How To Calibrate Your HDTV

How To Calibrate Your HDTV

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.

Christian Eberle
Contributing Editor

Christian Eberle is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He's a veteran reviewer of A/V equipment, specializing in monitors. Christian began his obsession with tech when he built his first PC in 1991, a 286 running DOS 3.0 at a blazing 12MHz. In 2006, he undertook training from the Imaging Science Foundation in video calibration and testing and thus started a passion for precise imaging that persists to this day. He is also a professional musician with a degree from the New England Conservatory as a classical bassoonist which he used to good effect as a performer with the West Point Army Band from 1987 to 2013. He enjoys watching movies and listening to high-end audio in his custom-built home theater and can be seen riding trails near his home on a race-ready ICE VTX recumbent trike. Christian enjoys the endless summer in Florida where he lives with his wife and Chihuahua and plays with orchestras around the state.

  • 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
    14324342 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