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TV Calibration for Under $20: How to Calibrate a TV Without a Pro

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If you're like most HD television owners, chances are you haven't touched the video settings on your TV since the day you pulled it out of the box. But did you know that the default settings for most HDTVs are optimized for the glare of a showroom's fluorescent lighting?

If your living room isn't lit by a dozen fluorescent lights (and we hope it's not), then you'll want to calibrate your HDTV to get the best picture quality. Every TV has its own idiosyncrasies that are affected by the attributes of the room you place it in, specifically lighting and viewing distance; to get the most out of the latest technology, whether it be a standard set or something more fancy that sports 3D or 4K TV, then it's necessary to make some adjustments to your set's brightness, contrast, sharpness, and color.

Easy TV Calibration

As with most things in life, hiring a professional calibrator to fine tune your set is the simplest way to calibrate your TV. Just make sure that the professional is certified by either the Imaging Science Foundation or THX. While there are plenty of independent contractors to be found (at various price points), for $250, an ISF-certified technician from Best Buy's Geek Squad can calibrate two inputs.

If you've just dropped a cool $1,000 or more on your new HDTV, the expense of hiring a pro may no doubt seem worth it. A professional calibrator will be able to correctly adjust your TV's temperature, as well as access the fine-tuning controls in its service menu — modifications beyond most laymen's capabilities.

Easy and Cheap TV Calibration

If you don't want to hire a professional to calibrate your TV, you can do so on your own without spending more than $5. The cheapest and easiest method of TV calibration just takes a few minutes and your own eyeballs. Knowing what to look for when tweaking your TV's picture and using some appropriately helpful materials, it's possible to make dramatic improvements without dropping a dime. We recommend THX Optimizer, which is a free on-screen calibration tool available on any DVD with the THX logo. Don't own a THX DVD? You could potentially borrow one from your local library for free, though some of the tests require special glasses that cost about $4.50 with free shipping.

Only a slightly more costly method is using a calibration Blu-ray disc or DVD. While there are a number of TV calibration DVDs, Disney's World of Wonder Blu-ray ($16.73 with free shipping, a low by $1) is one of the most user-friendly options. While it doesn't quite make TV calibration "doggone easy and fun," as Goofy claims on the packaging, WOW's test patterns are plenty helpful. There are three different sets of tools — for beginners, advanced users, and experts — each with tests for brightness, contrast, aspect ratio, sharpness, color, and viewing angle at different levels.

How to Calibrate a TV at Home

Having never calibrated my own TV before, I was ultimately struck by the improvement in picture quality that resulted from just simple adjustments. Using the advanced test patterns to alter the brightness and contrast, I created a more nuanced picture, with tones and details that I had not seen with previous settings. It did take nearly an hour's worth of tweaking to finally get the levels that the tests demanded, but without the patterns, such subtle differences no doubt would have been lost on me.

Nevertheless, perhaps it was the time spent staring into the high-def abyss, but I still couldn't help feeling that my picture could still be better. I'm quite sure neither an HDTV calibration disc nor one of the other methods can elicit the results of a trained technician, but that said, whatever amount you spend to help improve your picture quality is going to be money well spent.

Readers, have you tried to calibrate your TV? Share your favorite tweaks or some of the challenges you experienced in the comments below.


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Contributing Writer

Stephen Slaybaugh is Brooklyn-based writer with more than 20 years experience. He covers consumer electronics and tech for dealnews and has also written for The Village Voice, Paste, The Big Takeover, and many other publications.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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9 comments
AV_Media_Guy
Ohh... I can hear those who sell such stuff gnashing their teeth, but folks, I've been working in TV since a teen before all this calibration hype started. It is simply not necessary. Using a Disney WOW disc, Digital Video Essentials, Spears & Munsil, etc will provide all you need and all the TV is capable of for proper settings, as long as you learn how to use it and learn the functions of your TV menus and control settings. The said discs provide such info. I feel very empathetic for all people buying a new digital HD TV. There is a lot of what amounts to snake oil out there and it places a lot o doubt in peoples minds. I've purchased and owned several calibration devices and am skilled technician, Using discs is technically not a "calibration" but a means of making Media Assisted Settings. This is all you need unless you want a warm fussy feeling or like the status of paying for a TV calibration. OR you just are someone who is not comfortable with the TV setting controls and menus.
AV_Media_Guy
Go ahead and pay for a dubious calibration of buy a meter and software, but you simply will not KNOW the TV picture quality is at it's optimum. Besides this, the signal quality from cable boxes, TV broadcasts, DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming media varies in quality and it mush more an issue than calibrating your TV. Also, these are consumer grade TV we are talking about and usually using a consumer grade Blu-ray or DVD player in the so called "calibration" process. True calibration of any scientific device requires a complete chain of equipment set to standards of know accuracy. A DVD or Blu-ray player does not qualify in this regard and low cost consumer or hobbyist grade meters and software costing several hundred dollars are also of dubious accuracy.
AV_Media_Guy
Unless you own a professional projection TV system in a home theater costing multi thousands of dollars, or work in pro photo work with professional monitors. . .. save yourself some money and make you own TV settings. The skills and equipment of those using and selling calibration and meters are very much in doubt and there is NO way for you to know if your TV is any better than doing it yourself. The "charts and graphs" provided by such things are pretty, but I've used them and there are too many other variables and none provide meaningful difference in picture quality on any TV under $4,000 as of this date.
AV_Media_Guy
"Professional" TV calibration is the most over rated service sold to unknowing customers. This also goes for the purchase of expensive calibration meters and other equipment of dubious lasting quality. As the author mentions, test patterns are available on several discs to make your own Media Assisted Settings that is all you need. Paying someone to do it or buying a colorimeter or spectometer will simply NOT result in better picture quality that you can see. . . period.
GiaHuy
what is the "how to"? do you meant "how to hire a pro or buy a optimization DVD/BD disc" ?
Rawmeat
I understand how calibration involves test patterns and comparisons, but isn't the translation of the calibration somewhat dependent on the channel or show broadcast e.g. "ch. A broadcast" vs "ch B broadcast", or "soccer" vs "action movie", or "indoor picture" vs "outdoor picture"? I notice color/sharpness/brightness differences between shows even if I have made small adjustments just by eye for an individual show, especially dealing with true-ness of colors and brightness. If I calibrate for one type of show on one channel, then the results don't always carry over to another show/channel. Is there a concern for one person's eyesight compared to another's? Should I just think of it this way : Calibration should give you a better picture overall, in most cases, but other factors (like channel feed, type of show watched, personal preference, room in which you are viewing) may cause significant differences in how some shows are seen by the eyes and by different people.
snaimpally
There are several online AV forums that have detailed discussions on different televisions. Many people on these forums will calibrate their televisions and then post the settings. I found 2 or 3 different "recommended" settings from other users for my television. I tried each one until I found one I liked and have kept it.
scott0417
Used Disney's WOW Blu-ray. Biggest challenge was going through the setup many times - changes made to brightness also affect contrast, and vice versa.
Notes:
-Use paper and pencil - write down what you are asked to adjust in each step, the starting number, and the ending number.
-I have not found a Blu-ray with the THX Optimizer, only DVD's. Tuning an HDTV (1080p) with a DVD which contains only 480i information - not recommended.
-As was alluded to, lighting in the viewing room affects the picuture you see. When adjusting, be sure lighting is as similar as possible to what it will be for the majority of your viewing.
-Know your TV... some have a single set of adjustments that are applied to all inputs while some have separate adjustments for each input. Therefore, you may need to make the adjustments on multiple inputs or come to a comprimise (see 1st and last notes).
-Adjustments from a BR player will probably not be what is needed for cable/sat, but a good starting point.
thpe
So the how-to is buy a dvd or hire a pro, wonderful article, duhhhh, wish I cooda thowt of dat
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