How To Calibrate Your HDTV

You've already seen our instructional guides for calibrating computer monitors. In today's story, we help get you started dialing your HDTV as well. From beginner to expert, we have you covered with a handful of different approaches.

Flip through any of our display reviews and you’ll quickly learn that we are firm proponents of calibration. Even though modern screens are more accurate out of the box than ever, you still need to take that final step to get maximum performance out of your new monitor.

The same is true for HDTVs. It's probable that you spent a good deal more cash on the 50- or 60-inch panel in your living room than your desktop monitor. In fact, it’s quite easy to drop eight to ten times more money for a good television. So why would you accept an out-of-box configuration as its best performance mode?

The truth is that even the best TVs benefit from an instrumented calibration. Consider the picture below.

On the left is what you’ll see from a typical HDTV’s stock picture mode. The flesh tones have just a hint of blue. The detail in Gavin’s arm is a little flat. And the darkest areas are more of a gray than true black. Millions of people watch their televisions like this every day and are satisfied. Why? Because they don't know any better, and haven't unlocked the full potential of their other displays to experience the difference.

On the right is the same image after calibration. Clearly, there are subtle changes that make the picture look more natural with greater detail and maximum dynamic range. The best part about taking this step is that you’ll find yourself less fatigued after long viewing sessions. Within a week or so, all other TVs will just look wrong.

We like to compare display calibration to piano tuning. Is a piano tuned at the factory? Of course it is. But by the time it reaches your studio, it’ll need professional attention to realize its full potential. Your HDTV is no different. Buy it, set it up, and then dial it in to maximize your investment. And unlike a piano, you won’t need to re-calibrate every few months!

If you’ve read our monitor reviews or any of our previous calibration features, then you have a good understanding of what we’re talking about. HDTVs have a few features not found in computer monitors and calibration procedures differ slightly. We’ll highlight those differences as we go.

For those who haven’t seen our previous articles, here are links for your convenience.

Display Calibration 101: Step-By-Step With Datacolor's Spyder4Elite

Display Calibration 201: The Science Behind Tuning Your Monitor

Do It Like Tom's: Calibrating Your Monitor With CalMAN RGB

In the pages that follow, you'll find a step-by-step guide using Datacolor’s popular SpyderHD package. It’s a broad-spectrum product that works equally well for monitor and HDTV calibration. Everything you need is included in a single $349 bundle. There are tools for photography as well, but we’ll stick to its application as an HDTV calibration solution.

First, though, we’ll give you a little primer with a glossary of items from a typical HDTV menu and a rundown of the SMPTE standards used in television and film production.

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19 comments
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  • youcanDUit
    aww... i thought i was going to be able to calibrate with this. i am sad now.
  • Paul NZ
    Nothing to calibrate here. Connect it it works
  • vmem
    Thanks for the detailed and great write up. it is inspiriting as always

    Though honestly, for the "average" consumer, I find it hard to justify spending $350 to calibrate a $500 or so monitor set up and maybe a $800-1200 TV. I feel this is the type of thing you have to really get into (and end up doing it for free for your friends and family)
  • rdc85
    Well I'm using the pic for calibrating the monitor right now :D...

    looks like my brightness and contrast slights off
  • crisan_tiberiu
    the question is: why arent the producers calibrate the TVs right out of the factory? why? is it so hard to make a preset for the TVs? 99% of the TVs that come out of a factory will have the same "crappy" default settings. And sorry, i wont spend 350$ to calibrate my TV ^^ no way
  • shahrooz
    well the first time I saw a calibrate your something's screen article was a year ago. Back then I found out "one does not simply calibrate the screen of something"
  • Onlyrgu
    I prefer AVS HD 709 - Blu-ray & MP4 Calibration
    And its free
  • The_Icon
    This is something I have been wanting for a long time now. Is there any good free tool to calibrate both the HDTV and my monitor? The TV is connected to my PC as well.
  • vmem
    427362 said:
    the question is: why arent the producers calibrate the TVs right out of the factory? why? is it so hard to make a preset for the TVs? 99% of the TVs that come out of a factory will have the same "crappy" default settings. And sorry, i wont spend 350$ to calibrate my TV ^^ no way


    They do calibrate the TVs (any manufacturer worth their salt anyway). the problem is two fold: first all TVs / monitors are relatively low margin because the market is highly competitive. unless you're paying a premium for "professional" monitors such as the Dell ultrasharp series, most panels will be calibrated the 'easy' way to some factory pre-set that is considered "good enough".

    the second thing is that everyone's lighting conditions are different. maybe your room is brighter than mine and you like having the traditional type of bulbs that have a yellow / orange hue and I use white light bulbs. these things have a huge impact on how your TV looks, so at the end of the day the consumer will always need to do some calibration if you want perfect color reproduction.
  • bic
    Go get the free software on avsforum.com.
  • RedJaron
    686747 said:
    Though honestly, for the "average" consumer, I find it hard to justify spending $350 to calibrate a $500 or so monitor set up and maybe a $800-1200 TV. I feel this is the type of thing you have to really get into (and end up doing it for free for your friends and family)

    Agreed. Writing a DIY that can be done for under $50 would be very appreciated. $350 is more than I paid for my 42" screen years ago. I know it wasn't the top-end model, but I'm willing to bet most people have TVs under $800 and aren't willing to spend $100s more to calibrate the screen.
  • emccalment
    Just like everyone else I open this article thinking, "This sounds great! I'll definitely follow this!" Then I see $350 and stop reading right there. It's officially a waste of my time. Why are people satisfied with the discoloration? Because $350 isn't a joke. There have been mention of some free products above. Do a write up on one of those and I'm there.
  • stephenriddle
    How does the spears & munsil disc compare to others like the Disney WOW calibration disc
  • Evolution2001
    I find that most HDTVs / Projectors have the reds oversaturated. For example, watching an awards show with a red carpet or someone wearing all red, the over-saturation causes it to 'glow' and wash out all contrast so it looks like a solid mass of red blob with a human head moving on the screen. And for the US people reading this, October in the NFL is especially harsh with all that electro-pink on the screen.
  • ceberle
    80832 said:
    How does the spears & munsil disc compare to others like the Disney WOW calibration disc


    Spears & Munsil has a lot more patterns available than the Disney disc plus better instructions in my opinion. That being said, you can achieve similar results with the Disney disc so if you already have it, I'd suggest giving it a try before buying S&M. If you're happy with the way your TV looks afterward, you just saved $30!

    -Christian-
  • brenro
    350 bucks and I still can't calibrate gamma or gray scale?
  • 10tacle
    I've been using the Datacolor Spyder4Elite ($249US) for a couple of years now. Best money I've ever spent. Yes, it is expensive, but it has calibrated my three desktop PC's monitors (two gaming rigs, one video/photography rig), three HDTVs, and two laptops. To me it was worth spending that much rather than wasting my time going out on the web and finding color calibration settings that others find "optimal" that I may not.

    With that said, do not expect your games to look a whole lot better on your PC monitors after being calibrated by one of these. These tools are more for photography and video color accuracy more than anything else.
  • wiyosaya
    1768523 said:
    I prefer AVS HD 709 - Blu-ray & MP4 Calibration And its free

    Thanks - I will have to check this out.
    730274 said:
    Just like everyone else I open this article thinking, "This sounds great! I'll definitely follow this!" Then I see $350 and stop reading right there. It's officially a waste of my time. Why are people satisfied with the discoloration? Because $350 isn't a joke. There have been mention of some free products above. Do a write up on one of those and I'm there.

    Amen!
    202972 said:
    With that said, do not expect your games to look a whole lot better on your PC monitors after being calibrated by one of these. These tools are more for photography and video color accuracy more than anything else.

    For complete accuracy, the display has to be calibrated to the source. Where anyone, as a calibrator of devices, will gain the most is that if you have a source of some sort and calibrate it to the same reference to which your display is calibrated, then the ultimate in benefits is possible. In other words, take a picture of a standardized reference, show that picture on your display, then calibrate the display so that the picture of the standardized reference looks exactly like the standardized reference itself, then repeat for every source, e.g., scanner, still camera, video camera, etc, and pray your display has enough memory slots for those calibrated settings because you will need to switch to the matching setting when changing from one calibrated source to another.

    As I understand it, the reality is that no two video sources, such as different BR discs, one TV network or another, are calibrated to the same reference. Thus, Joe Kane's interpretation of NTSC - "Never Twice the Same Color."

    For viewing video sources over which one has no control, it is still worth calibrating to some reference because that will get rid of the "eye-catching" settings to which most manufacturers set their displays so that the average consumer will go "wow" when viewing the display in a showroom and thus, at least as the manufacturer hopes, buy the display.
  • AntoniusVII
    I have used the Spears & Munsil calibration disk, it is $30 well spent. I highly recommend it.