Calibration Follies

We've been, and continue to be, big supporters of getting a video display properly calibrated. We do it in our reviews because it shows us best that a set is capable of. Just as significant is the fact that if you just present only the out-of-box result in a review, you're trying to hit a moving target. Different samples will differ, perhaps significantly, because manufacturers can't perform anything more than a rough setup on the production line. The average consumer won't notice the difference in the store, and it takes too long (and costs too much) to perform a tight calibration for everyone just to satisfy the discerning customer.

No organization has done more to promote and perform good aftermarket calibrations than the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF). But when big box retailers begin to perform such calibrations, it can give the service a bad name.

I was in my local Best Buy last week when I spied a kiosk dedicated to promoting high definition on DirecTV. It consisted of two Samsung flat panel televisions side-by-side. One was labeled Standard Definition, the other High Definition. The clear intent was to show the superiority of DirecTV's HD service. But when I was there, it was being used for something else, though that was not evident, in any way, from the signage.

Instead of a satellite feed, each set was showing a clip from the HDTV Calibration Wizard DVD, a disc produced by Monster Cable in conjunction with the ISF to help consumers set up their televisions as best they can using the user-accessible controls. While this disc will not give you the sort of full calibration that a qualified ISF technician will perform (it requires specialized test gear to check and calibrate the grayscale/color temperature), it's still a very helpful and well thought-out product that the average consumer can use without experiencing techno-shock. You should be able to purchase a copy at most Monster dealers and many on-line retailers (but not, ironically, at big box stores like Best Buy or Circuit City).

For those familiar with the disc, the featured clip in the BB demo, which was being looped on the player's repeat mode over and over again, was a shot of a man in a white shirt, holding a pool cue. This particular cut is designed to help you set the contrast (white level) control correctly. You adjust this control until you can make out all the details in the shirt, including the white buttons, and you're there.

The two images in the demo were very different. The one labeled "High Definition"—which, again, it wasn't, since it was coming from a standard def DVD%#151;was reasonably well set up, or at least as well as you can tell in a brightly lit showroom. The "Standard Definition" picture, on the other hand, had the contrast setting cranked so much that the white shirt was just a flat mass of white, with no visible details at all!

When I was able to ask a salesperson what I was watching (this was not easy, since the kiosk was unmanned much of the time), she told me that they were demonstrating their calibration service, with the uncalibrated set on the left (wearing the SD label and sporting those blown-out whites), and the calibrated set on the right (with the contrast control properly adjusted)! I bit my tongue and moved on.

Three days later I decided to go back for another look. The same clip was still running. While I have no way of knowing if it had been on for three days straight during store hours, my gut feeling tells me that it had.

This is alarming for several reasons. The casual passer-by would think that it was a demo of HD vs. SD (after all, that's what all the signs clearly indicated). The (properly adjusted) HD setup sure did look better. The customer would also think that this was a demo of DirecTV. (I wonder just how much DirecTV was paying BB for this display.)

If the customer was curious enough to snare a passing salesperson, he or she would be told that the setup was not demonstrating DirecTV, but instead the benefits of the store's calibration services.

It was, of course, showing no such thing. It was more a demonstration of inept vs. proper setup of the display's user controls. Not only that, if and when the store ever got around to showing a DirecTV demo, the SD side would be skewed by the gross setup of the "SD" set.

ISF is about to begin sponsorship of Best Buy calibrations. According to the ISF, Best Buy's calibrators will be among their best and most experienced employees. The demo I saw (which was running before the official announcement and promotion of this partnership) said more about Best Buy's promotion of the service than the service itself. But such dubious promotional tactics can't be good for the ISF. Hopefully, they will monitor the situation closely.

And such sales tactics can be contagious. On the same day as my second Best Buy visit I stopped at a nearby Circuit City. There I ran across another calibration-promoting demo. This time it was not related in any way to either DirecTV or the ISF. Circuit City has apparently set up its own, independent calibration service. But here again were two Samsung sets, one above the other. They were far closer in quality this time and neither was set up incorrectly in an obvious way. But the calibrated set did look punchier and more vibrant. When I called up the menus, the "calibrated" set was in the Dynamic mode, and the "uncalibrated" set was in Standard!