What is HDTV calibration?

Offered at stores, talked about in reviews, but what actually is HDTV calibration?

Photo Research/Minolta/CNET

From TV salespeople to TV reviewers, you'll often hear the word "calibrate" thrown around. It is said that getting your TV calibrated will improve its performance, increase its accuracy, and even make it less power hungry.

But at a cost?

Most calibrations cost a few hundred dollars. So the questions are: What is calibration, and is it worth it?

Calibration vs. Setup

First a bit of semantics. Often the words "calibration" and "setup" are used interchangeably. This is incorrect. Real calibration requires specialized test equipment (which we'll discuss in a moment), while setup is what you can do with the basic TV controls with either just your eye, or--even better--with one of the excellent setup Blu-ray discs available.

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

If you're a slightly more do-it-yourself kinda person, much of what a trained calibrator will do you can do with one of the aforementioned setup discs. But not everything.

Trained Calibrators
Two main companies train people to become professional calibrators: these are the Imaging Science Foundation, and THX. I'm an ISF-Certified calibrator myself, having gone through the training. 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.

You can find ISF and THX-trained calibrators via their respective Web sites. Another option is Best Buy's Geek Squad, which promotes ISF-Certified calibrators.

What goes on
If you haven't done anything to your television, a calibrator's first job is usually ensuring the TV is set up correctly. This can include checking you have the right cables connected, that sources are outputting the correct resolution, and so on. 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

Up to this point, you can largely do all of this yourself. 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.

Instead, the calibrator uses a measurement device (like the Photo Research or Minolta models in the top picture) to measure the color temperature of the display.

The goal is to get this 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. This, in my opinion, is worth the cost. 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.

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. Calibration can result in a dimmer picture than the default settings, and if the TV is producing less light, it uses less power and can enjoy a longer lifespan longer thanks to reduced strain on the light-generating parts of the TV. (On the other hand some calibrations, especially of newer plasmas, actually have to brighten the image from default, negating this benefit). A correctly calibrated TV, in my experience, also ends up being a more pleasing image for most consumers. The image looks more "natural."

Certain companies have a relationship with the ISF, and have specific calibratable picture modes. The most useful of these are ISF-Day and ISF-Night modes. This allows 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.

Do you want it?
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, as 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 artificial edge enhancement masks real detail, but when you take it away, the image appears soft (even though it's actually showing more fine detail).

So to sum up, with calibration you're getting a trained professional to check over your TV's settings and setup, and a fine tuning of its color temperature to be more accurate. The cost of this varies, but a few hundred bucks is common.The result is that the TV performs and looks the best it possibly can.

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. On one hand, and this is despite what proponents of calibration tell you, the difference between most TVs calibrated and uncalibrated isn't huge. If you put the TV in the "warm," "low," or in some cases "medium" color temperature and it's going to be fairly close to accurate. For many people, this "close enough" is more than adequate.

But, all TVs can benefit from calibration. Just because a TV is accurate with bright images, doesn't mean it's accurate with dark images. In most cases, they aren't. This can be fixed only with calibration.

Related links
What is TV color temperature, and why does it matter?
Contrast ratio (or how every TV manufacturer lies to you)
What makes a good HDTV?

Another option?
The company Datacolor makes a product called the Spyder that promises to calibrate color temperature, presuming you have the controls on your TV (some TVs hide these controls from the average user). I haven't tested this product myself, though my guess is it will work to a degree. Though how accurate a $99 product is compared with the $15,000 Photo Research or $12,000 Minolta used by many calibrators, I'll leave for you to infer.

Get used to it!
The most important thing I hope you take away from this article is: no matter what you change the color temperature to, 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.

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