HDTV: Worth the Cost of Professional Calibration?

HDTV: Worth the Cost of Professional Calibration?

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Chris Perez
Oct 28, 2011

We recently had our HDTV professionally calibrated. It's a process we've always heard was worth the time and money if you were serious about the video quality of your set. But is the difference that dramatic compared to something like the "3 Easy Steps Method"? Is it really worth it? Here's what we learned...

You've probably either read or heard that getting your TV professionally calibrated is recommended if you're serious about squeezing the best image out of your pricey investment. In fact, most videophiles are so for it, they'll tell you it is a must-have and they do it for every new set purchase. But like 3D, it's something you really can't judge until you see it yourself.

Luckily, we're here to help with some insight about what you can expect from professional HDTV video calibration.

Is Your Set Even Calibration Compatible? First off, getting your set professionally calibrated is a venture you should only seriously undertake if you have a model of reasonably good quality. Our calibrator told us that the discount sets just don't have the quality control or the component reliability to really take advantage of a professional calibration. And that makes some sense, the results can only be as good as the video processors and display hardware built in the set.

How Where You Watch Affects the Image: Got a decent set? Then keep reading, you passed hurdle one. Next up is viewing environment. If you're watching TV in an environment that's not too harsh you also may want to look into a calibration. Projectors are a little less forgiving than sets, and you basically want to make sure you're just not in a room full of windows with zero light control (that is unless you mostly watch TV at night). And I don't mean to say a video calibration won't improve things in a non-ideal viewing area, you just might not get as much bang for the buck for it.

So what goes into a professional calibration anyway? Avoiding going indepth about the technical, it simply revolves around fine-tuning your TV's color space. You want red's to look red, green's to look green, white's to be white's, etc. But there's more to it than that. You also want to tune the gamma, which is the term for shadow detail/depth.

Our calibrator explained gamma like this: imagine you're in a room with a dimmable light. Low gamma is like dimming the lights low, and the darks / shadows are more stark and harsh. High gamma is like turning the lights on high, things are oversatured and details can get washed out in the highlights. Tuned gamma, is when your lights are right at their sweet spot. Depth and detail are spot on, colors are true, and your picture is natural.

Our set's gamma was a little on the high side, and our colors (especially skin tones and reds) were off their targets a bit. So how was it fixed?

Calibrators use a set of professional equipment to tune your sets. Our eyes can lie, but the machines don't (at least the good ones). They also have access to hidden menus and controls that might not be available to you in your standard settings (though there are plenty of videophile discussion boards sharing access codes and/or software needed to open them up. But proceed with caution). These in combination give a professional more control to tune things in minute detail and get things just right to your specific viewing room.

What sets a good calibrator apart from the best is usually the quality of the equipment they use and their understanding of color space and the engineering principles behind video output. Our calibrator is touted as one of the best in the biz, with his knowledge and studio production quality equipment.

But how does it really look? OK, so we've explained what goes into a video calibration, and what you get out of it from a theoretical standpoint. I think the end result is best quantified by this analogy: the "before" was like a standard digital photograph with white balance set to "auto", without any post-processing or adjustments. That's your non-calibrated set.

It looks good and passable, and most won't complain or think twice to improve it.

Now take that same picture and optimize the white balance, adjust the curves, and color temp, and suddenly that pic has more detail, more POP, more natural color, and deeper blacks! That's your calibrated set.

It's subtle but definitely noticeable side by side, and in video it stands out more than stills. As shadows and colors interplay.

Now we've simplified things quite a bit, as there's other settings and charts your calibrator will adjust to get your picture just right. And just like some cameras will give you a better starting image than others, some sets are closer to their potential than others. It depends on each set, and each particular model. But all good quality sets should benefit from a good quality professional calibrator.

So let's stop all the dilly-dallying and look at some photos of our set before and after

Here's the before...
Looks pretty solid and definitely passable.
But here's the after...
Let's look at those side by side.

You can see that the calibrated one just looks right. Greens aren't oversatured, and the dirt looks natural compared with the non-calibrated image. Our pre-calibrated image had a red push, and that is clearly seen by the purplish-hue of the dirt.

Yeah, yeah...looks great, but how much does it cost? If you're an aspiring videophile, you might see that extra bit of accuracy and open up your wallet. In-home calibration cost us $450, working with the most recommended pro in our area, but prices can range depending upon your set and room. If you're the casual user, especially with a lower end model, you may just want to feign ignorance and use that dough toward something else (ignorance is bliss!). But at least now you got an idea of what you could be missing out on.

(Special thanks to Jeff Meier of Accucal for calibrating our set and spending some quality time explaining the ins and out of professional calibration.)

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