This is a cautionary tale of a would-be videophile who once though he knew “enough” about setting up a video monitor. “Good enough” has been good enough for a long time, that is, until now. “Good enough” is nowhere near good enough, it turns out, now that this erstwhile DIY’er has now been weighed and measured, and found wanting. First, the history.
My first large screen rear projection TV was a 50″ Pioneer in a huge walnut cabinet back in 1989. By then, consumer projection had reached the point that very nice large screen images could be had at home. Even so, it was only a matter of weeks before I had the front access panel off and my hands probing regions that I had no business at the time probing. After making a couple of mistakes that required professional intervention, I was well on the road to near obsessive tweaking.
I read all about the Imaging Science Foundation from the very beginnings of the organization. At the time I bought my first big screen and laserdisc player, there was no such thing as “professional calibration”. Even after Joe Kane’s tutelage with the first edition of Video Essentials on laserdisc and the great reputation ISF calibration quickly achieved in the enthusiast community, I still felt I could make my TV look “good enough”. That attitude has not abated in the intervening years and now, five successively larger RPTVs later, I sit in front of a new 65″ Mitsubishi (WS-65411). By this time, tweaking has become second nature. Service menus are child’s play, and in the case of the new Mits, I have even used a computer and special interface to reprogram the internal EEPROM in the TV to correct the factory-set color bias toward red in the color decoder. “Good enough” never looked so good. Indeed, this new Mits has been coaxed into producing a better picture than the Pioneer Elite model it replaced, and at a third the cost. Still, I was finally having that nagging feeling there was more to it. With the new Mits also comes true High Definition video for the first time at the Obiplex. HD is a whole new thing and I decided it was time to call in a pro.
While I have considered ISF calibration in the past, it was never an easy thing to do as I live in one of those many small to medium size towns that exist in that great expanse of America between the big cities. Fortunately for people like me, an enterprising group of ISF-trained video calibrators have found their living mining these small dots on the map with regular road trips to bring the benefits of proper video calibration to those many of us that prefer the slower pace outside the concrete canyons. Then there was the issue of who would I trust with my latest investment in home cinema heaven. The Internet forums have been rife with horror stories for years of calibrations costing many hundreds of dollars that were botched. It seems not all ISF-certified knob-turners are created equal. My task of locating a calibrator that I would actually trust with my TV was made easier because it turns out one of the most highly recommended calibrators that makes road trips is someone I have met and trust. Gregg Loewen of Lion AV is my kind of calibrator. Not some jack-leg TV tech turned calibrator just to make the big bucks, Gregg started out as a home theater enthusiast first then turned to professional calibration out of his desire to make his own TV look better. Like me. Gregg got the call.
I expected some benefit from a professional calibration, at least for the HD input on my TV as that was one area I had virtually ignored beyond correcting the “red push” and some tweaking of size, centering, and convergence. What I didn’t expect was how far off some of what I had done turned out to be. In all fairness to me, some of my settings were such that Gregg didn’t even mess with them. These were in the setup of the 480i/p inputs. My geometry and convergence were virtually spot-on, at least as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough.
Technically, ISF calibration deals only with setting the grayscale of a video display, that is, adjusting the levels of the individual colors to achieve the proper color of gray, also known as setting color temperature. Gregg’s basic calibration goes far beyond just setting grayscale to include adjusting for optimal geometry and convergence, adjusting and “centering” the user controls for brightness, contrast, tint, color, and sharpness, turning off Scan Velocity Modulation, and adjusting both mechanical and electrostatic focus on projection sets. Gregg even applies the rather esoteric procedure known as “lens striping”. Using the color analyzer, color readings are taken at the far left and right sides of the screen. On rear projection TVs, the inherent color imbalance from one side to the other can be relatively dramatic due to the basic design using three separate “guns” in a row aimed at a center point. This can be all but alleviated by “blocking” a small portion of one or more of the projection lenses at the right spot to give even color balance across the entire screen. I observed a major improvement in flat field uniformity when Gregg striped the lenses on my set.
My biggest surprise came with setting the color temperature. Surprise because only a few weeks ago a friend brought over a color analyzer and laptop computer running the Color Facts software that Gregg also uses. We had set what we thought was proper color temperature. As it turns out, we had achieved a fairly linear temperature tracking albeit about 500 degrees Kelvin too low. Even worse, we had done nothing about the overall light output and color tracking and these parameters were totally whacked. Light output was nearly three times what it should have been and color tracking across the scale was way off. Attached below is a .pdf file showing the before/after readings for chromacity coordinates, color tracking, and temperature tracking.
(Ignore the lower end of the scale. The readings below 30 IRE are not accurate and the Color Facts software prints this way.)
Another surprise was the state of focus. I have read in more than one forum that the newer Mitsubishi TVs are supposed to have relatively good focus “out-of-the-box”. As such, I did not go to the trouble of messing with focus. Indeed, I was seeing what appeared to be a very sharp, very detailed image. Wrongo! Visible improvements were made in the focus of all three guns and this seems to be one of the more apparent improvements overall. With tighter focus, convergence error appears to be reduced even further and there is noticeably less color fringing. Needless to say, the images on this TV, both SD and HD, are cleaner, sharper, and more detailed than before. In fact, taken as a whole, this exceptional calibration has taken what I felt was a very good RPTV and made it jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Colors are wonderfully saturated and I have never seen such accuracy from a consumer TV. Blacks are deep and velvety with no trace of residual color yet shadow detail is even better than before. That is probably the most difficult aspect of a proper calibration to get used to, the light output. Yes, the image is darker, but it is also more detailed and one can see more in dark areas, not less. Of course, control of ambient light in the room becomes even more of an issue with the reduced light output of the calibrated image, but this is a small price to pay for such incredible accuracy and subjective beauty that can be achieved with a proper calibration. I have spent the past week poring over disc after disc marveling at the major improvements in the quality of what I once thought were “reference” quality discs.
Reference quality software deserves a reference quality display. As more and more people bring the beauty of high definition video into their homes and home theaters, the quality of the display device becomes even more important. My experience with Gregg Loewen was 100% positive and I give both Gregg and his services my highest recommendation. Every TV I will own in the future will be professionally calibrated. Even if Lion AV is not your choice, professional calibration should be. Hey, you may have just dropped two, three, four thousand dollars, or more, on a new HDTV. You owe it to yourself to make it perform at the peak of its potential. There is only one way to get that and that is with a full and proper calibration.