A Practical Guide to Calibrating Your TV

TV calibration can seem intimidating, but we explain a few basic steps to get your picture looking better than ever.

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Some HDTVs sport endless options to configure the picture, and can be a little overwhelming to the average user. Here are some tips to help you understand how to help your TV give you the best picture quality possible.

What Is TV Calibration?

Calibrating a TV means setting the picture up to look the best given the room in which it's viewed. The size of the room, the light, and who will be watching it all affect how a TV should be calibrated. A TV in your sunny bedroom should be calibrated differently than the one in your gloomy man-cave. It's one of the most heavily debated and misunderstood HDTV-related topics out there.

Professional TV calibrators use specialized tools and hidden menus to tune your box, controls not easily available to the average consumer. There's a lot of science at work behind these products, and it's much easier to make your TV look horrible than it is to make it look good if you do it yourself. But keep in mind that "good" is a subjective term here—you should calibrate to what looks best to you and the other regular TV viewers.

One caveat, and we do apologize for the confusion: a lot of the settings in a TV's menu are misleading. Because these digital products have their roots in much simpler analog ancestors, some terminology has been passed down despite the fact that it's entirely inappropriate to a digital product. Take "tint" and "sharpness" for example. In bygone days these settings were necessary because the TV was being sent an imperfect signal. That's just not the case anymore in the digital era, where 1's and 0's always equal 1's and 0's. Manufacturers have left settings like "tint," but they'll only screw up your picture if you play with them. Read this great explanation by Dr. Ray Soniera for more.

Calibrating a TV yourself isn't necessarily easy, but understanding how the process works could help you sharpen your picture. Our first look at home calibration will be a simple outline of the traditional HDTV picture options.

The Absolute Minimum Effort Technique

Find the picture settings menu on your TV, then change the picture mode from its default (usually called Standard or something like that) to the setting variously labeled as Movie, or Film, or Theater.

You're done. Good job.

If you want a little more control, read on.

Backlight

The TV's backlight setting changes the brightness of the lights behind the screen. If you think of an LCD television like a shadow puppet show, the LCD panel provides the shapes (and colors) while the backlight provides the flashlight behind the puppets. Backlight has no effect on the TV's color or contrast ratio. This latter point is important, because it's often misunderstood. Sure, if you turn up the backlight, the black levels get brighter, but so do the whites, so contrast ratio stays the same.

Plasma TVs do not have a backlight setting because each little plasma pixel generates its own light. There's no "back" from which to light.

BacklightComparison.jpg

There is a perfect setting somewhere in the middle that will keep your picture from being either too dim (left) or too bright (right), and that setting will vary based on the light in your room. In a bright, sun-filled room, turning the backlight up allows the TV to compete with the brightness around it. In a dim restaurant or a home basement, a dimmer backlight makes the TV easier to look at for longer periods of time.

To adjust your backlight to the lighting in the room, turn it down until it's too dim, and then slowly bring it up until you can comfortably watch. This is the simplest way to calibrate the TV's backlight to the room around it.

Contrast

Once you've set up your TV's Backlight, setting contrast is the next logical step. Another mislabeled item, the "contrast" setting on an HDTV actually controls screen brightness, not contrast. (Conversely, and perversely, the "Brightness" setting actually controls the black levels. Go figure.)

ContrastComp.jpg

At electronics retailers like Target or Best Buy you might have noticed that most of the TVs have an almost painfully bright and flashy look. This is tried and true nonsense marketing, where brighter = better. The backlight and contrast settings are set to maximum to catch your attention. Once home, though, you'll want to turn these way down.

Like backlight, finding the correct contrast setting will change depending on ambient lighting conditions.

Brightness

Brightness refers to the intensity allocated to darker colors and shades. It's the most poorly labeled picture setting, and would be more aptly called "Darkness," as in how dark do you want your darks? The picture below illustrates the difference between a screen with minimum and maximum brightness.

BrightnessComp.jpg

The minimum brightness setting gives the deepest blacks a rich appearance to colors, but this is only because the backlight and contrast settings are turned up. Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to see much at all. The maximum brightness setting brings the dark colors closer and closer to the bright colors, until a normally black backdrop is literally glowing.

When adjusting brightness, you want it to be bright enough to accurately portray the content you're watching, but not so bright that it washes out shadow detail. Find a TV show or movie with a lot of shadows. We recommend Law & Order because it's full of dark courtrooms and it seems like it's on 24 hours a day. While brightness is one of the easier settings to calibrate to eye, it can still be tricky to set in tandem with backlight and contrast.

Some people favor the deepest possible blacks in their TV picture, but keep in mind that a low brightness setting will cause a loss of detail in some part of the picture. Calibration is an exercise in trade-offs.

Sharpness

Generally speaking, the setting called sharpness should be avoided. At most, you'll want to go into the menu to minimize any "oversharpening," then leave it alone for good. Sharpness is unnecessary in a digital world because your content providers (cable, DVD, etc.) and your television are already in agreement over what each pixel should be displaying at each moment. There's no degradation to this information like there was in analog days.

Most TVs will present sharpness as a scale, usually from 0-10, or 0-50. Our advice is to turn it down to zero. Other TVs might have a -50 to +50 scale. In this case, set it to zero as well.

When you turn sharpness up, the TV will exaggerate the contrast around the areas where bright content and dark content touch. Take a look at the photos below.

Calibration-sharpness.jpg

If the sharpness is too high, you'll see halos like in these photos. If the sharpness is set too low, the picture will appear blurry.

Color

Color is perhaps the easiest picture setting to explain, as well as the easiest to set at home. What does color do? This picture should make it quite clear.

ColorComp.jpg

If contrast handles white levels, and brightness handles black levels, color adjusts the intensity of color unrelated to the intensity of white or black. That is why turning color down to its minimum setting results in a completely black and white picture.

As a rule, color almost never needs to be changed. The default setting—usually 50—results in a color saturation that is correct, or very close to correct, by international HDTV standards.

While it is possible to sometimes improve your color setting by tweaking it a few degrees higher or lower than its default, it's not the kind of thing you can easily do without a test pattern and some special equipment.

Do I Need To Calibrate?

The bottom line is: If you like how your TV looks, you don't need to calibrate it. If you think it could look better, knowing how to adjust your TV could make a picture to your liking. And remember, if things get out of hand and your TV ends up looking like an Etch-a-Sketch, you can always reset the picture to its factory defaults and start fresh.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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