How To Calibrate Your HDTV Using The Top Set-up Discs 
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Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Monday, 01 May 2006

How To Calibrate Your HDTV Using The Top Set-up Discs
By Adrienne Maxwell
May 2006

So you’ve waded through all of the confusion about HDTV vs. EDTV, DLP vs. plasma vs. LCD and digital vs. analog connections, and boldly dropped your hard-earned cash on a new digital television. You’ve ordered an HDTV package from your cable or satellite provider, you’ve hooked up your DVD player, and now all you want to do is sit back and enjoy the experience. But wait. You’ve come this far. Don’t you think you owe it to yourself and your new TV to finish the job by making sure the picture looks as good as possible?

This may be hard to believe, but most manufacturers don’t set up TVs to look their best right out of the box. They set up TVs to catch your eye in a store. Seldom does a store’s viewing environment match the one in your home (at least we certainly hope it doesn’t), nor are these settings good for your TV. A few minor adjustments to video settings like contrast and color can make a world of difference.

There are several DVDs on the market that help with this process. I’ve chosen to use two for this discussion: Digital Video Essentials and the brand new HDTV Calibration Wizard from ISF. Digital Video Essentials is more advanced, featuring both video and audio set-up instructions and tests. If you read a lot of TV reviews, you’ve probably heard many a reference to Digital Video Essentials ($24.95, DVD International) or its predecessor, Video Essentials, as they both provide the full gamut of test patterns that reviewers and professional TV calibrators need to properly set up a television. DVE isn’t the easiest disc to navigate (most of the tests I refer to are located in the Video section, Title 7) and many of the explanations are fairly technical.

Monster Cable, in partnership with Imaging Science Foundation and Microsoft, recently released the HDTV Calibration Wizard DVD ($29.95), which is aimed toward the everyday user and, no surprise here, more toward men than women. A sexy, softly lit blonde, Jenna Drey, explains each video setting and walks you through the corresponding test scene. HCW doesn’t delve deeply into the technology behind each setting; it just shows you how to make the adjustment. It takes only about 20 minutes to get through the disc, and there’s no audio set-up, which makes that $30 asking price seem a bit high. You also have to sit through several sales pitches for Microsoft and Monster Cable in the process. Nevertheless, the tests are more accessible and clear for the average consumer.

Neither of these discs, nor the video adjustments they describe, can work miracles. If your TV doesn’t have a great black level to begin with, adjusting the brightness can only help so much. If its color points aren’t in proportion to one another, adjusting the color and tint can’t fix that. What these adjustments can do is maximize your TV’s potential.

Get Connected
To get the best-looking image possible, you first need to use the best inputs on your TV. That old-school yellow composite video cable just won’t cut it. The vast majority of current DVD players and HDTV set-top boxes (cable and satellite boxes included) have at least a component video output, and the newest ones may have a digital connection like DVI or HDMI. You should connect your gear to the TV using these connections.

If you plan to use several inputs on your TV for different sources, you’ll want to adjust the video settings for each input. That means connecting the DVD player to each of those inputs and running through the steps described below. All of these picture adjustments should be found in your TV’s onscreen menu, in a submenu called “video” or “video settings.”

Select a Picture Mode
HCW chapter 2; DVE title 7, chapter 4
This may also be called “color mode,” and it should include choices like day, night, dynamic, theater, or standard. Each of these modes has preset video adjustments that tailor the image to accommodate a specific viewing environment: brighter during the day, darker at night. Unless your TV is placed in a light-controlled theater room, you likely have to deal with both bright and dark environments, depending on when you watch TV. HCW suggests that you choose one picture mode for daytime viewing and one for nighttime viewing, which means you’ll want to run through the set-up disc twice. (Some TVs can only save one set of adjustments per input, so you’ll have to settle on one picture mode for a bright and dark room.)

If you use the DVE disc, you may notice that the narrator tells you not to use settings like day, fleshtones, or sports. These modes tend to exaggerate the picture to make it more visible in a bright room. DVE wants you to start with a more accurate picture mode and go from there.

Once you’ve selected a preset picture mode, you can fine-tune the individual video adjustments like brightness, contrast, etc. Some TV manufacturers allow you to make these adjustments within the picture mode you’ve selected. Others will automatically default to a preference or memory mode once you try to change the other settings. If that happens, just make sure that your TV is set to the preference mode from this point on (it shouldn’t change unless you unplug the TV or lose power). Some TVs store your adjustments automatically; others require that you save them to a memory setting. If you make different adjustments for daytime and nighttime viewing, you should save each one in the memory so you can easily switch between them. Check your owner’s manual for instructions.

Select a Color Temperature
DVE title 7, chapters 10 and 11
Color temperature describes the color of gray. In a video signal, the black and white portion contains most of the picture information, with color added afterwards. That’s why it’s important to set the color of gray correctly; an inaccurate gray will affect the entire picture. HCW doesn’t address this setting, but DVE provides a great explanation of color temperature and how TV manufacturers derive the names for the various choices in this menu, such warm, standard and cool. Some manufacturers use numerical settings, like 7500, 6500 and 5500.

If you look at the choices, you’ll notice that the TV takes on a different color palette in each mode. This is particularly evident if you have a white image on the screen. The cool setting (or higher numerical values) will look blue, while the warm setting (or lower numerical values) will look yellow. The human eye gravitates toward the bluer image because it seems brighter, so manufacturers usually select the cool setting as the default. In truth, though, the warm or 6500 setting is usually the most neutral and is the one I recommend.

Adjust Brightness
HCW chapter 3; DVE title 7, chapter 2
This may also be called black level, and it adjusts the level of the dark portions of an image. You don’t want to set the brightness control so high that blacks look gray and washed out, but you also don’t want to set it so low that you lose picture information in a dark image. Our test DVDs make it much easier to set brightness, because the test patterns include an image that is actually below the reference standard for video black. Reviewers often refer to this as the PLUGE pattern or below-black signal. When setting your brightness control, you should lower the setting to the point at which that below-black image disappears. If you go lower, blacks may look deeper, but you lose picture information in the process.

Adjust Contrast
HCW chapter 4: DVE title 7, chapters 3 and 8
This may also be called white level or picture. While the brightness control adjusts the dark portion of the image, the contrast control sets the distance between the darkest black and the brightest white in the image. Obviously, brightness and contrast are intimately related, so you may have to readjust the brightness setting if you make changes to the contrast control. Most manufacturers set the contrast very high out of the box, so you’ll likely need to turn it down. This is especially important with a plasma TV; leaving the contrast at a very high setting can contribute to image burn-in over the long term. It’s worth noting that DVE’s explanation for setting contrast in a flat panel or other fixed-pixel display is difficult to understand. The HCW test is much more user-friendly.

Adjust Color
HCW chapter 5; DVE title 7, chapter 4
This may also be called saturation or chroma, and it adjusts the intensity of color. You want colors to be vibrant but not exaggerated. One sure-fire way to spot exaggerated colors is to look at skin tones; if they are overly red, try turning down the color setting. HCW uses skin tones in its test pattern to help you with color, while DVE provides color filters and shows you how to adjust color with a special test pattern. Both can be tricky and you should trust your eyes here. You will know if the color is too high or too low for your taste.

Adjust Tint
DVE title 7, chapter 5
This may also be called hue, and it adjusts the type of color. Like brightness and contrast, color and tint are related, and you may have to readjust color if you make changes here. Some TVs don’t let you adjust tint through certain inputs, so you have to hope the manufacturer set it correctly. HCW suggests that you leave tint at the factory setting, because using a color filter like the one DVE provides is really the best way to precisely adjust tint. In most cases, the factory setting is close enough.

Adjust Sharpness
HCW chapter 6; DVE title 7, chapter 6
This may also be called detail or edge enhancement; it increases the visibility of fine detail in the picture. This sounds like a good thing, but it really isn’t. Increasing the sharpness control may give the illusion of improved detail, but it adds unwanted information to the picture. Both test DVDs provide good patterns to adjust sharpness. When in doubt, just turn it all the way down.

Select a Picture Size
HCW chapter 7; DVE title 7, chapter 12, and title 12, chapters 18 and 19
During the transition from SDTV to HDTV, displaying video signals in the proper shape and size is more challenging. Most SDTV material is still shot in a square, 4:3 aspect ratio, while HDTV has a rectangular (widescreen) 16:9 aspect ratio. The movie on a DVD may be in a widescreen format, while the bonus content may still be in a 4:3 shape.

Many new TVs have a feature called automatic aspect ratio detection. As the name suggests, in this mode, the TV automatically determines what shape the picture should be. Your TV remote probably has a button labeled “picture size” or “aspect ratio.” Scroll through the options and select auto if available. If not, you’ll have to change the aspect ratio manually, depending on the material you’re watching, and every manufacturer seems to use different names to describe each picture size, for example, 4:3, standard and natural for a square picture and 16:9, widescreen, or full for HDTV.

With a 4:3 TV, widescreen material will have bars at the top and bottom. With a 16:9 TV, standard-definition material will have bars to the sides. These bars allow you to see the image as it was filmed, with all of the information that the director intended. Most TVs offer picture sizes that zoom in on or stretch the image to get rid of the bars. As a home theater buff, I just can’t bring myself to condone the use of these settings, since they distort the picture’s geometry or cut off part of the image to fill the screen. But hey, that’s just me. If you really hate the bars, it’s your call.

One last note: when watching a DVD, if the picture shape looks wrong and you can’t fix it using the TV’s aspect-ratio buttons, your DVD player may be set up incorrectly. The DVD player’s set-up menu should include a setting for TV shape, which you want to use to select the shape that matches your TV, either 4:3 or 16:9. Both HCW and DVE include patterns that help you correctly set the size and shape of your picture.

I’ve talked a lot here about accuracy: selecting an accurate picture mode and color temperature, finding the accurate brightness and contrast settings. That’s what reviewers are trained to do: evaluate the accuracy of a product. At the end of the day, though, it’s your TV. Whether you choose to adhere to the guidelines I’ve described here or not, my hope is that you walk away with a better understanding of what each picture adjustment will and won’t do. Armed with that knowledge, you can set up your new HDTV so that it looks good to your eyes and, if you want to take it even deeper, you can always call in the likes of a professional calibrator. The ISF trains them and recommends people in your area. They can take the above concepts even further, but since you have already read this far, you will be able to talk with your calibrator about what they are doing and why it makes your HDTV look so much better.

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