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Calibrate Your Own Television to Experience the Best Picture

Calibrate Your Own Television to Experience the Best Picture
When you invest in a high definition or 4K television, you expect to get the best picture it can offer, right? Unfortunately, that's not what you're getting. But armed with the right information and tools, you can learn how to calibrate your own TV.

Congratulations…you got a new television! And now you’ve set it up, and you’re happy. At least you think you are. Let us help you with that….

What is video calibration, and why should I consider it?

To get the best possible picture out of your television, no matter how much you paid for it, you should consider video calibration. Video calibration is the process of adjusting the television’s picture controls (brightness, contrast, color, tint, sharpness, etc.) to bring the display output as close as possible to the specification used to produce the content you’re watching. This works for HD broadcast television, Blu-ray discs, and Ultra-HD 4k Blu-ray discs.

Content creators match their production equipment to a specification, like REC 709 for HDTV and Blu-ray. This ensures that content from different creators can be reproduced in a consistent manner—i.e., blue will be blue, green will be green, etc. When you take your new television out of the box and set it up, it is almost guaranteed not to be producing a picture to these specifications.

Why do manufacturers ship televisions without properly calibrating them? Cost.

You may have noticed there are various picture “modes” you can select: Vivid (a.k.a. “Torch Mode”), Normal, User, Movie, and occasionally ISF Dark and ISF Bright. ISF is the Imaging Science Foundation, a professional group dedicated to ensuring video standards can be reproduced by video displays. Each of these modes produces a different looking picture, ranging from more bluish in the first couple to a warmer tone in the last few. If your television has ISF modes, then the manufacturer has partnered with the ISF to ensure accurate reproduction of the content by the display. These will likely be the most accurate, but you can still improve them through calibration.

So why do manufacturers ship televisions without properly calibrating them? As with most everything else, the answer comes down to cost. Manufacturing tolerances are a balance between acceptable quality and cost. Due to variability in the components used to make the televisions, each one is slightly different but close enough for most people to not notice. But we notice, don’t we? And we want to make it better, right? If you’ve read this far, your answer is probably yes.

OK, you’ve convinced me. What are my options?

You have options when it comes to calibration. There’s the professional path and the DIY approach. We obviously prefer the latter!

  1. Professional. A professional calibration requires you to find a local calibrator to come to your house. You can find calibrators on AVS Forum or through Best Buy’s Geek Squad. The cost for this service is usually around $250 – $300; it can be more if you have a 4K UHD television.
  2. DIY Option 1. Buy a calibration disc and perform the basic calibrations easily on your own. You’ll be able to set the user controls for a better overall picture. For instance, if you have the brightness control to low, you’ll miss out on key details in the near-black parts of the picture. Set it too high and your picture will appear washed out. These discs will help you correct these common problems. The Spears & Munsil disc is a good one to get started. Just follow this LifeHacker tutorial.You can always download and burn the calibration patterns to disc or usb drive yourself. You can get these from AVS Forum, along with a ton of information to learn about calibration.
  3. DIY Option 2. Buy a reasonably priced colorimeter and combining it with free software will get you to the next step beyond basic calibration and allow you to adjust the television’s gray scale (the tone of white from total black to total white produced by the television). Note that this requires a fair amount of learning, trial, and error…and it may become a new hobby for you. Here are some resources to investigate:
Grays can vary widely between televisions
Grays can vary widely between televisions

I’ve done all this work and don’t like the picture. Now what?

There could be a couple of things going on if you don’t like the results of your calibration efforts. After calibration, most displays will usually be a bit dimmer than they originally were. When you look at a television in a store, the brightest picture often looks the best. Just know that when it’s set up that way, you are not seeing an accurate picture.

When you get it home, the store/Vivid setting will most likely be too bright, and it definitely won’t be accurate. Give the new settings some time, and see if you don’t eventually prefer the accurate picture. It could also be that you prefer a picture that “pops.” Perhaps the grass on the football field is neon green, and you like it that way. That is a philosophical issue—not a calibration issue. But if that’s the case, then return your settings back to their original state and enjoy your television. Ultimately, that’s the point of the entire effort.

I’m hooked! Where can I learn more?

AVS Forum is the best first place to go. There are tons of sub-forums for individual manufacturers’ models and even specific forums for calibration settings and procedures. Be aware that you can just copy some settings like the basic brightness, contrast, etc. with fairly good results. But the gray scale of each unit can be different, so you won’t necessarily end up with a better result by copying someone else’s calibration settings.

What about UHD 4K?

Calibrating UHD 4K is an entirely different beast. In fact, the procedures and test patterns are still under discussion. Many professional calibrators have varying opinions here, and unlike HDTV, manufacturers often implement the standards differently. The equipment required is a bit more expensive as well. For now, concentrate on the HDTV settings, which is what broadcast television and standard Blu-ray discs are using. If you really enjoy this hobby, you can dive deeper by reading more in the AVS Forum.