How to calibrate your TV to get the best picture possible

A few simple tweaks can wring out the absolute best quality from your TV. We'll show you how.

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So you’ve just brought your brand-new TV home, unboxed it, and turned it on. The picture looks great, but you’re not 100 percent pleased with some of the minor digital artifacts you see. The color could use some tweaking, too. And just maybe if you…

Don’t reconsider the salesperson’s pitch to send a technician to your home. That’ll cost you at least a couple hundred bucks. We’ll show you how to calibrate your TV in a fashion that will iron out some of the most common image issues and achieve best picture your new set is capable of. And most of our recommendations won’t cost anything more than your time.

To tweak or not to tweak

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, the vast majority of TVs exit the factory adjusted pretty darn well. This wasn’t always so, but odds are anything modern you buy is 98 percent of the way there. Choose the “home” option at first setup and if you’re like most viewers, you’ll be perfectly happy with the image quality. If that’s the case, spend your time watching a great movie instead of fiddling with the TV’s advanced picture settings.

TV display mode Michael Brown/IDG

The first step in your calibration process is to make sure your TV is set for in-home use and not store demonstration mode.

Sanity check aside, if you’d like to milk those last couple percent of image quality from your TV, we’ll guide you through the process. Just don’t expect your $300 TV to all of a sudden look like it has quantum dots or OLEDs onboard. The technology you bought is the technology you bought, and no amount of twiddling will change that.

The HDR factor

High dynamic range (HDR) is the latest hot feature with TVs, and we’re discussing it up front because it can effect the adjustment process. An HDR TV will generate far more brightness than a standard dynamic range TV. Note that “HDR compatible” doesn’t count. It simply means that the TV understands the info, but it can’t really do anything with it.

HDR standards such as HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision are basically adjustment information embedded in video that tell your TV how to render the material. In our experience, HDR works best with TVs that have at least 700 nits of peak brightness. You’ll get some of the HDR effect (vivid laser shots, more detail in dark areas) with TVs generating less than that, but the overall palette can be quite dark, especially with the older HDR10.

dv vs sdr digitalart 2 Dolby

Dolby Vision HDR versus standard dynamic range

HDR10 adjusts the TV only once, at the beginning, and must consider the entirety of the movie when doing so. We have on occasion brightened an HDR10 title, though this is not possible on all TVs. Some will even lock you out of basic brightness and color adjustments while HDR is in play.

HDR10+ and Dolby Vision send adjustment info continually throughout the material, so anything you adjust according to one scene might mess with the next one or simply be thrown away. But if you feel the need, by all means give it a go. Here are the first steps.

Basic Adjustments

You could also call this step rudimentary calibration, and it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. All you need are a few test images and your eyes. You can also use a light meter, but that’s for later. So grab your remote, head to the picture settings and read on about the various things you might need to adjust. We’ll get to the finer points and true calibration in a bit.

Brightness: This is actually nothing like what you do with a common household dimmer switch—it’s a black level control; i.e., it adjusts the level of brightness (or lack thereof) that’s considered absolute black. You’ll increase the value to raise it, and decrease the value to lower it. Visually, it seems to have much the same effect as a dimmer, but there’s a subtle difference as you’ll see when we discuss contrast.

Before adjusting brightness, you might want to turn off adaptive brightness, which changes the strength of the backlight according to the amount of ambient light the TV senses. If left on, you won’t be able to see the actual results of your tweaks.

THX brightness pattern THX

With this image on the screen, adjust your TV’s brightness control until the large THX logo’s shadow in the center is just barely visible. To get this image on your TV, click to maximize it and then right-click to save it to a flash drive you can plug into your TV.

Backlight: Now this is a brightness control, but it only applies to LCD TVs or other types that use a separate source for luminance. OLEDs don’t have this because the light source is the diode itself—not a light shining through it. Increasing the strength or luminance of a backlight will result in a brighter picture, but it will also increase bleed around the edges of a TV as well as from the LCDs themselves (which are not perfect shutters) and the area surrounding them.

On some TVs, you can wash out color almost entirely by increasing the intensity of the backlight. Don’t do that. Generally speaking, leave the backlight as low as possible for the ambient light conditions while still maintaining suitable bright highlights bright. Opposite to color adjustment, you can lose edges and detail if you turn the backlight down too low, though some TVs won’t let you go that low.

Contrast: Again, this doesn’t really adjust contrast—i.e., the difference between adjoining light and dark areas—it changes the white level, or what hue is considered absolute white. So, brightness equals black level, and contrast equals white level. The difference between the two is your actual contrast level. That’s why it’s a good idea to revisit brightness after you adjust contrast, and vice versa.

Lowering the contrast, along with the brightness can help mask processing issues such as shimmer and moiré, and raising it can help bring out detail in darker areas. How much it will help will depend on your TV. THX

Color: This TV term actually sits closer to its mundane meaning, but refers to the intensity of color, or in industry-speak—saturation. It’s not the hue or RGB balance—those are in the fine settings we’ll cover later. Turn this setting up too high, and the colors overwhelm the details. Set it too low, and voila! You have a black-and-white TV, and a great way to to de-colorize old movies that have been “modernized.”

Saturation settings are easily done by eyeball. When you notice detail declining, you have just more than enough color. We recommend using an episode of The Simpsons for testing. In practical terms, when Bart Simpson’s skin color starts obscuring his outline, you’ve gone too far. Practically speaking, your adjustments should be very minute.

j791 colr IDG

These are readings from our UPRTek MK350N color meter showing skew in a white LED backlit TV.

You will also find color space settings, which can generally be left on automatic. But if you do have them and want to manually set your color depth, you’re fine with Rec.709 for most material; but with 4K HDR, you’ll want Rec.2020 if it’s available.

Tint: On some older sets, this might be called Hue. Originally designed to correct phase errors in communications between TV tuners and broadcasts, it modifies the proportion of red or green in each non-black color. The odds of your having to adjust this these days are negligible, but if your favorite star’s face is looking a little green around the gills, use the tint setting as the quick stomach remedy. If it doesn’t deliver a satisfactory result, you might need to check the advanced RGB balance settings—or buy a new TV.

pure rgbwb IDG

You can use this image featuring pure RGB black, white, red, green, and blue to gauge the accuracy of your TV’s color. If you don’t have a meter, look for green that looks lime and red that looks orange. If you can dial these out, fine. But with some TVs, it isn’t possible due to the backlighting being used.

Sharpness: This is the level of perceived detail and delineation of edges that you’ll see in an image. These days it basically adjusts the anti-aliasing algorithm used by the TV’s image processor. Too much and you’ll see jagged, aliased edges; too little and detail gets muddy. This is all according to taste, but TVs generally ship adjusted to “mild cheddar;” that is, a level that most everyone will find acceptable.

Some TVs also reduce sharpness to mask issues such as moire, shimmer, flicker, etc. that become more and more difficult to avoid as technologies that demand greater brightness such as HDR come into play. Handling those extra bright highlights perfectly when in motion is the video processing equivalent of cold fusion—it ain’t been done yet.

Motion: This is an adjustment that, as with sharpness, involves a trade-off. In this case, however, it’s between reducing artifacts such as judder (sudden jumps) and stutter in action sequences and pans, and retaining detail. If you want to see how much detail you’re losing, pause in the middle of a fast action sequence and study the edges of objects.

The difference from this setting can be dramatic—if your TV has the chops. Most TVs with a 60Hz hardware refresh rate suffer at least some occasional judder (jumpiness) or jerkiness, while 120Hz models rarely do. The extra cycles enable the frame-rate conversion porocess (59.97fps to 60fps and son) to insert black frames to be inserted, as well as other tricks to smooth the action.

TVs with higher hardware refresh rates also tend to employ better CPUs. You can ignore the rest of the phrases and numbers vendors throw at you—it’s just their way of saying they employ tricks such as flickering the backlight to ameliorate motion issues. Adjust to taste.

We like smooth except where it produces a “shot to video” effect, which can happen on cheaper TVs. Hollywood feels differently and you may find a “film mode” on newer models, which is supposed to come closer to the original “vision” of those who produced the material.

Image size: Also known as Aspect Ratio. Most modern content features a 16:9 aspect ratio. Nearly all TVs in the flat-panel era have the same 16:9 ratio and the two marry perfectly. A lot of older movies and some TV broadcasts, on the other hand, use narrower aspect ratios and should be displayed pillar-boxed; i.e, with vertical black bars on the left and right. True 4K or 4096 x 2160 (17.1:9) would be slightly letter-boxed, or with small black borders at the top and bottom of the display—just like high-resolution content displayed on a display with a 4:3 aspect ratio.

If everyone looks unnaturally thin or thick, or images appear truncated, you have the wrong setting. The settings you want are called 16:9 or Wide for HD (720p), FHD (1080p), or UHD (2160p) content, and 4:3/Standard for broadcast or older movies. A modern TV should correctly sense the signal and automatically adjust the way it’s displayed, unless you override it. That said, we’ve seen sensing inaccuracies with material streamed via DLNA or other sources on occasion.

Fine adjustment

Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, or what videophiles consider calibration. If you look around in your TV’s advanced settings, you’ll probably run across some complicated-looking stuff: color temperature, gain, and offset for red, green, and blue; white balance; and gamma. You can try to eyeball these settings, but as the differences can be so fine, you’d probably be better off with a hardware assist, which we’ll discuss next.

You can mess your picture up in a hurry with these fine settings, but they’re also the path to the last little bit of image accuracy. We can’t take you through the advanced settings of every of TV, but we can tell you about the most common settings and what they do. Note that you may see some of the same adjustments in the advanced settings as you do in the basic settings. These generally serve as a baseline for the common controls.

vizio calbration settings1 Vizio

A section under Advanced settings such as this one from an uber-bright Vizio P-Series TV is what you’re looking for when it comes to tweaking the finer points of your image.

Temperature: Color temperature settings affect the intensity of color across the spectrum in what’s basically a curve. They generally offer only a few choices that conform to industry standards. In effect, these run from cool (accentuating the blue end of the spectrum) to warm (the red end). Try the various temperatures before you mess around with the fine settings described below. We recommend you stick with the default unless you’re trying to match the output of another device or medium. About 5800K closely mimics sunlight.

Many TVs offer modes, such as sports, computer, gaming, movie, and so on that involve color temperature changes. These might be a better option if you like keeping things simple.

White balance: This goes hand in hand with the RGB settings below, because it is the amount of red, green, and blue used to create pure white. With technology capable of producing pure red, green, and blue this would be easy. Quantum dots and OLEDs come close, but no other technology really does, so this will generally be an approximation, and you’ll need to decide if you want a warm or a cool white.

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