Real men don’t just watch the Super Bowl. Any rookie can swan into the living room a half-hour before kickoff, flip on the flatscreen, and make do with mediocre audio output and sub-par picture settings. The seasoned, dedicated viewer isn’t afraid to dig into menus ahead of time, or to throw some last-minute cash at products that optimize the live-sports viewing experience. Here’s our guide to prepping your TV for the big game, ranked from easy to overboard.
Check Your Picture Mode
Most TVs are designed to be showroom-ready, right out of the box. By shipping flatscreens with a default picture mode that cranks the contrast, brightness, and color saturation to eye-watering levels, manufacturers are trying to bludgeon big box store customers into somehow picking their model out of the entire, garish lineup of TVs on display. You’re smarter than that.
If you haven’t already, check your TV’s picture mode. Depending on the company, the default mode might be called Demo, Dynamic, Vibrant, or something else that sounds deceptively positive. You can set aside a few minutes to fiddle with individual settings until flesh tones cool down to a human hue (as opposed to a sun-baked and rouge-cheeked), colors pop without exploding, and shadows are dark without devouring image detail. The key is to shoot for realism, even if that means dialing settings down. In a crunch, you can also just switch the picture mode to Standard, Normal, Movie, or any other preset that might appear muted at first, but doesn’t distract you from the action on screen.
And, believe it or not, don’t trust anything called Sports mode. It’s more of the ugly, over-the-top same.
Turn Motion Interpolation On
Generally speaking, motion interpolation is an abomination. It’s a feature whose name varies by TV manufacturer — it’s Motion Flow on Sony sets, and Auto Motion Plus on Samsung models — but whose well-intended, ill-conceived goal is always the same. In order to present viewers with the smoothest possible footage, with a minimum of flickering (which is especially noticeable fast action or camera movement), TVs with motion interpolation will insert false frames into content. For movies and television shows, the result is often horrible, creating what some have called “the soap opera effect,” which is an insult to soap operas everywhere. Motion interpolation works too well, alternately smoothing and speeding actors’ movements into a vaguely computer-generated mess, and doing indescribably weird, herky-jerky things to handheld camera footage.
And yet, motion interpolation is great for live sports. The footage broadcast from most live televised events can use a little smoothing, and for reasons that only a cinematographer would (or should) care about — there’s no clash between the number of effective frames per second, and the number of times the TV’s image is refreshing per second — there are no visual downsides. Consider this a double-edged suggestion. By all means, find out how to turn on your flatscreen’s version of motion interpolation (usually under the advanced picture settings) for sports. But, more importantly, remember to turn it off at all other times.
Install Surround Sound
In the early days of high-def TVs, the Super Bowl was one of the biggest excuses for consumers to ditch their old cathode ray sets, and splurge for a new flatscreen. Now that HDTVs have become relatively universal, we’d like to propose another pre-game indulgence: surround sound speakers.
A proper 360-degree setup drops you into the stadium, with distinct audio channels that separate the roaring crowd and commentator chatter from the barking quarterbacks and the refs’ piercing whistles. And just as HDTVs got plenty of use when the Super Bowl was over, surround sound can add theatrical heft to ho-hum blockbusters and an increasing number of TV shows.
As for which products to pick up, we stand by our most recent selection of the best surround sound gear. But if you’re racing to get set up before the game, a Sonos Playbar and a pair of Play:1 or Play:3 speakers (also from Sonos) can provide full-blown surround sound, with a minimum of setup time and wires. The paired speakers act as rear channels, and sync up to the Playbar, which serves up the front, right and left channels, over your WiFi network.
Get An HD Antenna
In terms of pure image quality, a sufficiently powerful HD antenna will trounce any cable or satellite broadcast. Unlike pay TV feeds, free, over-the-air (OTA) HD video isn’t compressed. That means it doesn’t shatter into a Lego-like mess of blocky pixels when objects start moving quickly across the screen — like, for example, during the Super Bowl. So as counter-intuitive and inconvenient as it seems, the best picture for sports broadcasts is a step backwards, towards the rabbit ears of yesterday.
Actually, most modern HD antennae are slicker than you might imagine, with the most common models now employing a flexible panel that lays flat against a wall or window (you can even paint over them). We’d recommend any model from Winegard, or Mohu. But before you buy, check your home’s proximity to the nearest broadcast tower — Mohu’s site lets you search by zip code — or be prepared to return and upgrade your antenna for a more high-powered version.
Use A Calibration Disc
Finally, for the most hardcore picture quality purists, there’s the calibration disc. This strange class of product — which, in the HD age, should always be bought as a Blu-ray, requiring that you have a compatible player or game console — will hold your hand as you fine-tune every possible picture setting. The idea here isn’t to rely on subjective matters of taste or preference, but to provide on-screen bars, patterns, and other tools that take the guesswork out of display calibration.
This is obviously an extreme measure, and one that requires some quality time with your TV. Most discs also include audio calibration, which may or may not apply to your specific setup. But even if you give up halfway through the step-by-step procedure, calibration discs are a minimal investment. And because the process tends to be stultifying, we recommend Disney’s disc, which lets you pretend to scoff at Goofy’s antics, while secretly treasuring his company during this lonely, nerdy time.