Is a calibrated picture a “better” picture?

February 19th, 2010

I often get asked a number of questions that all revolve around whether calibrating a television provides any real benefit to the viewer. They tend to be questions like this:

  • Is calibrating my TV worth it?
  • What exactly does it mean to “calibrate” a TV?
  • How will the picture be better if I calibrate my TV?
  • Why should I calibrate my TV?
  • Does calibrating a TV really do anything?

Ultimately it comes down to: will my TV look “better” after it’s calibrated, and is the amount of “better” worth the cost?

It is perfectly reasonable to ask these questions. After all, the person asking the question(s) usually just spent a boatload of money on a new TV, and is now wondering if they need to shell out a few hundred more for a calibration.

There are two major areas of misunderstanding that I try to correct as I answer any one of these questions:

Misunderstanding #1:

“Better” is absolute

People assume that because they’re spending money on a calibration, that the picture will be “better” afterward. There is a significant problem with this assumption: “better” is very subjective. What one person considers better, another may consider the same, or worse, or just different.

What a person considers “better” can be tricked and manipulated. Most unsuspecting viewers will always consider a brighter picture “better”, even if it can be shown to be substantially worse in picture quality. TV manufacturers know this, and make their TVs as bright as possible so you’ll buy theirs. Does this make the picture “better?” No. It’s completely unrelated. Other enhancements added to TVs, such as sharpness, dynamic contrast, enhanced color, and so on all fall into the category of manipulating you into thinking the picture is “better.” None of the manipulations used to make you think the picture looks better actually have anything to do with improving the quality of the picture. In fact, most of them add distortion and inaccuracies to the picture.

“Better” can be defined in many different ways. For example, is a brighter picture “better” than a not-so-bright one? Is a picture with richer color than another “better”, even if those colors are no longer realistic? “Better” is a completely subjective evaluation.

Misunderstanding #2:

Calibration is about making the picture “better”

Thinking a calibration will just make the picture “better” misses the point of calibration. Calibration is not about making the picture “better”, unless you define “better” to mean “calibrated.”  If someone defines “better” to mean “oversaturated color” (whether consciously or subconsciously), then he will most likely consider a calibrated picture to be worse, at least at first. He might consider the picture to be “dim” at first, simply because he’s used to an image that is too bright. Or, he might miss the edge enhancement, or any number of things, simply because he is accustomed to seeing an inaccurate picture.

Depending on what modes a viewer had been using on their TV prior to a calibration, he may see either a large difference or a small difference in the picture after calibration. If all he had been using was the “out-of-the-box” settings of their TV, he will see a significant difference in the picture after calibration. If he has played with the settings and used some of the other picture modes, such as “Cinema” or “Movie”, he may see only a small difference in the calibrated picture. In nearly all cases, however, factory modes, no matter what they are, still have inaccuracies designed to make the viewer think the picture looks “better” than a competitor’s.

So, what IS calibration about?

Calibration is about getting the TV to reproduce the original image as accurately as possible. Then, the viewer sees exactly what the director intended. This means that the color is realistic, that the picture is as bright as it needs to be, and that you can see every detail of the picture without distortion or artifacts. Distortion and artifacts are simply things in the picture that should not be there, or that are displayed incorrectly. It could be a problem with the color, an element added or removed, or incorrectly placed.

The elements that are optimized in a calibration include: the “blackness” of black, the brightness of white, the color of white, accurate colors, colors that are correctly saturated, and something called “gamma” (which is beyond the scope of this post to explain).

Is calibration worth it?

You have to decide for yourself if calibration is worth it. If you care even a little bit about seeing the picture the way the director intended, then you should think about a calibration.

If you don’t know much about picture quality and don’t want to spend much money, then calibrate yourself using a calibration DVD or call me out to do a basic calibration, which is only $50. This gets you in the ballpark, and is a significant improvement over factory settings.

If you’ve invested a lot in your TV, or if you’re passionate about what you watch and want to experience it the way the director intended, then you should definitely consider a full calibration. You owe it to yourself and those who watch with you. Just consider it part of the purchase price of your TV.

In my opinion, you’ll not only find it to be worth it, but once you’re accustomed to watching a calibrated picture, you’ll never go back. You’ll be telling all your friends just how much “better” your picture is!

For more in-depth, technical discussion about what calibration is about, please see this thread on AVS Forum.