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What is TV calibration? And is it worth the money?

Getting your TV calibrated by a professional who visits your house can help improve the picture. Here's what you need to know.

howwetest-tvlab-2017-cnet-38

CNET's David Katzmaier calibrating a TV for a review. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

From TV salespeople to TV reviewers, you'll sometimes hear the word "calibrate" thrown around. TV calibration is often claimed to improve performance, increase accuracy and even make the TV less power hungry.

But does it? At what cost? And is it worth it? 

We can simplify a bit to start:

  • Calibration is adjusting a TV's settings beyond what's possible with the basic user controls.
  • It requires specialized equipment and software to objectively measure a TV's image.
  • The service is usually performed a professional, although there are some kits you can buy if you're a DIYer (more on these later).
  • Calibration should improve how your TV looks, but exactly how much depends on how accurate its initial settings were beforehand
  • It usually costs a couple hundred dollars or more, so is typically only worthwhile for high-end TVs and viewers who demand peak performance

Calibration vs. setup

First some semantics. Often the words "calibration" and "setup" are used interchangeably. This is incorrect. Setup is what you can do with the basic TV controls with either just your eye, or -- even better -- with one of the many excellent setup Blu-ray discs available. Calibration requires specialized test equipment (which we'll discuss in a moment), and a trained calibrator who knows how to use it.

If you want to start with the absolute basics, here's my beginner's guide to how to set up an HDTV.

Setup is what everyone should do with their new TV. Getting the basic picture settings correct can go a long way in getting your TV to look its best. It would have, for example, let you see what was going on in that episode of Game of Thrones. You can do much of what a trained calibrator will do just by using one of the aforementioned setup discs. 

Disney WOW: World of Wonder Contrast pattern

This is one of the Disney WOW disc's patterns to help you set contrast. There's a similarly designed pattern to set brightness.

Screenshot: Geoffrey Morrison/Pattern: Disney

Calibration costs money, and while it will get the most out of your TV, the difference between a calibrated TV and a non-calibrated TV in its most accurate settings, like Movie or Cinema mode for example, usually isn't massive. 

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What goes on

First let's go through what happens if you hire a calibrator.

If you haven't done anything to your television, their first job is ensuring it's set up correctly. This can include checking you have the right cables connected, that your sources are outputting the correct resolution, and so on. If you're new to all this, having a professional look over your gear can be quite handy.

Then, using either a setup disc or a test pattern generator, the calibrator goes through all the TV's settings to make sure it looks its best. This includes correctly setting the contrast and brightness controls to make sure the TV is as bright as it should be for your viewing environment, and has the best black level possible without obscuring shadow detail.

Color Temp

What different color temperatures look like. The middle image is the original. The top is too warm. The bottom image -- too cool -- is what most TVs look like out of the box.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

All of the above you can do yourself, with one of the aforementioned setup discs. The next step, though, you really can't.

Adjusting a TV's color temperature correctly isn't something you can really do with your eye. Sure, you can think you picked the correct temperature just by looking at it, but as I explain in my article on color temperature, it's nearly impossible to do correctly. Check out the three images to the right. Which one is correct?

When it comes to color temperature the eye can be fooled, so a calibrator uses a measurement device to measure the color temperature of the display. (CNET uses a Konica Minolta CS-2000 spectroradiometer for this.)

The goal is to get white as close as possible to the D6500 standard used throughout the film and TV world. This ensures that your TV looks as close as possible to what the director of the movie or TV show intended.

Some TVs also allow the adjustment of the actual color points, meaning a calibrator can make all colors more realistic. Done right, and on TVs that support it, it's one of my favorite aspects of calibration. I love accurate colors and wouldn't own a TV that didn't have accurate color. Not all calibrators can adjust color points accurately, as it depends on the measurement equipment used and your TV's available controls. If this interests you, it's worth asking about beforehand.

To add another wrinkle, today's high-dynamic range and wide color gamut TVs require additional, specialized calibration. This too requires special training and equipment, and is also worth discussing before you hire a calibrator.

The benefits

A correctly calibrated TV will likely look more pleasing to the eye, and may -- depending on its light output afterward -- draw less power and even last longer. This is because a calibrated TV generally has a dimmer picture than the "torch mode" default settings. So because the TV is producing less light, it uses less power and can enjoy a longer lifespan thanks to reduced strain on the light-generating parts of the TV. This is especially true of OLED TVs, though to a small extent LCDs as well. 

Certain TV manufacturers have a relationship with the Imaging Science Foundation, one of the leading companies that offers training for calibrators. TVs from these companies have specific calibration-friendly picture modes, such as ISF-Day and ISF-Night. These allow different settings depending on the amount of light expected in the room, making sure the TV looks its best regardless of the time of day. Other TVs might offer day and night modes as well, without the ISF connection. Again, this is all something to discuss with your calibrator.

In many cases, if someone isn't familiar with what a calibrated TV looks like, they're probably not going to like it... at first. A correctly calibrated TV will appear, to the uninitiated, reddish and soft. This is because the accurate color temperature is far warmer (redder) than how most TVs look out of the box. The sharpness control -- often set very high -- adds an artificial edge to everything. This masks real detail, but when you take it away, the image initially appears soft, even though it's actually showing more fine detail. To get a preview of what your TV might look like calibrated, switch to the Movie or Cinema mode. This is usually the picture mode closest to "accurate." If you're considering calibration, watch the TV in this mode for a few days, then see if you still prefer Dynamic, Vibrant or whatever mode the TV was in before. 

samsung-qnq7f-series-42.jpg

Some picture modes are often quite accurate without calibration.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It costs at least $250. Do you want it?

The cost of a calibration varies, but a good baseline is Best Buy's Geek Squad TV calibration, which starts at $250. Other specialty retailers charge more or less and there are a lot of variables, for example how many different inputs have to be calibrated or whether HDR is included.

Is this worth it for you? I can see both sides of this, though it's hard for me to be unbiased, as I can calibrate my own TV. Despite what proponents of calibration tell you, the difference between calibrated and uncalibrated for most TV isn't huge. This difference is getting even more narrow, as the better modern TVs tend to be relatively accurate out of the box (i.e. before calibration) in their best picture settings. Not perfect, mind you, but significantly closer than TVs from 10+ years ago.

So if you put the TV in the Movie or Cinema preset, choose the "warm," "low," or in some cases "medium" color temperature mode, and you use a setup disc to get your other settings correct, it's going to be "close enough" for most people, and likely more than adequate. If you don't want to bother with that, or you want to make sure it's as accurate as possible, calibration might be worth it. 

How to find trained calibrators

Two main companies train people to become professional calibrators: these are the Imaging Science Foundation and THX. You can find calibrators in your area at those links. Best Buy's Geek Squad also promotes ISF-Certified calibrators.

I'm an ISF-Certified calibrator myself, having gone through the training. So is CNET Senior Managing Editor and TV reviewer David Katzmaier. I haven't been through the THX training, but I'm familiar with it.

In both courses, trainees are taught the basics of TV setup and the advantages of calibration. Then they're shown how to calibrate a television. THX claims its course is more "hands-on," though both do an excellent job.

Other DIY options

You could buy a color meter and calibrate your TV yourself, though the more accurate tools to do this often cost as much, if not more, than a professional calibration. The cheapest options aren't going to offer accuracy much better than what your eye can do on its own. Also, even if the device is accurate (a bit "if"), the learning curve can be pretty steep. Some TVs starting in 2018 have a sort of "auto-calibration" where the TV and the measurement gear talk directly to each other. However, these still require the measurement gear itself, and someone who knows how to use it. 

Another shortcut to calibration is copying someone else's settings from the web. This isn't as useful as it sounds. Every TV is different, so one person's settings aren't going to be the correct settings for your TV. Sometimes the difference might just be a few clicks in either direction. Other times, the difference can be huge.

Red, green and blue

The most important thing I hope you take away from this article is: no matter what you do to make the picture more accurate, give yourself some time to adjust. Your brain will, at first, be convinced that the accurate color temperature is inaccurate. Trust that it is accurate, and give it a few days. After that, you won't be able to go back to the cool, bluish color temperatures of lesser, uncalibrated TVs.

If you're a do-it-yourselfer, you can get your TV most of the way there with a setup disc and a bit of your time. A good calibration will get it the rest of the way, making your TV look as good as possible. With most TVs hiring a pro won't make a huge difference, but if you want assurance that your new TV looks its best, it might be worth the price for you.

Note: This article was originally published in 2011 but was updated in 2019 with current info and links.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the sameTV resolutions explainedLED LCD vs. OLED and more.

Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff, then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel