The idea for this article came to me while I was trying to help a novice perform a basic calibration of his display over the phone. A job I could do in person in less than five minutes with a couple of my own test discs seemed a far more difficult task when I tried walking this newbie through it long-distance. When the person on the other end of the line hasn’t even heard of the Digital Video Essentials or AVIA test DVDs, where do you go from there?
To your own movie collections, of course! With the proverbial light bulb flashing above my head, I asked this guy if he had any recent vintage DVDs with THX logos on the cover, like the Star Wars trilogy, Moulin Rouge, T2, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Adventures of Indiana Jones. Being a respectable hometheater nut, he had several around—just for awe-inspiring demos. And since he had kids, he also had Finding Nemo and The Incredibles on hand.
Now, if you’ve got any one of those movies on your shelf, then you too are in business. Following the DVD menu selections to the THX Optimizer menu leads you
to the tools you need to perform a basic “front-panel” calibration of your display—adjusting brightness, contrast, color, tint, and sharpness correctly. This will take your display as far as it can go toward its performance potential without a full ISF calibration.
There are many settings on your display billed as “enhancements” which do nothing but reduce picture quality. Scan-velocity modulation (SVM), flesh-tone or color “correction” of any kind, most forms of black-level expansion or detail enhancement, and many other dubious technological “improvements” are typically boondoggles. Find as many of these as you can buried in your display’s menus, and defeat them. The labels are often confusing, so follow this rule of thumb: If you’re in doubt, leave it out. Meaning, if it looks suspicious, turn it off.
Things you want to look for and engage more often than not are presets called “MOVIE” or “CINEMA” or something similar. These setting often turn off most if not all of the harmful “enhancements” listed above. Starting the adjustment process outlined below from one of these preset modes will usually yield the best picture.
Selecting either the MOVIE or CINEMA mode will most often select the color temperature that’s closest to the 6500K standard, as well. If it doesn’t, the correct mode may be identified by a variety of other names (the user manual for the display may offer some guidance). “WARM,” “LOW,” and “MIDDLE” are the usual suspects. Do your best to find the most appropriate color temperature setting, and engage it before you start.
Pop one of these recent THX DVDs into your DVD player and look either at the main DVD, the “special features,” “options,” or set-up menus to find the THX Optimizer logo. Click on it and select VIDEO TESTS from the Optimizer menu. You’ll now be on the CONTRAST/PICTURE SET-UP page. The menu offers its own explanation of what the pattern represents and how to use it, but let me translate: This pattern allows you to establish the proper level of white in the image. The control you’ll use on your display to perform this adjustment is likely labeled CONTRAST, as misleading as that is. (As you’ll see, there’s a lot more to true contrast in an image than cranking up the white level!)
Click PLAY TEST and you’ll see a pattern consisting of eight boxes of varying intensities of white, all of which are high in “Average Picture Level (APL).” The idea here is for you to turn up the white level (CONTRAST) on your display until you can no longer distinguish among the boxes, turning the entire pattern into a uniform white box (see illustration). What you’re witnessing here is a classic example of what we call “white crush” in our reviews. Detail or distinction between varying shades of white at the upper end of the grayscale has been lost, or “crushed” out of the image. After you’ve turned up CONTRAST to the point where such crush occurs, you then back the adjustment down until you can see the eight boxes again.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, not all displays will crush white detail enough so that the eight boxes completely disappear. But don’t worry, there’s a second thing to watch for, and something that you should be aware of and look for even if your display does turn the pattern into a uniform white box: color shift in the brightest of the eight boxes. CRT-based displays are notorious for this, but I’ve seen it recently with fixed-pixel devices, too. Most often, the projector or display will start to poop out when trying to generate enough blue to reproduce high-APL whites at higher CONTRAST settings. When this happens you’ll see the bright white areas of this pattern turn a bit yellow. Again, back the adjustment down until the “color” appears white again. In some displays if CONTRAST is set too low, the white will turn a bit red. (Keep in mind that many displays ship from the factory tinted too blue, and that a correct white-level setting may look a touch red to you initially.) You should be able to see these color shifts easily when viewing the pattern and running CONTRAST adjustment up and down. The sweet spot is the point where there’s no red or yellow tinge in the bright white boxes and all eight boxes are visible.