Lab Notes: HDTV Hassles

We've been doing a ton of TV testing to gear up for the holiday shopping season, and recently we’ve noticed that many of the HDTVs we receive include an optional 10-point IRE white balance calibration option instead of the usual vanilla white balance setting. This trend is proving to be a huge headache for our analysts (who use specialized colorimeters to calibrate each test unit,) but it's also a big (and potentially disastrous) step up for amateur A/V enthusiasts accustomed to calibrating their display’s white balance from only one or two points on the spectrum.

What is white balance calibration, and why should I care?

Many consumers are unfamiliar or just plain uninterested in advanced TV tweaking and buy an HDTV with the assumption that factory-default settings are optimized for watching HD movies or TV. Sadly, that's often not the case; we evaluate TVs under real-world conditions here in the PCWorld Lab, and manufacturers are notorious for calibrating display settings to attract the eye across crowded store showrooms by emphasizing piercingly bright blues and reds at the expense of color integrity. These oversaturated displays look great from a distance and are perfectly serviceable for a typical channel flipper, but serious home theater enthusiasts may be disappointed at how distorted and fuzzy their favorite films look on an improperly calibrated HDTV.

Another common misassumption is that the same enthusiasts can tune for proper greyscale and color by fiddling with basic display settings like contrast, color and hue. While customizing these settings can certainly improve your TV’s performance, these controls have little practical effect on your display's white balance. In order to properly calibrate your TV’s white balance, you need to optimize the red, green and blue scales at each level of brightness along the white/black spectrum. The advent of the 10-point IRE scale theoretically affords you this luxury, but the human eye is a notoriously faulty instrument for accurately measuring light and color; without a spectroradiometer to measure the spectra of a display, you’ll probably do more harm than good fiddling with the new 10-point scale controls.

How can I safely calibrate my new HDTV using the 10-point IRE scale?

Testing headaches aside, we welcome the spread of advanced white balance calibration settings. The 10-point IRE scale is a nice feature if you're willing to put in the time to learn it, but including this level of gratuitous customization on a consumer-grade TV is like installing bucket seats and paddle shifters on a Honda Civic. To avoid costly mistakes when customizing your own display, take a look at our HDTV tuning guide and check out the Home Theater forum for tips on how to properly calibrate your new HDTV. If you’re willing to drop a little extra cash, $30 will get you an HDTV Calibration DVD that does a respectable job of guiding you through the steps of optimizing your display for cinema settings. Movies and television are both shot at 6500K color temperature, so optimizing your HDTV to match ensures you’ll see exactly what the director intended.

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