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Why does my receiver mess up my TV's picture? (Morrison's Mailbag)

A CNET reader is having a problem with his receiver messing up his TV's picture. Geoff Morrison helps him out.

CNET Reader Name Withheld writes:

Hi, I own a Sony 46-inch TV connected to a receiver and cable box with HDMI. I've always thought the picture just didn't look as good as it did in the store...which I chalked this up to lack of bright store lighting/never calibrating the TV. I'm in the process of moving, so I'm running the cable box directly to the TV, and it now it looks WAY better. What's going on? Should I ditch the receiver? I really don't want to go back to switching inputs on the TV.

Thanks for your help.

Well, Mr. Withheld, interesting question.

First off, let me say that the receiver shouldn't be doing anything to the picture. It should just hand off the signal to the TV, unmolested. Some receivers have picture modes and other video adjustments, but by default these are usually off.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of variables, but I'll try to mention a few of the most likely ones.

If you switched inputs when you plugged the cable box in directly, it's possible the other input has different picture settings. Having not calibrated the set (or set up at all? you didn't mention), different picture settings could result in a big change.

It's possible there was some weird interaction between the receiver where the cable box was sending 480i, and when you plugged into the TV directly, it realized what your TV could do and sent it 1080i.

All I can recommend, at first, is when you plug everything back in, check if there's any difference in picture quality between direct to the TV and through receiver. If so, check for any video settings on the receiver, and turn them off. Check that when the cable box is hooked up through the receiver, it's still outputting 1080i.

Just because the info button on your remote says it's getting 1080i or 1080p, doesn't mean that's what the source is outputting. The receiver could be upconverting the signal.

And, just to cover all bases, make sure you're on the HD channels from your cable provider. These aren't always the same as the SD ones. In my case, 2, 4, 7, etc., are 480i standard definition channels, but 1002, 1004, 1007, etc., are the HD versions.

Lastly, calibrate. Or at least, set up. If you're using your TV's out-of-the-box settings, you're not using it to its full potential. Here are some useful links:

HDTV settings explained

How to set a TV up by eye

Reviewed: Blu-ray setup discs for your HDTV

What is HDTV calibration?