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Investing in Yourself

Posted Tue Aug 5, 2008, 4:50 PM ET

I got home from my THX adventure on Saturday, after three long days of hard-core tech training in a darkened room while the most perfect weather I can imagine beckoned just beyond the walls. But it was worth it—although I already knew most of the material, I did learn a number of useful things, and I got to observe the course itself to see what aspiring calibrators can expect if they take it.

From what I saw, they can expect a good grounding in the art and science of video calibration. The two instructors—Gregg Loewen and Michael Chen, both calibrators of long experience—take a tag-team approach, and class time alternates between PowerPoint presentations (I loved Michael's horror stories from the field) and hands-on lab work.

And there's a lot of lab work—students must complete at least two full calibrations during the class using the measurement tools and displays provided. A variety of tools and displays—including plasma and LCD flat panels as well as front projectors and even a DLP RPTV—let students become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of different technologies. They must also submit reports on eight more calibrations before they can be certified. Oh yeah, there's also an online, open-book, multiple-choice test with 99 questions that must be completed within three weeks of finishing the class. (BTW, the test includes a number of poorly and confusingly worded questions and needs a good copy edit.)

The course is very fast-paced and dense with technical information—for the inexperienced, I'm sure it's like drinking from a fire hose. In this regard, I wish the class was four days long instead of three. On the plus side, the instructors often repeat basic questions, asking students to answer verbally, which reinforces mental retention.

So how much does the training cost? $1995, which ain't cheap, to be sure. And before you can take the video-calibration course, you must have completed the one-day Tech 1 class, which will set you back another $500; alternatively, you can test out of that requirement if you have no interest in audio. But the amount of imparted information is prodigious, making the cost worthwhile in my book.

Once you are certified, you can offer your clients a kit that includes a cool Lucite plaque, dated certificate, letter from THX, and demo DVD. Each kit costs the calibrator $100, though the first 10 are included in the course fee. To receive a kit, you must also send a calibration report to THX so the results can be verified. $100 strikes me as a bit high, but with the materials and time it takes someone to read your report and validate the results, I suppose it's not entirely out of line.

The kit is important for several reasons. First, clients love getting free stuff, which endears you to them and makes it more likely they will call you again and recommend you to their friends. And the demo disc is particularly useful for remote troubleshooting. If a client calls and complains that the picture doesn't look right, you can have them play the demo disc—if that looks right, the problem is not with your calibration. (My favorite horror story from Michael involves a client who complained that his picture was green. After driving 75 miles, Michael discovered that the display was fine—the client had been watching The Matrix!)

Of course, you can always add that $100 to the fee you charge, though I wouldn't recommend it at first. As a new calibrator, you're better off charging less than the going rate until you have some experience under your belt. So what is the going rate? According to Gregg and Michael, between $450 and $550, depending on the type of display.

Even if you don't offer the kit to your clients, you still get to promote yourself as a THX-certified calibrator. You also have access to various online resources, such as service-menu codes and forums for calibrators to share info and ask questions.

Unfortunately, the course and kit fees are not the end of your up-front costs. You must also buy the equipment necessary to perform video calibrations. The primary tools include a signal generator, colorimeter or spectroradiometer, and software for your laptop that records the measurements and generates reports. For professional-level products, this requires an investment of $4000 to $20,000.

As Gregg points out, the best calibrators are enthusiasts themselves. If you're an enthusiast who has thought about making a career of video calibration, and you have the financial wherewithal to afford the training and equipment, the THX video-tech course is an excellent place to start.

If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to scott.wilkinson@sourceinterlink.com.

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Reader Comments 

Posted Thu Aug 7, 2008, 5:45 PM — By Gregor Samsa

"...and even a DLP RPTV..." What, no cave paintings? Zoopraxiscope images? Just because the public appears to prioritize form factor over image quality and value is no reason you should fall in to the same trap. DarkChip 4 has raised DLP to a new level, but you wouldn't know it if you counted on this site for information. Speaking of the Zoopraxiscope, I just learned this fun fact: In 1874, still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muybridge discovered that his wife had a lover, a Major Harry Larkyns. On October 17, 1874, he sought out Larkyns; said, "Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife"; he then killed the Major with a gunshot. He was put on trial for murder, but was acquitted as a "justifiable homicide."

Posted Sat Aug 9, 2008, 5:50 AM — By Ed

Mate and I had this argument over video calibration. His opinion that all TVs (plasma in our discussion) and devices (DVD player, Set top box etc)are set to a Defined video standard for sending and/or displaying video signals, and that manufacturers default settings always give the best picture. I have used Digital video Essentials to setup my plasma and it has definetely improved. Or is it purely my imagination! His opinion is that I wasted my money and that home TV calibration on new TVs today is just a gimmick to make money by some companies. And the question is then; Are the default settings of a TV accurate enough in color/contrast/brightness reproduction that there is no need for calibration? And if home calibration does improve the picture, then are we not saying that the tv left the factory essentially out of specs. Or is calibration only applicable to cheap plasma TVs?

Posted Sat Aug 9, 2008, 12:30 PM — By David Vaughn

Ed,

TV's leave the factory in the "default" mode in order to look good on a highly lit sales floor. This mode is what we call "torch" mode with the brightness and contrast pumped up to retna burning levels in order to stand out from the other TV's on display. This may get the TV noticed in this environment, but it won't give you the best viewing experience.

I have calibrated many displays for friends and family and the initially think the picture looks "dull." I explain to them to wait a few days as their eyes adjust to the proper picture and in every case they comment how much better it looks and how the picture has more depth and clarity versus the "default" mode.

In your argument with your friend, you were correct...virtually every display needs calibration, although some, ie. Pioneer Elite Kuro's, tend to have better out-of-the-box pictures than most other sets.

Just my $.02.

David

Posted Sat Aug 9, 2008, 7:31 PM — By Scott Wilkinson

David is correct; most TVs leave the factory adjusted to stand out on a retail showroom floor, which far from the best they can look in your home. As we learned in the THX course, however, if you're looking at a wall of TVs that are "out of the box" (i.e., way too bright and too blue), and there's one that is optimally adjusted, that one TV will seem to be too dim and reddish by comparison. The brain assumes that all the blue pictures are "correct," which means the properly adjusted one must be "incorrect." Thus, no manufacturer can afford to ship sets that are optimally adjusted, because they will look "wrong" on the showroom floor.

The vast majority of TVs, bargain brands and top-tier models alike, benefit greatly from a professional calibration. At the very least, use a setup disc like Digital Video Essentials to optimize the basic picture controls. Once you get used to the more-accurate picture, you'll be glad you did.

Posted Sat Aug 9, 2008, 7:49 PM — By Scott Wilkinson

Gregor, perhaps I was a bit too flippant with my reference to a DLP rear-pro. The best of these sets do produce a beautiful image, and you can get much larger screen sizes for much less money than any flat panel.

On the other hand, RPTVs take up much more space than flat panels, and their market share is rapidly dwindling. Also, the best flat panels can easily match‚€”and even beat‚€”the best RPTVs for picture quality, so there's more to it than the public simply prioritizing form factor over image quality. Granted, you pay more for flat panels of similar size, but you get more as well, such as smaller footprint, no hot-spotting, and better off-axis performance with plasmas.

Look for reviews of the latest Samsung and Mitsubishi DLP RPTVs on UAV in the next few weeks.

And thanks for the history lesson!

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