DVDs offer high-quality video and audio, but unless you connect your playback hardware so you get the best possible sound out of it, you may as well be watching worn-out old VHS tapes. Your speakers constitute one of the greatest limits on your sound quality, but how you get the sound to them plays just as big a part in making your DVD-viewing experience pleasing to the ears as well as the eyes.
Use your DVD player's digital connections for the best-quality sound with the fewest compromises, regardless of whether you plug your player straight into your TV set or integrate it into a mega-component A/V system. When your audio converts from the digital signal stored on disc to the analog signal that meets your ears, it goes through hardware called a digital-to-analog converter, or DAC. Use the best-quality DAC you have available and the most flexible connection, in terms of sound output. Given a choice between plugging your DVD player into your TV and plugging it into your A/V system, of course, the TV loses almost every time, unless your A/V system uses tinny little speakers.
Use your DVD player's High-Definition Multimedia Interface, or HDMI, connector if it -- and whatever you're plugging it into -- includes one. HDMI serves as your best choice because it conveys the surround sound encoded into the signal on disc. It also supports the highest-resolution, best-quality video signal: 1080p HDTV. Without an HDMI output on your player and an HDMI input on your TV or A/V receiver, you're limited to multichannel audio connections that rely on the DAC in your player to turn digital recording into analog sound waves. Although 5.1-, 6.1- and 7.1-channel audio may sound like the ideal option, they rely on the DAC in your player, and use multiple analog cables to your TV or receiver.
Use good-quality cables, but don't assume that price equals quality at every cost level. Generally speaking, they're called "cables" when they're affordable and "interconnects" as the price rises. The debates between the people who spend hundreds of dollars per foot on interconnects versus the ones who use the cables that come in the DVD-player box continue to rage on, just as they've done for every generation of playback media since "hi" met "fi." The bottom line really is the bottom line: buy the best cables you can afford, but don't go crazy. Past a modest investment, any appropriate-format cable in good condition can get the job done.
Repurpose cables from a previous A/V setup if and only if you're sure they're in good working order. Bag the ones your cat chewed on -- or worse -- and the ones that lay across a heating vent for years. You can be penny wise and pound foolish in either direction when it comes to cabling, and it makes just as little sense to under spend as to overdo it.
Sit in the listening position in which you're likeliest to watch DVD programming. Play a range of different types of discs -- an action-adventure movie with explosive special effects, a concert DVD featuring acoustic instruments, a documentary with wildlife sounds and an audio CD. Verify that all your speakers output audio when they should and none of them emit the crackly, tinny sound of a bad connection. If you're plugging your DVD player into an A/V receiver that includes built-in sound balancing and adjustment features, use them to verify and fine tune your setup.
Plug a good pair of headphones into your DVD player or receiver so you can listen without bothering others. You can spend a few hundred dollars on high-performance phones that offer better audio performance than speakers that cost several times as much. That's because the drivers in a pair of headphones move less air at lower volumes and across shorter distances, enabling them to do more with less hardware. They may not support digital surround sound, but they can turn a portable DVD player into a better listening experience than its small built-in speakers can provide.
Tips & Warnings
- Signals degrade over cable distance. Use the shortest cables you can without compromising the positions of your electronics or creating a safety hazard.
- If you're the least bit unsure of the condition or quality of existing cables, assume they're bad and replace them.
- Cables with frayed coverings, loose connectors or any other signs of damage deserve no place in your A/V setup.
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