Big Picture Big Sound

Buyer Beware: Geek Squad's Half-Baked HDTV & Home Theater Hook-Up

By Chris Boylan

Geek Squad Is No Candidate for "Speaker" of the House

As the editor of a home theater publication, I'm often asked for advice from my friends, not only on what HDTV, Blu-ray player and speakers to buy, but also how to connect it all together for the best picture and sound. A couple of years ago, this prompted me to write a three part article on "how to hook up that fancy new HDTV." To this day, these articles remain some of the most popular pages on the site.

But many people don't want to become educated on the finer points of HDTV resolutions, aspect ratios and surround sound technology just to hook up a few wires. Instead, they will call in an expert to set everything up for them. And that's just what my friend Diane thought she was doing by calling in the Geek Squad, the installation and services arm of Best Buy. I asked her how she was enjoying her newly installed HDTV and HD cable set-top box and what I heard (and later verified first-hand via a social visit) was a tale of woe that could only be described as incompetence at its finest.

As the Geek Squad recommends, Diane called their toll-free number to schedule a visit.  After being handed off to the seventh person - and being charged for the service before being able to talk to the scheduling person, Diane asked why it was all so complicated.  She was told by the phone rep in hushed tones that she would be better off visiting a Best Buy store and scheduling everything there (much simpler).  Once she did have her appointment, the first Geek to show up said he was not able to do the work as she was missing some of the required cables.  The Geek said she was welcome to purchase cables from him for $250 ("all I have in the truck") or buy cables herself from Radio Shack ($20) and re-schedule.  Re-schedule it was and after another frustrating series of calls, Diane had her second appointment for audio/video nirvana.  

For the princely sum of $216.74*, the Geek Squad "expert" who showed up to do the work left her system in a worse state of disrepair than it had been before he arrived. Oh the cables were all neatly tucked away and she was certainly getting sound and picture from all sources, but everything was not as it should have been.  Far from it.  Here are just a few of the things that went awry with the Geek Squad's "expert installation:"

Where's the Dialog?

Diane's main complaint with the system after the Geek's visit was that she couldn't enjoy any DVD movies because the dialog seemed to be missing or so low in the mix that it was inaudible over any background music. It turns out that the Geek had turned on the center channel output in Diane's surround sound receiver, without any center channel speaker connected.

Setting a center channel speaker to "Off" or "None" in your receiver's set-up menu is essential if your system does not include a center speaker.
Diane's system consists of two front speakers (with subs) and two rear speakers. You could call it a "4.0" surround sound (or 4.2 if you count the subwoofers). Because her two front speakers are fairly close to each other, a center channel speaker is not really necessary. Most receivers that support Dolby Digital surround have an option for a "Phantom Center" - this routes all center channel information (mostly dialog) to the front left and right speaker as dual mono, creating a "phantom image" - a virtual center channel that comes from a point between the two main front speakers. To engage this feature, all you need to do is set Center Speaker to "No" or "Off" in the receiver's set-up menu. If you don't do this and you have no center channel speaker connected then all that nice juicy dialog disappears into nowhere-land.

Solution? I turned center channel to "OFF" in the receiver's set-up menu. Hey, listen - there's a voiceover here!

Where's the Bass?

Diane's front speaker system consists of a pair of small bookshelf speakers and a matched pair of passive woofers. The Geek said "oh, you don't need those" and plugged in only the small satellite speakers, disconnecting the subwoofers from the receiver entirely. Diane had noticed that the sound was "a bit tinny" after he did his thing. Hmmm, I wonder why?

Solution? I plugged in the woofers. Hey, so that's what bass sounds like!

Where's the Surround Sound?

As anyone who enjoys a home theater can tell you, a properly set up surround sound system can really draw you into a movie. With sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic sonic cues coming from all around you, it's easy to get lost in the on-screen action. But to do this properly, you really need a digital connection between your source device (DVD or Blu-ray player or HD cable box) and your receiver. OK some higher end players can support discrete multi-channel surround sound via multiple analog cables, but digital audio is the simplest, most fool-proof way to go.

Instead of using the fiberoptic or coax digital outputs of the DVD player to connect it to Diane's receiver, the Geek used a plain old stereo pair of white and red analog outputs. With this connection, the best you can get from a movie is matrixed Dolby Pro Logic "pseudo-surround" - you simply can't get real discrete multi-channel surround sound out of this connection.

Solution? I unplugged the stereo analog connection and plugged in the coax digital connection using a basic RCA cable. Wow! So that's what they mean by SURROUND sound!

The Worst Seat in the House

A slightly more advanced part of setting up a surround sound audio system is getting the right blend or balance of sound between the channels (front to back, left to right, etc.). If you don't do this properly then you might get not enough or too much sound from your rear channel speakers, either of which condition detracts from the overall sound. The Geek did adjust the speaker levels when he "calibrated" the system, cranking up the rear channels as high as they could possibly go (+10 dB). The net effect was that, even after I set the center channel properly and connected the digital cable, dialog and other sounds from the front of the soundstage were completely overpowered by the rear channel sounds. Listening to a concert or sports scene in a movie made you feel like you were in the nosebleed section of the stadium, miles away from the performer with nothing but loud crowd noise behind you. 

Although not all set-up menus are as detailed as this one from the Integra DTC-9.8 preamp/processor, virtually all surround sound-capable receivers allow you to customize and to test your speaker configuration.

To add insult to injury, the Geek had wired the rear channels backwards - left output to right speaker, right output to left.  This was immediately obvious just by running the receiver's test tone which cycles a white noise signal through all connected speakers. 

Solution? I corrected the left/right mix-up and turned the rear channel levels down from +10 to +1 dB in the receiver's set-up menu. This created a much better blend of sound around the room, and particularly from the primary viewing location on the couch.

Why Does Every TV Show Look Like "The Biggest Loser?"

Have you ever been in a sports bar, looking up at the wall o flat screen TVs and everyone looks a little pudgy? Even the supermodels on those Victoria's Secret commercials? This usually occurs when you take non-widescreen source material (e.g., standard def TV) and stretch it out to fit the whole screen of a widescreen TV. It can also happen when your DVD player or cable box is set to the wrong "aspect ratio" or "TV shape." And that's exactly what our favorite Geek did with Diane's system - he set the cable box to "stretch" mode and the DVD player to "4:3" (non-widescreen).

Virtually all DVD and Blu-ray players have a set-up option for aspect ratio. This one comes from a Samsung Blu-ray Disc player.

If a DVD player is set up for a non-widescreen TV (4:3 aspect ratio) but you actually have a widescreen HDTV (16:9 aspect ratio), then the TV will automatically stretch everything out to fit the full screen width, but there will still be large black bars at the top and bottom of the screen on most movies. Now of course, black bars are inevitable on some DVDs and Blu-ray Discs - it's the only way to fit the whole picture of an ultra wide Cinemascope-style movie (2.35:1 aspect ratio) onto an HDTV screen (1.78:1). But if your DVD player or other source is set incorrectly, then these black bars will be larger than they should be and everything will be stretched out.

If a DVD player is set to 4:3 aspect ratio but connected to a 16:9 HDTV, the image gets squished or stretched as you can see in the image on the right.

Solution? I set the cable box to "normal" screen size (instead of "stretch") and set the DVD player's output to 16:9 instead of 4:3. Voila - no more stretching.  But damn, that Lindsay Lohan really does need to eat a burger once in a while.

Other Missed Opportunities

I could go into detail about other opportunities missed by the Geek in his set-up - the fact that he could have set up the TV to skip unused inputs, or that he could have set the TV's picture to "Standard" or "Cinema" mode instead of the woefully inaccurate "Game" mode, or that he could have left the receiver in its Auto Format Detect mode for best results with a variety of programming. But frankly, if he couldn't get the basics right, then how could he be expected to master the finer details?

Lesson Learned?

I'd like to think that Diane's experience with the Geek Squad was isolated and not indicative of their usual performance. I can't imagine that the operation would be as extensive and successful as it is, inhabiting Best Buy locations all across the country, if every Geek were as unskilled (OK, "clueless") as the one who made this particular service call.

Also, to be fair, the Geek Squad does state that they offer a money back guarantee if you're unhappy with their service (and you complain within 30 days).  But from Diane's perspective she had such a bad experience with the initial calls to schedule the service and the two actual service calls that she didn't want to deal with their customer service again, or to accept yet another stranger into her home to fix something that never should have been broken in the first place.  Also, after the service call, Diane though she would just have to "live with it" and that maybe she had hit the wrong button on her remote or something.  After all, her system had been set up by a professional so who was she to second guess that expert? 

Diane did call Geek Squad customer service after my visit, but since it was more than 30 days after the service call, they refused to offer a refund.  So now she has contested the charge with American Express and it's fairly likely they will have more success in this regard than she did.  In fact, the AMEX rep told Diane that they had been getting "frequent complaints" about The Geek Squad recently and would be happy to pursue this further. 

We contacted Best Buy (owner's of Geek Squad) about the issue and received the following comment from a company spokesperson:

"Thank you for giving us an opportunity to look into this situation, and also for giving Best Buy the benefit of a doubt. We've reviewed our customer call files and see a visit to Diane's home on September 7 of last year. There appears to have been a hiatus between those service calls and renewed contact by Diane with our Customer Care team on March 4 (yesterday). We assumed that Diane was satisfied with her original installation, and apologize that this wasn't the case. This is a complex space where things can go wrong. As you point out, while Diane's situation is isolated, it stands out as a reminder to all of our installers to get it right the first time."

That's all well and good, but the bottom line is this: just because someone wears a white short-sleeved dress shirt with a black clip-on tie* it doesn't mean he has a clue about home theater systems and HDTVs. If you don't like the results of your local Geek, or any other home theater or HDTV installer for that matter, then escalate the situation immediately or take it up with your credit card company and refuse to pay until everything looks and sounds the way it should.

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*Editorial notes:

The $216.74 fee from Geek Squad included "home theater set-up" ($199.99) plus tax.  Diane originally thought she was charged $325.11 as she had similar charges from Best Buy on the same week and got the two charges confused.  The fee was corrected in the article on 3/10. 

Also, as has been pointed out by several readers, the white shirt black tie uniform is normally only worn by the computer geeks (not the home theater geeks).  I have no earthly idea what Diane's installer was actually wearing at the time of the service call, nor did she take any notes on his attire, but the geek's outfit has no bearing on performance (unless he was clad in a way that would provide some additional entertainment value for her money, but this was apparently not the case).  

What did you think?

View all articles by Chris Boylan
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