Calibrate? Good Times! (Home Theater)

When it comes to their equipment, there are two kinds of people. There are those who want to squeeze every last bit of performance out of it by modifying, tweaking, and “working under the hood,” so to speak. Then there are those whose attitude is, “Hey, I took it out of the box. What the hell else do you want from me? Now I’m gonna go lie down.” These are the kind of people represented in a recent poll, an alarmingly huge number of whom have HDTVs but don’t have any HD sources to play on them. I can only imagine that more than a few of these people also own Lamborghini Gallardos, which they use exclusively to tow their lawn mulchers. (There was also a sizable slice of the populace who had never even heard of high def! Do we have a vastly larger number of cave-dwelling cloistered monks in our country than I have been led to believe?)

No doubt you’ve been to these people’s houses and seen their TVs. Every setting is cranked to maximum. A corresponding rectangle of paint on the opposite wall is singed and peeling, caused by the beam of excessive heat and radiation. The colors are completely out of whack, fleshtones are bright red, and the greens are horrid and unearthly to the point that it makes you nauseous. In addition, a toddler or some equally incompetent person has fiddled with the remote, as the aspect ratio is on the wrong setting so that only 20 percent of the source is actually visible on the screen. As you’re about to cry out, “What in the name of hell happened to that?!” your host stops you short by saying, “Just picked that baby up from the store. She’s a beaut, ain’t she? Someday I may even get some sort of HD to show on it. Now come ride shotgun with me while I mulch my lawn.”

Since you’re reading this, chances are good that you aren’t one of these people. However, if you are, may I—with humility, good will, and only the purest of intentions—offer this gentle rebuke: Get your damn TV calibrated, you jackass! (Sorry, sorry! It’s just my passion coming through. I’m sure you’re barely a jackass at all.) You could hire a professional, which I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from doing. But as I’ve just been through the process of dialing in two new sets at my own home, perhaps I can walk you through the do-it-yourself process, provided you’re not still mad at me.

First, you’ll need some test patterns, on Blu-ray, of course. You do have a Blu-ray player, don’t you, dumbass? (Sorry! There’s that passion again. I promise I’ll try to tame it down.) There are a couple of options, the obvious choice being the estimable Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics, available for about $16 online. also sells the equally highly regarded Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition for a little more. Or you could go on the cheap and use the super-secret test patterns that are on every Disney Blu-ray. You can access these from the main menu by entering the numbers 7-6-6-9 from the remote. (Having given away the secret, I’m relatively sure that one or more of the many black-ops kill squads that Disney keeps on call 24 hours a day is now silently speeding to my home.)

You’ll immediately want to crank down, hard, on the brightness setting. If you haven’t changed it from its default setting, your set is probably putting out more lumens than the Great Lighthouse at Alexandria. Find yourself a PLUGE pattern. (This stands for Picture Line-Up Generation Equipment, and, as I’ve never heard it spoken out loud, I can only assume it’s pronounced “pluggie,” or “ploohey,” or “ploojah,” or preferably just not spoken out loud.) Then, you’ll need to dial in the shadow detail. I’m certain you’ll be far happier with blacks that are black and not an eye-burning shade of bright gray. Sony’s super-secret PLUGE pattern is located on the bottom right of the color bars, according to technical director Scrooge McDuck IV. The contrast setting, or white level, which will probably also be cranked, is relatively easy to optimize. You may need to find yourself a blue filter to properly set the color—some calibration discs even include one. If yours doesn’t, it may take a little digging on the Internet, as there are very few blue filter stores in most people’s immediate neighborhoods.

If you get all that done, you’ll likely be a good deal better off than you were when you started, but if you really want to fine-tune it, you’ll want to calibrate your set’s gray-scale tracking. “Wow!” I can hear you saying. “That sounds fun! Tell me more!” I know. Settle down. It actually is kind of fun, if you don’t have a whole lot else going on in your life. To do it, you’ll need the right gray test patterns and something to measure the color with. A number of different colorimeters are available at prices that range from $120 to thousands of dollars. If, like me, you have set aside almost no money for a colorimeter, you can go the cheap—but no less accurate—route of building an optical comparometer. All you do is knock together a small box to house a flashlight with a 6500K bulb (the correct color temperature) shining on a photographic gray card and a white card with holes cut into them. Put up your gray test patterns, then peer through your comparometer and use your TV’s white-balance controls to match the screen to the gray of your comparometer. Voilà! Of course, the downside is that if anyone sees you doing it, you’ll have to sell your house and move to avoid the shame. 

In short, dear friends, if I could leave you with anything, it would be this: Get your damn TV calibrated, you jackass!

Tucker1011's picture

I just remembered you had a column here at Home Theater - I'm just taking the time to read through it!

Just have to say, I love your comparometer solution. I'll have to take it for a spin at some point on my Panny. I actually sell televisions for a living, and sometimes it's pulling teeth just to explain to somebody that TORCH mode is wrong. It's even harder to explain to them that "Warm" is close to right. "But it's brown and dark... I just love how SHARP that Samsung is!"

If I could do nothing else but have everyone set their colour temperature to Warm 1, if nothing else, my life would be better. An even easier solution would be for everyone to buy Panasonic G-series with their clever little THX mode. Sure it's not room-tuning, but it's a damn close setup to give the majority a taste of what good picture is.

...I shouldn't even get started on the Bose lovers and the HTiB owners. What's wrong with a speaker that is larger than your fist!?

Your passion is my passion - it's just too bad my passion gets me in trouble at my workplace.

P.S. Doesn't it just cheese you that so many people will simply respond with "But I like it like that!" How arrogant some people are to assume they know more about colour correction (or even sound design) than those who get paid six-figures to do nothing-but...