Congratulations on your new TV! But wait, why does it not look as good at home as it did in the showroom? Unfortunately, showroom tricks can deceive you. But don’t worry, I’m going to help you set up your TV so that it looks perfect.
What is calibration?
With flat panel televisions, calibration is quite important. Without getting too technical, calibration is the act of optimizing your TV’s output so that you get the best images. At its extreme, this is an objective exercise done with professional tools, but for this article, we’re going to stick to home solutions only.
Even for your home, you could hire a professional calibration expert from THX or ISF to get this done, but that’s going to set you back by at least $150 — that’s money you should rather spend buying a bigger TV! And while there are free online tools to calibrate your monitor, these aren’t available for your TV. So what can you do instead?
For Beginners: Cheat Sheet To Calibration
The easiest, no-fuss way to get the right calibration is to rely on free expert advice. The internet is a wonderful resource for such information. So first, find out your TV’s model number and then search for it on:
- Tweak TV: This is the easiest way to get your TV’s calibration set up. Head to the site, hit the “Tweak My TV” tab and find your model. If there’s already a guide on it, just follow that and you’ll be fine.
- AVS Forum: The geek’s go-to for all things television, AVS Forum usually has many models that aren’t covered by Tweak TV. I recommend using Google’s “site:” search parameter as the search function in AVS Forum is weak. The other advantage of AVS Forum is that you can ask people to guide you and there are enough helpful souls around.
- CNET Forum: CNET has a forum dedicated to HDTV picture settings, and any TV reviewed on the site gets its own recommended settings uploaded by CNET’s in-house experts. Sometimes, they’ll even jump in to help you out, so try it out.
Once you get the optimum settings for your TV, just go to your TV menu and adjust the settings to what’s been recommended. It’s that simple.
For Intermediates: Get A Calibration Disc
I hope you have a Blu-ray player, and if you don’t, borrow one (or a PS3) from someone you know for a day. Then, all you need to do is head to Amazon and order a calibration disc that will take you through the process of optimizing your TV step by step.
There are three discs you should consider for this:
- Disney World of Wonder ($19.99): Best for those who don’t want to get too technical, but still want a well-calibrated TV.
- Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark and Calibration ($29.99): The best tests, but you need to have above-average knowledge about TVs to actually take advantage of them.
- AVS HD 709 (Free): The folks at AVS Forums have shared so much information over the years that the admins turned all of that into a fantastic calibration disc which can be downloaded freely. There’s an MP4 version too, but stick with the Blu-ray. The menus are really easy for basic settings and you should be able to set up your TV without any issues.
Depending on which one you choose, the calibration discs will guide you through the setup process to get your TV optimized. I went through the tests all of them do and for most average users, I’d recommend the Disney World Of Wonder or the AVS HD 709. The former is much easier to use, but the latter is free — your call.
The Dirty Little Secret Of Calibration
I’m probably going to get flamed for this in the comments section, but I’ll stick my neck out and say it: home-based calibration isn’t perfect. If it’s your TV, it should look good to your eyes — and eyesight is subjective. Plus, your TV’s output is going to differ based on the room’s lighting, so how it appears in the day and how it appears at night is going to be completely different. While there is an objective optimum setting for your TV based on scientific parameters, that may not look the best to you. In which case, feel free to ignore the advice of any expert and go with whatever suits you.
How Do You Calibrate By Eye?
If you want to set your TV up to look right for you and do it with minimal effort, you’ll need to set it up by eye.
1) Identify the target: If it’s a shared TV, don’t be selfish and set it perfectly for yourself. Remember, it’s subjective, so cater the calibration to the bigger consumer. Figure out what time of the day the TV in your house is going to be watched most often and by whom. It might not be you who watches TV the most, it might be your partner, your kids or a parent. Once you identify the person and time, ask that person to be free in that time slot to set up the TV. If that person is you, then great! For the sake of this example, we’re going to assume it’s you, but you can extrapolate all this to a third party too.
2a) Grab the right movies: Which movies are you most familiar with? Among them, choose one bright, animated movie (The Incredibles) and one dark movie (The Dark Knight Returns). Make sure they’re high-resolution files! Blu-rays are ideal, but if not, get the 1080p file from somewhere (provided you have a 1080p TV — if not, get a 720p file). What’s 1080p and 720p, you ask? We went over this in our TV jargon buster.
2b) Grab the right photos: What are your favourite home photos? Choose those that you’ve seen many times on different screens.
4) Transfer: Transfer all of the media and Sydow’s reference calibrators to a USB flash drive (provided your TV can play all the file formats) or a Blu-ray disc. Start playing.
5) Sit at optimal distance: I hope you already have the optimal sized TV for your room as I suggested in the TV buying guide, so now, sit back at your optimal distance (or just sit at your usual spot).
6) Black Calibrator: Fire up the Reference Black Calibrator image on your TV. Here are Sydow’s instructions: “Adjust brightness so bar 17 is barely visible and bar 16 (reference black) is not (blends with the blacker-than-black background). Do this first with the Black 1-24 screen, then fine tune with the Black 15-19 screen.”
7) White Calibrator: Fire up the Reference White Calibrator image on your TV. Here are Sydow’s instructions: “Adjust contrast so 235 (reference white) is clearly distinguishable from the background, and as many higher peak white values to the right as you feel are appropriate after reading the posts and judging your own source material. I find that adjusting so values up to 245 are visible yields the best results on my system.”
8) Colour Temperature: Now that your brightness and contrast is set, it’s time to adjust the colour temperature. Among the shortlisted photos, play images with people in them — people you know in person, and preferably, photos where you were there. Adjust the colour temperature of your screen to best reflect the skin tones of the people in the photos.
9) This is the best part: You now get to watch those movies! Play through the full animated movie. Since you’ve seen it so many times, you know what’s it’s “supposed” to look like for your eyes. So take note of any colour changes, brightness or contrast details, and the sharpness of items. Repeat the exercise with the full dark movie. Your notes will read like “it’s too dark to see Batman here” or “there are weird pixels around Mr. Incredible’s face”. If a setting problem is cropping up in both movies (like sharpness), then adjust that. If it’s apparent only in one movie, forget about it and let your settings be.
And there you have it, your TV is as good as it’s going to get without being subjected to calibration by DVD or professional equipment.
Share Your Tricks
Over the course of fine-tuning TVs for many people, I’ve relied on many tricks from other users (like Sydow’s reference calibrators) and come up with a few of my own (like using your own photos that you’re familiar with). I’m sure you will have a few secrets of your own to get the calibration right, so please share them in the comments below.