Home Theater Calibration 101

September 25, 2004

Colorbars
Home Theater calibrators fall into four categories, professional, amateur, tinkerers and enthusiast. It might sound overly simple but that’s about it. The professional knows what their doing and charges accordingly. The amateur may or may not know the ins and outs of calibrating, it’s mainly a hobby for them. The tinkerer does just that, tinkers incessantly and lastly the enthusiasts, who do it to obtain the best sight and sound, but for them it’s a means to an end, not the end itself.

I suppose I fall into the amateur category, I definitely know what I’m doing but it’s not my main profession. Ok, you want to get more out of the home theater equipment you’ve already purchased or want to learn about what’s involved for an upcoming purchase? Simple enough right? Maybe not, there are several paths to obtaining a truly “dialed in” theater system, some are easier than others. Starting with the most widely accepted and readily available method, DVD’s with test patterns and step by step instructions on how to get the best contrast, brightness and color, as well as the optimal sound from your system.

One of the oldest and well established home theater calibration products is Digital Video Essentials. DVE has been around in one from or another all the way back to the laserdisc days. The other commercially available calibration disc is the AVIA guide to home theater, DVE being the slightly more technical (and feature packed) of the DVD calibrators. The AVIA disc is slightly easier to navigate and user friendly, however oddly enough not quite as widely accepted. Not to be outdone, AVIA have released a Pro version with extensive reference materials, some specifically aimed at certain screen resolutions.


Getting the most out of both of these products really falls squarely with the end user. Having struggled with DVE specifically, I can tell you to ignore that alpha male urge to skip reading the instructions. I would consider either one of these discs indispensable tools for proper home theater calibration, however in a pinch the “THX optimizer” found on many Pixar and Lucasfilm DVD’s are quite useful themselves.

For those with the budget, or just wanting the ultimate performance from their video display, the ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) certifies technicians in your area to provide professional calibration. This type of calibration goes above and beyond “on disc” parameters, by actually adjusting the displays internal “service” settings, not normally visible to the end user, such as gamma levels and pigmentation. ISF is currently working with Microsoft to develop applications for Windows Media Center and possibly software and calibration equipment for end users. What sets ISF type calibrations apart is the use of a color analyzer probe, which measures the light at the display device and recommends setting changes. The guesswork is totally removed as absolute values between the colors and black level at the screen can be matched with the source disk. AVIA currently offers a package containing the AVIA pro software with their Optic One color analyzer, at $2000 this package is obviously not intended for the casual calibrator, but does offer an alternative to other costly hardware/software solutions.

The audio end of things is somewhat more complex, depending on your point of view. The DVE and AVIA discs contain audio programs on them, containing pink noise and channel sweeps, but this only tells you a problem exists and offers you the possibility to change channel levels in hopes of compensating for them. Only full spectrum audio analyzers offer the ability to pinpoint specific frequencies, much like the color analyzer can identify specific colors, audio analyzers can do the same for sound. In the event the room itself is the problem, an audio analyzer with the ability to measure sound pressure levels, can help identify deficiencies in the room itself. Products such as Ivie Technologies IE-33 Audio Analyzer offer a full suite of sound measuring capabilities. Alternatively, Sencore offers several audio analyzers as well as video calibration equipment.

So in wrapping up, rest assured if you bought home theater equipment, unpackaged it, and thought that was it, you’ve got a lot more potential you can squeeze out of your investment. If you do nothing more than use the “THX Optimizer” on a DVD such as ‘The Adventures of Indiana Jones’ box set or ‘Finding Nemo’, then you’ll get more than the stock setup. But if you’re like me and want that last degree of calibration, I wholeheartedly recommend Digital Video Essentials. Alternatively an ISF certified calibration can cost less then 3 to 4% of some higher end home theaters and would make more of a difference than expensive cables or a new DVD player. Regardless of what particular method you choose, there’s more to be had from your system.



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under Calibration


Comments

  • First off, let me thank you for addressing the often ignored topic of calibration. Next I wanted to point out that there exists another source of audio calibration DVD: the Gold Line 5.1 Audio Toolkit (www.gold-line.com). In fact this DVD contains test signals for Surround EX systems too, and is focussed only on Audio system configuration, debugging, and tuning. The DVD has about 100 different test signals to help with all the phases of optimizing the sound of a home theater. The disc also includes very complete tutorials which you can download from http://www.audiotoolkit.com if you would rather read them on paper. Also, I wanted to put a plug in for my company, PMI, who specializes in high performance home theater design and calibration. Like you said, for those with a budget for fine tuning video there are ISF technicians, and for those with a budget for tuning the audio section there are PMI engineers (www.pmiltd.com).

    Kind regards,

    A. Grimani

  • First off, let me thank you for addressing the often ignored topic of calibration. Next I wanted to point out that there exists another source of audio calibration DVD: the Gold Line 5.1 Audio Toolkit (www.gold-line.com). In fact this DVD contains test signals for Surround EX systems too, and is focussed only on Audio system configuration, debugging, and tuning. The DVD has about 100 different test signals to help with all the phases of optimizing the sound of a home theater. The disc also includes very complete tutorials which you can download from http://www.audiotoolkit.com if you would rather read them on paper. Also, I wanted to put a plug in for my company, PMI, who specializes in high performance home theater design and calibration. Like you said, for those with a budget for fine tuning video there are ISF technicians, and for those with a budget for tuning the audio section there are PMI engineers (www.pmiltd.com).

    Kind regards,

    A. Grimani