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There was a recent article by Andrew Robinson of Home Theater Review Magazine about TV calibration that touched a nerve with ISF and THX calibrators. I actually thought the article was on the spot but Andrew followed it up with a second article that gave a different perspective, not necessarily contradicting the first article, but apparently intended to make peace with calibrators that still had tension on their shoulders even after their massage sessions.

I have a different twist about this subject.

Although I understand there was a need to credit the merits of a good calibration/calibrator on the second article, especially for good quality home theaters, I still think the original article was valid about the issue of consumers being “convinced” they have to take the whole responsibility (and pay) to calibrate a new TV set that in theory was designed to produce an image that meets a standard.

This is similar to buying a new car and after the dealer gives you the keys he says “by the way, do not forget that next week you have to align and balance the wheels, change the oil, and do a tune-up; we have a convenient standard charge sir, is about as much as what you paid for the car, bring it over next week and we would love to take care of your new car” (more below).

Something is not right with this model, unless of course you are in the calibration business.

What are we really calibrating?

The calibration job that Andrew’s article is referring to appears to be actually for two things, A) for the TV set to be adjusted to meet an imaging standard (which the television was supposedly designed to display in the first place), and B) to also adapt the calibrated image to the particular viewing environment (bright rooms, dark caves, etc.).

I understand and agree with (B), a display panel on a bright apartment at the beach needs different image settings than a front projector in a basement cave, if that requires an expert so be it. I have less sympathy for a consumer to be fully responsible of (A).

Manufacturers may better serve consumers by delivering a TV set with accurate gray-scale, gamma, no color push, etc. regardless where the set will be viewed, some are already providing presets that would tend to help in that direction, but calibrations are still promoted as a need.

A consumer can do (B) from (A) starting point, if desired, but (A) should not be footed by the consumer, although if a manufacturer decides to start doing (A) as it should be done, we can guess who will pay for it anyway.

How Much for a Calibration?

The article’s $250/$600 prices for a calibration depend on the TV inputs to calibrate and the complexity of the display device, I personally spent more than that in several calibrations over the past 20 years, even on NTSC sets, one 1080p projector calibration was $900 (the projector was $8,000 in 2006). I also experienced good calibrators and “experimental” calibrators that actually learned with my early-adopter models, as Guinea pigs, I felt as one as well.

Using those numbers I considered the cost of the calibration more palatable in 1998/9 when my first HDTVs were $8000, the calibration was less than 10% of the price of a (great Pioneer Elite rear-projection) TV, the relative investment made sense.

However, I do not think it is as palatable today when a panel of better image quality may cost just a bit more than the calibration itself, not to mention the Costco example provided in the article.

We can easily anticipate the results of a survey of how many Costco panel owners driven by $savings would feel reasonable to invest on a calibration that could possibly cost as much as the set itself, especially after saving a few dollars on its purchase in Costco.

Rather than perhaps investing the calibration money on a better TV set with more features, better image quality, larger size, etc. For most people image quality still is a very subjective asset, a larger or better set is not.

Regardless which side you sit on the calibration matter, would you think it would be easy to convince such Costco purchaser to invest as much as the TV itself on a calibration with the argument that the image quality of the low price TV would look better? About a medium price TV? Name the TV price that for you the calibration expense would be relatively reasonable, and, of course, you are always free to pay $600 to calibrate a $600 LCD panel if you like.

Do you know the TV has a Picture Menu?

Many TV owners are accustomed to view their sets in torch mode like most LCDs are shown at stores; they continuously view the sets the same way at home without even reducing the contrast or change the “vivid” setting. They do not know what is right for an image other than their personal taste.

Ironically, after a calibration is made I have heard (and personally experienced) some saying to the calibrator “what have you done to my TV? It looks so dull now, I do not like it; put it back as it was”.

The image may be actually accurate to the standard but it may not be relatively appealing because it may lack the exaggerated punch and color saturation the customer was accustomed to view, and he/she may not accept the calibrated image even after explaining why it should be viewed that way and not in torch mode, especially in a dark room.

In some installations I also witnessed consumers that were satisfied with the calibrated image generally because they were informed about why a calibration is needed and what to expect, or because their sets were a total disaster before calibration.

The Theory of Relativity for Calibration?

So how do we address the subjective and personal value of a better image vs. the cost issue if TV prices are continuously coming down and the TVs are better and better every day? Would it be possible that the relative price of a calibration still be around 10% of a TV set, such as $100 of a $1000 TV, but what about a $500 TV?

Isn’t this similar to the relative cost for repair vs. replace, which typically makes people shift from investing in labor costs to rather invest in newer/better equipment?

Radical changes in the cost of calibrating do not appear to be possible with the current calibration methods. Even today the job involves a few hours of labor and requires the use of expensive calibration tools that have to be amortized throughout their useful life for calibrations, unless faster and more automatic methods and lower cost tools can be devised. With lower calibration pricing more TV owners could be attractive to calibrating.

I have been asking and I am still receptive for new ideas for years, and I am sure I am not alone on that, but something does not seem right with this business model when is wholly footed by the consumer and there is a trend of down spiral TV pricing with no margins. I wish good luck to those interested in providing or consuming an image quality we do not want to compromise, which has been and still is my objective as well.

Posted by Rodolfo La Maestra, September 24, 2012 7:46 AM

About Rodolfo La Maestra

Rodolfo La Maestra is the Senior Technical Director of UHDTV Magazine and HDTV Magazine and participated in the HDTV vision since the late 1980's. In the late 1990's, he began tracking and reviewing HDTV consumer equipment, and authored the annual HDTV Technology Review report, tutorials, and educative articles for HDTV Magazine, DVDetc and HDTVetc  magazines, Veritas et Visus Newsletter, Display Search, and served as technical consultant/editor for the "Reference Guide" and the "HDTV Glossary of Terms" for HDTVetc and HDTV Magazines.  In 2004, he began recording a weekly HDTV technology program for MD Cable television, which by 2006 reached the rating of second most viewed.

Rodolfo's background encompasses Electronic Engineering, Computer Science, and Audio and Video Electronics, with over 4,700 hours of professional training, a BS in Computer and Information Systems, and thirty+ professional and post-graduate certifications, some from MIT, American, and George Washington Universities.  Rodolfo was also Computer Science professor in five institutions between 1966-1973 in Argentina, regarding IBM, Burroughs, and Honeywell mainframe computers.  After 38 years of computer systems career, Rodolfo retired in 2003 as Chief of Systems Development from the Inter-American Development Bank directing sixty+ software-development computer professionals, supporting member countries in north/central/south America.

In parallel, from 1998 he helped the public with his other career of audio/video electronics, which started with hi-end audio in the early 60’s and merged with Home Theater video, multichannel audio
, HD, 3D and UHDTV. When HDTV started airing in November 1998, and later followed by 3DTV and 4K UHDTV, he realized that the technology as implemented would overwhelm consumers due to its complexity, and it certainly does even today, and launched his mission of educating and helping consumers understand the complexity, the challenge, and the beauty of the technology pursuing better sound and image, so the public learn to appreciate it not just as another television.