Do I Need to Calibrate my TV?

Calibration… it’s a process that is often discussed but infrequently implemented, except by the most fastidious videophiles. The goal of video calibration is to bring a display into compliance with a predefined standard, allowing it to show (as close as possible) the same colors and brightness seen by the person performing the mastering. The result is a picture that matches the creative intent of the artist.

One issue with consumers buying a calibration for their TVs is the cost and the inconvenience. Although you can get a “cheap” calibration from Geek Squad when you buy a TV, getting a “pro” calibration from one of the self-styled “calibrators” requires finding a qualified calibrator, making an appointment that can be weeks or more away, and paying a relatively hefty fee that is hard to justify with inexpensive TVs.

Another consideration when it comes to consumers is that personal taste gets high priority. The concept is that “preference beats reference” and it’s the AV equivalent of “the customer is always right.”

Simply put, some people do not intrinsically prefer a calibrated image, they prefer some extra saturation, a bit more “pop” to the image… even if it’s at the expense of measured accuracy. One way this plays out with TVs is that calibration tends to decrease the peak brightness versus using a cooler (bluer) white point.


How about DIY calibration?

DIY calibration is a hobby for the dedicated few. This is because the software/hardware package needed to do it with reasonable accuracy can get pricey. Unless you have many TVs, want to do your friends a favor, or can make a side business out of it, investing in a calibration kit makes little sense for a consumer but can be fun if you are a tech geek.

While cost and inconvenience makes calibration something that’s not even considered for the inexpensive TVs, often these TVs can benefit from some simple adjustments that result in a better picture (like switching to Movie Mode and turning off motion interpolation). There are plenty of tips and tricks for tweaking a TV’s picture using test patterns and such.


Artist’s Intent?

Over the past few years I’ve had numerous discussions with movie directors and directors of photography about displays, artist’s intent, etc. And the one thing I gleaned is they are all still making movies to be shown in movie theaters. That means the primary expectation—in terms of delivering artist’s intent—is a BIG screen with immersive, impactful surround sound. This is the foundation of what they are making… not how many nits the HDR highlights are.

Once a movie is released on home video and mastered for TV presentation, you are dealing with a different experience versus what the director was aiming for (obviously, this is not the case for made-for-TV productions like Netflix or Amazon shows).

With high-end TVs that are custom installed, calibrations are more common, but still rare. But, if done thoughtfully and meticulously, a proper calibration from an experienced pro can yield impressive results—the image can look “impeccable.” It takes skill to do a proper, thorough calibration of a high-end display, so that’s not something you want to leave to the Geek Squad trainee.

What’s key is that after calibration, the TV be able to (as close as possible) match the color and contrast performance of the mastering display; if the TV falls short of that goal then calibration will not achieve the desired goal of matching what the director intended.


“Too Much” Calibration is Not Necessarily a Good Thing

One of the idiosyncrasies of calibration is that the more extreme the adjustment you have to make to get a good measured result (a pretty graph), the more you risk introducing processing-related artifacts to the image like noise or banding. Adjusting color is like adjusting EQ with audio, small tweaks are fine but large adjustments can cause trouble. It is therefore beneficial to start with a TV that is close to accurate to begin with, so that the amount of adjustment needed to achieve a full calibration is minimized.

The catch-22 is if a TV is close to accurate to begin with, do you really need to calibrate? Or just optimize? That’s a decisions that each TV buyer needs to make for themselves.


Use the Movie Mode!

For most people buying a TV, the most basic yet substantial improvement available is switching from Standard to Movie mode is not even on the radar, much less a pro calibration. But if they do choose Movie mode (or similar) there is a decent chance what they see will be “good enough.” This begs the question, is a calibration needed at all with modern TVs?

TVs are not sold calibrated right out of the box, although some retailers offer it as a value-added service for premium TVs. Another issue is inconsistencies in gear as well as skill sets—a Geek Squad trainee is not necessarily going to achieve the result of a skilled professional calibrator.

Just a few years ago, you could not buy a TV that did not significantly benefit from calibration. However in the past few years manufacturers started shipping TVs with a Movie mode, or some sort of Director or Film mode that has the right settings dialed-in to provide an uncalibrated image that’s reasonably faithful to the source.

Not every TV does well color-wise out of the box, even in Movie mode. But that has steadily improved and some TVs come surprisingly close to calibrated accuracy without adjustment. To find out which models do best in this regard, you can peruse the measurements on rtings.com—or just skip to the selections for best color accuracy.

The key is to find the TVs that measure well right out of the box and otherwise perform well—there’s a bunch to choose from at various price points and if you do not plan on having the TV calibrated, then you can ignore all the post-calibration charts you see in reviews because it’s irrelevant. For most TV buyers, the post-calibration results found in so many reviews are totally irrelevant, what matters is how the TV looks without a calibration (but with optimized settings). If you are looking for settings to try as a starting point, rtings.com offers those as well.


Best TVs for Color Accuracy

The best TV for you might not be a model that offers high accuracy out of the box. If this is the case, a calibration should be considered, especially if you have a high priced, high-performance TV intended for home theater applications.

Here is a selection of TVs selected using measurements from rtings.com. They are all TVs that measure well right out of the box and therefore are great selections for movie lovers seeking a reasonably color accurate picture without having to have the TV professionally calibrated.

In it comments on pre-calibration color accuracy, Rtings.com notes the following: “Because full calibrations cost a good deal and don’t offer much improvement over just using the right settings, most people shouldn’t bother getting them.”|

However there is plenty you can do on your own, at no extra cost, to get a better picture by dialing in optimized settings. Setup is the key, read more about that here.

To see the full rtings list of pre-calibration color accuracy measurements click here.

Top Choice

Sony X950G

Recommended

Sony X800H
TCL 6 Series
LG C9 OLED
Vizio P Series
Samsung Q60T


The Future of Calibration? There’s an App for That!

As cell phone cameras steadily improve, they become useful tools for performing calibrations. This was recently implemented by TCL in some of its TVs and the result is an improvement over out-of-the-box color accuracy, although not as much of an improvement as a full calibration provides.

The TCL calibration app itself is new, but it’s already apparent that high quality cell phone cameras can at least help set the color temperature… and in many cases that’s the main adjustment you need to make requiring the help of some sort of meter. Much of the rest of what makes for a basic calibration can be achieved with a good optimization disc and test patterns, using your own eyes.

The reality of TVs today is that a free, app-based, mini-calibration promises to do more for improving picture quality for the masses than anything else I can think of, aside perhaps from shipping TVs that default to Movie mode right out of the box—we can dream of such a day, right?


So What Should I Do?

Of course, there will always be a place for a professional calibration, be it for the mastering displays, for projection-based systems, and yes… fastidious TV owners who want to experience the absolute highest quality they can squeeze out of their system. But its necessity, at least when it comes to consumer TVs, is no longer a given going forward.

With today’s TVs, you can get a “good enough” picture with just a few adjustments, especially if you use pictures and patterns to help with your optimization such as those found in the AVS Forum HD 709 collection—the same patterns used by rtings and many others as the baseline for optimizing their display.

The AVS Forum HD 709 patterns will do a lot for you, if you follow instructions. But you want 4K and HDR patterns in a more structured format and are willing to invest $40 in a useful tool, check out the Spears & Munsil UHD HDR Benchmark disc ($39.95 on Amazon).


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