You can get a much better picture out of yourTVby calibrating it.Professional calibrationis a time-consuming and expensive process that requires special equipment and training, but you can also tweak your TV to look better by spending only $30 to $40 on a test disc and taking half an hour to play with some settings.
I'm an ISF-certified TV calibrator, and these instructions will walk you through a very basic calibration process based onImaging Science Foundation(Opens in a new window)methods and require no experience on your part. All you have to do is order aSpears & Munsil Benchmark and Calibration Disc(Opens in a new window). The current version of the disc is an Ultra HD Blu-ray, so you'll need a UHD Blu-ray player (or a PlayStation 5, Xbox One, or Xbox Series X) to view it. However, you can still find the older Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark 2nd Edition(Opens in a new window) disc, which runs on a standard Blu-ray player. It works just as well for adjusting color and contrast—it just uses 1080p content instead of 4K.
The Spears & Munsil disc is a very useful tool for anyone looking to calibrate their TV or just understand more about how video signals work, and is recommended by ISF founder and president Joel Silver. It comes with extensive instructions both on the disc and in the included booklet, but many of them are unnecessary and can be simply disregarded unless you're a professional and familiar with TV calibration to begin with.
Now, before getting started, I will note that the majority of TVs I've tested over the past two years offer excellent standard dynamic range (SDR) color accuracy out of the box, many times being spot-on with broadcast standards when using the proper picture preset. They also tend to be quite accurate when displaying a high dynamic range (HDR) signal, and in both cases show very good contrast performance as well.
By following our guide to the best picture settings for your TV, you can get a viewing experience that's about as close to ideal as a given panel can get without going through a more exacting calibration process.
However, if you're interested in how TV calibration works, or you want to tweak your picture on a more granular level, read on.
How PCMag Tests TVs
1.Find the Best Picture Mode
You'll get the best results by starting in the correct picture mode. This is the general mode that dictates many of your television's individual picture settings, and often enables some of the higher-level options for making calibration adjustments.
Ideally, your television will have an ISF picture mode, which means it provides a complete suite of settings to perform a full calibration (you won't need to touch most of them; that's for professionals). Otherwise, look for any Cinema or Theater mode and start from there. If those aren't available, look for Custom. Stay away from any Vivid, Game, or Sports modes.
2. Use the Warmest Color Temperature Setting
Once you find a mode that seems right, look for the Color Temperature setting and make sure it's set to Warm. This works with the picture mode to produce, for most modern TVs, fairly accurate colors across the board. You can get pinpoint precision for color levels with a full white balance/RGBCMY calibration, but that requires a calibration professional with special equipment. For most consumers, the warmest color temperature preset will do the job.
3. Turn Off Unnecessary Picture Features
Your TV probably comes with several options designed to let it tweak the picture settings on the fly to ideally suit whatever you're looking at. They have their place, but they're the bane of calibration. You need to make sure the test patterns you're looking at are displayed with fixed settings and that the TV isn't adjusting them while you're working.
In your TV's picture settings menu, look for any submenu that sounds like Advanced Picture, Expert Picture, or Picture Options. Disable any feature with the words Adaptive, Dynamic, Motion, Processing, or Smoothing. While you're there, make sure Overscan is turned off, if it's an option (this will help in the next step).
Incidentally, disabling any motion-enhancing features will reduce that jarring soap opera effect most people dislike. Motion enhancements have their place, often in live sports or video games, but most movies and TV shows are much more pleasant to watch with them turned off.
Ourguide to refresh ratesoffers a deeper explanation of what these modes do and whether it matters that your TV is 60, 120, or 240Hz.
4. Check Picture Geometry
No matter how you adjust other settings, your TV will look best if it's set to display whatever you're watching in the right aspect ratio. This can be a problem for cable boxes if you're flipping between HD and SD channels, but otherwise you should be able to set everything up to display pictures at their native resolution. Look for a button on your remote or a setting in your Picture menu called Aspect Ratio, Picture Size, or Zoom. Make sure it's set to Normal or Just Scan. Don't select anything called Wide, Zoom, 3:4, or 16:9.
You can check that the picture geometry is correct with the Spears & Munsil disc. Under Advanced Video, select Setup and then Framing. A test pattern will appear that displays the boundaries of various resolutions. If you're using the standard Blu-ray disc, the white arrows pointing at the 1920 x 1080 lines will touch the edge of the screen (this will apply if you're using a 4K TV too; your player will upscale the picture). If you're using the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, the arrows pointing at the 3840 x 2160 lines will touch the edge of the screen.
5. Set Contrast
This is where the Spears & Munsil disc becomes really useful. You're going to adjust the Brightness and Contrast settings using the PLUGE test charts on the disc. In the main menu of the disc, select Video Calibration and then Contrast. Adjust the Contrast setting on your television until the numbered bars below 238 are distinct shades of gray, and the numbered bars above 238 are white. The gray boxes surrounding the ten colored squares on the top and bottom of the screen should be visible, and the gradient in the middle should ramp down smoothly from a white band in the center to black on the sides.
6. Set Brightness
It sounds counterintuitive, but the Brightness setting of your TV actually adjusts black level. Press right on your remote to go to the Brightness test pattern. Crank up the Brightness setting of your TV until all four gray bars in the middle are visible, then slowly turn the Brightness down until just the two right bars are visible and the two left bars have disappeared into the background.
7. Note Your Settings
If you followed these instructions, your TV should now be calibrated as well as it can be without professional equipment. Ignore the instructions for tweaking color or sharpness in the Video Calibration menu; the vast majority of TVs sold in the last few years have sorted out those settings as defaults that work pretty well, and trying to change them can lead to picture errors.
You can check your results by going into the Demonstration Materials menu and looking at some of the video clips. They should look full of detail in both light and shadow, with fine textures appearing distinct. Colors should look natural, and not garish or tinted blue or pink.
Write down the Picture setting, Color Temperature setting, and any features you disabled, along with the Brightness and Contrast levels. If you make changes in the future, you can fix any problems that arise with the picture by resetting the TV to default settings and using your notes.
Now that your TV is perfectly calibrated, you want to make sure that you're sending it the highest-quality signal possible. Check out our guide on HDMI cables to understand what the different types mean, what different brands are available, and how much you should be spending to get the best performance.
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