How To Calibrate Your HDTV (and Not Lose Your Mind)

Confession: Until a few days ago, I'd never calibrated my TV. There are a couple reasons for this. First, and most simply, I'm not down with buying a calibration disc that I will likely use once then never touch again. And second, to me, HDTV calibration is the gadget geek's equivalent to chasing the dragon. I've seen endless A/V forum posts of new TV owners begging and pleading for that one true setting for their new high-definition slab—it's not pretty. There is an easy way, though, tucked inside hundreds of THX-certified DVDs already out there, and it's quite possibly already in your movie collection.

The THX Optimizer is a quick and simple calibration tool that I have found gets the job done well enough for most of us non-fanatics. And it comes with a free movie! (OK, it comes free with a movie.) What is it? It's a set of six test patterns that help you choose the key settings for any HDTV calibration: contrast, brightness, tint and sharpness.

Where to get it: THX has been quietly embedding the Optimizer in just about every THX-certified DVD for years—so that's hundreds. There's a complete list here, but it hasn't been updated in a while, because THX is currently refreshing the Optimizer for high-def discs. The only Blu-ray disc currently carrying it is Terminator 2, but when the new version is done, THX will include it on all THX-ceritified BDs, too. Point is, in all, there's probably at least one movie you'd like to own that happens to come with the Optimizer.

One other thing you'll need: To take full advantage of the Optimizer for the tint settings, you'll need some funky blue-filter glasses. THX will send you a pair for a couple of bucks on their website, though there is an additional colour pattern in the Optimizer that you can use to eyeball your settings without the glasses—basically, you just make sure that cyan and magenta look as much like the cyan and magenta of your dreams. If you don't feel like you can be trusted with that judgment, it's probably worth it to spend the $US4 or so.

Settings you'll want to start with: The good news is, the Optimiser works with pretty much every TV in the world, from your grandma's 19-inch Sony Trinitron to your brand-new 60-inch Kuro. (Yeah, you wish.) I would reset your TV's settings to the factory default before running the Optimiser, and I would also choose to calibrate your set's movie/film/cinema pre-set (if possible), as it should be closer to the ballpark range than the "standard" mode. But if you prefer the usually cooler colour temperatures of the standard mode, running it through the Optimiser will at least ensure that its ferocious showroom-floor contrast and brightness will be tamed.

Be sure that any auto-contrast or auto-backlight settings—including any settings with the words "dynamic" or "ambient"—are turned off. In one test scenario, every adjustment we tried to make was immediately be countered by "smart" settings—it was nearly impossible to calibrate the TV correctly. If your set comes with those options, shut 'em down. And leave 'em down.

It also helps to try and run the Optimiser in lighting conditions that best match your usual TV-watching state. Everyone watches TV both during the day and at night, so this won't be perfect. But a happy medium of the shades drawn on a partly cloudy day seemed to work nicely for me.

After you've got everything set up, it's a pretty simple run-through—turn up contrast until just the point where can still see six white-shaded blocks without them merging together, turn down brightness until the last black block out of a different row of six disappears, etc. All of the tests are easy enough to understand for the layman.

But does it work? My Samsung Series 4 LCD now looks a lot better in movie mode, without a doubt. Where it used to look flat and the colours muddy, now blacks look blacker and colours more contrasty, but in a far more natural way than the "dynamic" preset.

Note that this before and after of a still from T2 is not a scientific comparison by any means: the camera's exposure settings are the same in each unprocessed photograph, so the screen image should be fairly accurate, but the room's lighting had changed a bit by the time I was done calibrating as you can see. But on the screen you can still see the darker blacks and better colour saturation and contrast that I noticed in person.

So even if the difference is subtle, it's worth doing. Especially since you didn't drop money on a calibration disc, you either bought a THX-certified movie, or dug one out of your existing pile o' DVDs. (Netflixing a known Optimizer-laden title is a cheap third option, of course.) And those demons screaming at you about the huge potential you're missing by not calibrating your set? You can put those to rest. [THX]

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