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Calibrating Your TV

Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."

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Quick question: Is your TV still using the factory picture settings from when you took it out of the box? If so, here’s some great news: You can make the picture look significantly better and it won’t cost you a cent — just a few minutes of your time.

Don’t fear the menu

If you’re nervous about using your TV’s picture controls, don’t be. There’s no way you can hurt the TV by adjusting the basic settings. A good place to start is by taking advantage of the TV’s preset picture modes like “Movie,” “Sports,” “Game,” etc. As an example, you might choose the “Movie” preset for your Blu-ray player. Beyond that, you can fine-tune the basic settings for Brightness, Contrast, Color, and Sharpness. And if you feel like you’ve gotten in over your head, most TVs let you quickly revert to the original factory default settings.

The next step: A calibration disc

By using the picture controls mentioned above you can usually get a picture that is more pleasing to your eye. But if your goal is a more accurate picture, consider picking up a calibration disc, either DVD or Blu-ray. These discs include a series of test patterns with step-by-step instructions on how to use them. The best one we’ve tried is the Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray.


This control is more officially known as “black level.” The Brightness control changes the color and brightness of black within the picture.

Often labeled “Picture,” it is more accurately known as “white level.” This setting controls the set’s overall light level.

Usually labeled “Color” or “Saturation,” the color level is probably the most subjective picture adjustment. Still, you want to avoid a picture where everyone looks sunburned, or colors look exaggerated or cartoonish.

Sharpness could more accurately be called “artificial edge enhance­ment,” and generally only improves the look of lower-quality signals like standard-definition broadcast, cable, and satellite TV programs.

Our Recommendations
BrightnessWith most TVs, the “Movie” mode is ideal for watching movies in a room with low lighting. You can further reduce the Brightness if you want black areas of the picture to look blacker.Afternoon ball games usually mean more room light, so you may want to increase the Brightness a bit to compensate. A little added brightness helps uniform colors pop.You want to make sure the Brightness is set high enough to see objects in darker games. You don’t want to get killed by an enemy or miss an important item that you just didn’t see.
ContrastWhen Contrast is set correctly, the edges of bright white objects onscreen are crisp and not blurred. And in very dark areas, you should still be able to pick out details if they are there.As with brightness, bumping the Contrast up a bit can add to the visual energy of sporting events.Boosting the contrast a bit can really punch up game environments. You’ll get that sort of boost from picture presets labeled “Game” or “Vivid” or “Dynamic.”
ColorIf your TV makes everyone look sunburned, or colors look amped-up or cartoonish, try tweaking the color control. Skin tones are the best test material.If the grass doesn’t look green enough for you, you can tweak the color control a bit, but keep an eye on the players’ faces to keep skin tones in the ballpark.It really just comes down to personal taste here. “Game” mode will typically boost color a bit.
SharpnessWhen you’re watching Blu-ray or other high-def material, Sharpness can be set at or near zero. Too much sharpness can cause halos and other distortions around the edges of images.You may want a little sharpness to make uniform lettering and onscreen
text look crisp, but too much sharpness
can make players look more like cardboard cut-outs than real people.
Keep the sharpness set low or at zero to reduce jagged edges (“jaggies”) on objects and characters.
Additional TipsIf your LCD TV has a refresh rate of 120Hz or higher, you may notice that movies look more like video than film. To avoid this “soap opera effect” try adjusting the TV’s motion settings. High refresh rates and motion control settings can help fast-action scenes look smoother and clearer. Your TV’s refresh rate is fixed, but you can adjust the amount of motion “smoothing.”Although you can’t adjust a TV’s refresh rate — it is what it is — you can usually adjust motion “smoothing.” Reducing this motion control may help the edges of objects look cleaner.

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