of thought to where they put their new television, unless it doesn’t fit that custom made hutch they bought 20 years ago to fit their old 4:3, standard definition CRT. They should get rid of that hutch, or have it modified to fit the biggest quality flat screen HDTV they can afford. But there’s one other increasingly popular spot for a flat screen set that they should also avoid…

The Fireplace
In the process of looking for a new house I’ve been watching a lot of televised home/real estate programming. These shows are dominated largely by interior designers (either professional or the would-be family kind). And for designers a television is an evil to be avoided, or at best tolerated. To them, people use their family rooms only to chat and gawk at their expensive, carefully selected décor. If they must include a television, it usually ends up over the fireplace.

What’s wrong with that? For starters, there’s a potential heat issue. Not through the wall (assuming your fireplace has been built properly!) but rather from heat coming up from a fire below. Normally this shouldn’t be a problem; open fireplaces make fairly poor space heaters. Much of the heat is lost up the flue. But put a glass screen in front of the fire and the efficiency of the fireplace increases. More heat will enter the room. Since heat rises it will flow past your expensive HDTV, potentially affecting the life of the set.

But heat is likely to be a problem only if you use the fireplace for hours every day. There’s a more important issue. Positioning a TV above the fireplace usually puts it at or above standing eye-height. This might be OK by you if you like to sit in the front row of a movie theater looking up at the screen. But if not, prepare to enjoy a stiff neck after each viewing session. The most comfortable position for a television is at or near seated eye height, which can present a problem. For most designers, a room can have only one dominant feature, and that’s usually the fireplace, not your new HDTV. But the average person spends more time watching the “tube” than enjoying a roaring fire.

What’s a fireplace-challenged videophile to do? Ideally, the television can be located along one of the room walls that sits at right angles to the wall that holds the fireplace. That way, the furniture can be arranged facing the HDTV but also adjacent to the fireplace. Just make sure that the main viewing seats face the set, with the fireplace on the wall to your left or right (no one wants to watch TV with their head turned hard to the side!). When I built my house in Santa Fe (two houses back by now!) I made sure that this was the case in the room I intended to use as a home theater setup. In that case I violated one of the cardinal rules for Santa Fe architecture and centered the Kiva fireplace on a wall rather than in the corner! If I had my druthers I would have avoided a fireplace altogether, but knew I’d need one if I ever intended to sell the house. (A corner fireplace, by the way, is another no-no for a home theater. When I looked for my soon-to-be new house in Florida, I rejected dozens of candidates precisely because of their corner fireplaces.)

But if you or your decorator insists on a TV above the fireplace, there are companies that make flat screen mounts that sit above the fireplace and can compensate for this problem. Such mounts (like the one pictured above) can actually move the set forward then down to a more comfortable viewing height. But they can cost more than the TV, and of course you shouldn’t use them with the fireplace operating!

Windows and Lamps
Try to keep the set positioned so that light from the windows or from room lights doesn’t reflect directly off the screen. Most of today’s flat screens are like mirrors, and reflections don’t do the picture any favors. At best it’s distracting. If you must put your HDTV on the sun porch (down here we call that the “Florida” room), good luck. Better yet…

Lights Out
For casual viewing of news, sports, and some broadcast drama, room lighting is common and appropriate. But for serious viewing I like to turn the lights off completely, or at worst use a dimmer to turn them down as low as possible. I’ve found that this enhances the experience by improving both the picture and the sound (the former is real, the latter subjective—as any audiophile knows who has listened to an audio system with the lights off).

But there are some important conditions to this. Make sure that the set’s brightness is turned down far enough that it doesn’t cause eye fatigue (I’m assuming that you are already using the set’s Movie or Cinema mode, or have had a calibration done with a “night” setting.). If your set is small and far enough away, too bright a picture, surrounded by darkness, can be uncomfortable. (This tends to be a bigger issue with LED/LCD sets than with plasmas. An LCD can maintain its full brightness on a very bright scene. Plasmas, like CRTs before them, can’t do this so are designed to limit drive to the panel, and thus brightness, as a scene approaches peak white. This is not visible to the eye). To limit this discomfort, many experts recommend the use of a so-called “bias” light behind the set for dark room viewing. A true bias light is a fluorescent that dimly lights the wall behind the set. Done correctly, with a neutral wall color and the light at a color temperature of 6500K, this can be beneficial and is certainly better than random room lighting. But I find that even a bias light distracts from the immersion of watching in a good movie on a great HDTV. But that’s just me.

Sit In the Right Place
When my parents bought our first TV (yes, I vaguely remember our “first” TV) it was set up in a corner of our living room. It sat there (or more precisely, its replacements sat there) as long as they lived in that house. A 21-inch set (a Jumbotron in that era), viewed from 15 feet away, isn’t exactly cinematic. And too many folks still sit too far from their sets. The viewing distance calculators you’ll find on-line do produced distances that many would judge too close (6-7 feet for a 50-inch diagonal screen with a 1080p, full HD source) but I’d recommend no more than 10 feet for an HDTV up to 70-inches. (I typically sit about 11 feet away from my 96-inch wide projection screen, but expect more immersion from a projector and screen than from a flat screen set.)

If your set is an LCD, as are most of today’s big-screen sets, sitting even 30-degrees off center will degrade the picture. The contrast starts to fade and the picture becomes progressively more washed-out as you move further to the side. Some LCDs can do better, particularly those that use IPS technology, but they’re less common. You’ll want to save that center, “money” seat for the most critical viewer—you. Most others won’t be bothered by LCD’s off-axis issues (except perhaps uncle Ted over in the corner before he falls asleep halfway through the movie).

Get it Calibrated
We harp on this all the time, of course, but it’s still true that most HDTVs will not perform their best out of the box. Yes you can, and should, set them to Cinema or Movie mode instead of Standard or (ulp!) Vivid. Turn off all extraneous controls such as Enhanced Color, Dynamic Contrast, Smooth Motion, Noise Reduction, and similar questionably helpful adjustments (these will carry similar but different names depending on the brand). Yes, you might find some of these marginally useful later. I’ve found that a touch of Dynamic Contrast can help on some sets, but not on all, and the high settings are always best avoided unless you’re into live-action cartoons. But try to live initially without such controls.

Select a Warm color temperature if it isn’t on by default in the Cinema or Movie Mode. Turn Sharpness no higher than midpoint (on some sets, minimum is actually the most neutral setting). Use a calibration disc such as Digital Video Essentials or the Disney WOW (the latter is one of the most intuitive setup discs I’ve found) to set the standard controls (Brightness, Contrast, Sharpness, Color, Tint) properly. The setup feature on some THX-certified discs can be useful for this as well, but new THX-certified releases are less common than they used to be.

Having done all that, you still can’t know if your color is accurate. The human eye is very adaptable, and you might be perfectly happy with the result. But at this point (and preferably after you’ve put a couple of hundred hours on the set to let it break in) you might consider a professional calibration from a technician certified either by THX or the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF). The results of such a calibration can range from dramatic to subtle, depending on how accurate the set’s color is out of the box in the Movie or Cinema mode, and how well you used that setup disc. There’s no way to tell beforehand. But if you spent over $2,000 for that fancy new HDTV, and particularly if you spend over $4,000, cheaping out by avoiding a calibration (which can cost $300-$500 or more) is poor economy.

Rob Sabin's picture
These are great tips, Tom! For those installations I've done where a fireplace mount was a serious consideration or simply unavoidable, I always checked the potential for heat damage beforehand with an inexpensive electronic thermometer that has a wired outdoor sensor. Tape the probe wire to the wall so the sensor hangs right off the wall at the spot where you expect the TV to go, and get a rip-roaring fire going. Some hearth/flue designs direct more heat out into the room than others, and some mantles will act as a better (or worse) barrier to rising heat trying to make its way up the wall. If the temperature in the intended location rises much above 85 or 90 degrees, you should think twice before putting a TV (with all its plastic and heat-sensitive components) in that location -- if you want it to last, at least.

vmstek's picture

Also let's not forget the effects over time of smoke rising up through an above fireplace mounting.
Personally, TV's over fireplaces and their associated down-angle, remind me of a fast-food restaurant menu. But least you can always run a Fine Art slideshow to disguise the Monolith hanging in the room.
A better viewing experience and design option is a hidden TV lift or riser. There are many great designs available to fit anyones style from custom furniture to a vertical rail system that fits behind your existing furniture.

Rich67's picture

There are non motorized counter weighted swing out/down mounts for over the fireplace. They swing down manually but cost a lot less than the motorized ones. In the neighborhood of $400.