Watching a poorly adjusted TV -- whether it's the standard-definition variety or a high-definition set -- is like being served overcooked food: Regardless of how much you paid for it, you're not getting your money's worth. And HDTV benefits from careful calibration even more than a regular set does.
You can improve almost any TV's appearance by using a calibration program and the set's five basic controls, which are usually referred to as contrast, brightness, sharpness, color, and hue. My description of calibration follows the US$50 "Avia Guide to Home Theater" DVD from Ovation Multimedia, but the procedure is similar with other calibration programs, such as DVD Acquisition and Development Group's US$25 "Digital Video Essentials."
1. Set the scene: You'll get the best effect by watching TV in a dimly lit room (theaters are dark for a reason). If you watch TV in a bright room, however, calibrate in that lighting. Hook up the DVD player to the TV with a digital visual interface (DVI) or high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cable, if either is available; if not, use a three-wire analog component-video cable.
Enter the set's on-screen menu and shut off any built-in features that promise to enhance flesh tones, edges, or black levels. Then choose a picture mode with a name such as 'professional' or 'movie'. Avoid settings such as 'vivid' or 'sports', which may increase the television's saturation, contrast, and/or brightness. Finally, select a neutral color temperature setting; in many cases it's labeled 'low' or 'warm', and it may also include either 'NTSC' or the number '6500' (read more about your TV's color temperature setting at the end of this article).
After your TV has warmed up for 30 minutes, insert the Avia DVD. You can watch the program's (slightly dated) tutorials, or you can skip to the calibration exercise by selecting Chapter 7, Audio and Video Calibrations in the main menu. On the screen labeled 'Chapter 7 Calibrations', choose Basic Video Adjustments.
2. Adjust the contrast: Select White Level (Contrast, Picture) to optimize whiteness. This setting uses the contrast control (sometimes labeled 'picture' or 'white level') along with a needle-pulses-and-steps pattern. On CRT-based TVs (both front- and rear-projection models), set contrast as high as possible without widening the pattern's top white square or bending the two vertical lines on either side of the screen. On plasma screens, LCD panels, and LCD projection TVs, set contrast as high as you can without the top square's changing from white to another color. Watch the two faint vertical bars in the lower part of the screen. At the correct contrast level, the bar on the right will be almost invisible against the white background.
3. Find the right brightness: Click Black Level (Brightness) to adjust the set's deep black. Set Avia's black bar and half-gray pattern so that the moving dark bar on the left blends into the background and the lighter bar on the right is just visible.
4. Blunt the sharpness: Choose Sharpness (Peaking, Detail). A TV's sharpness setting creates the illusion of crisper images by adding artificial details. To see the real picture, turn this setting down until the vertical lines across the top of the screen look evenly bright, and halos around lines and letters in the center of the screen disappear.
5. Tweak the color and hue: Finally, select either Saturation (Color, Chroma) or Hue (Tint) to use Avia's blue filter to adjust the TV's color (both menu options will run the same tests and use the same patterns). Alter the color setting until the flashing inner squares blend as much as possible into the blue bars.
6. Watch for a while: Images may now appear dimmer, colors lighter, and the focus softer. A properly calibrated TV more accurately reflects the look that the director intended. Kill Bill (both parts) will retain the bright colors and flashes that Quentin Tarantino envisioned, while Mystic River will have the gray skies and pale winter complexions that Clint Eastwood had in mind.