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THX Optimode Logo

THX Makes Opti-mizing Your Home Theater Easy

DVD Setup Tweaks Your System

By Jim Bray

George Lucas’ empire has a new way of helping consumers get the best possible enjoyment from their home theater dollars.

His THX Optimode system of tests is a value added DVD feature that can help you configure your system properly. This is especially important for your TV monitor, because most TV’s are adjusted to be looked at in the store, not in your living room or home theater.

There’ve long been standalone discs, like Joe Kane’s “The Video Essentials,” but Lucas’ THX division’s Optimode “do-it-yourself tweaker” doesn’t require you to look any farther than some of the mainstream DVD’s your rent or buy.

THX Optimode premiered as a “bonus feature” on the June DVD release of 20th Century Fox’s “Fight Club,” and it’s also supposed to be showing up some new release DVD’s including “Terminator 2,” “Repoman,” “Hell Raiser” and “Hell Raiser II,” all of which are due to appear within the next few months.

The Optimode tests are a series of standardized checks that help you adjust a range of your home theater’s audio and video settings, using test patterns and test tones in much the same way as the standalone test discs work.

THX says their test signals are unique, though, because they’re equal to the final reference levels set during the individual DVD’s mastering. This supposedly means you can tailor your system’s performance to each specific DVD title that has the Optimode stuff encoded onto it.

Anyone with a Dolby Pro-Logic or Dolby Digital processor or receiver already has a built in, if rudimentary, set of audio test tones that’ll help them set their speakers’ balance, but THX Optimode includes several more audio tests than the simple test tones the average home theater processor/receiver gives.

Besides speaker level, you can check for the proper phasing of your speakers and the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel’s crossover. The latter is a test for the point at which your processor hands audio control from your main speakers to your subwoofer – assuming you have one, and is designed to give you the most “oomph” possible.

Video tests include ones for contrast, brightness, color, hue, monitor performance and even your TV/DVD players’ aspect ratio settings (whether you’re using a conventional 4:3 TV or a new 16x9 widescreen one).

You access THX Optimode from the menus of the DVD, though in “Fight Club,” it was stuck behind a THX logo you might’ve missed if you weren’t careful. Hopefully subsequent releases will be more straightforward.

Performing the tests is easy. You’re walked right through each one, using your remote control’s “chapter forward” button to move from test to test. Each analysis is explained in fairly plain English, which also turns the admittedly tiresome tweaking into a legitimate learning experience.

The THX Optimode tests are actually far easier to perform than those on the aforementioned “Video Essentials” DVD, which has a much clumsier and more confusing interface than did its earlier laserdisc incarnation. This is really nice to see, because if the tests are hard to use, most people will undoubtedly ignore them, and that would be a shame.

The bottom line is that once you’ve “THX’d” your system, you’ll supposedly see the movie as closely to how the director intended as is possible, given the quality of your TV and the differences between film and video.

The THX people suggest that you adjust your TV with their Optimode stuff every time you have a disc that includes it, but in the real world that may be a bit excessive for anyone but purists.

I had set up my TV, using the “Video Essentials” DVD, a couple of months before trying the new Optimode tests, and found that it was already in line with where Optimode said it should be for “Fight Club.”

Which means that for most viewing, setting up your TV monitor with a THX Optimode-equipped disc once – or even periodically – should serve you well.

Optimode is the latest weapon in George Lucas’ THX quality control standards arsenal. His THX mastering process means you can expect the best possible audio and visual quality from the videos you buy or rent, while the THX-certified home theater products’ standard allows you to faithfully replicate the theater experience at home.

Now, if only he’d deign to release “The Phantom Menace” on a THX-tweaked DVD…

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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Updated May 13, 2006