Posted on November 6, 2013 By Art Feierman
This is pretty straightforward. Simply stated, I have yet to encounter a projector, that, right out of the box, with no changes, produces its best possible image. In most cases, colors are a little off, contrast or brightness needs to be adjusted for better black levels, shadow detail and highlight detail, and so on. Mind you, a few get very, very close. In general, if a projector, for example, has a THX mode, that’s going to be at least really good looking, right out of the box.
If you’ve ever played with the different modes on an LCDTV, Plasma TV or projector, then you immediately understand how much variation in color and picture quality there can be.
In our reviews we calibrate almost all home theater projectors. Doing a basic calibration of items such as brightness, contrast and color saturation are important to getting a picture to look right, and to prevent crushing details in the darkest or brightest areas of an image.
Then there’s getting the color right. We calibrate the grayscale – adjusting individually red, green and blue to be in the proper balance called for, at a color temperature of 6500K. That’s 95% of the battle.
For years we’ve been doing all of that, but more recently, for many home theater projectors we’ve added calibration of the individual colors using the projectors’ color management software (CMS). I consider this the last 5% (ok, maybe 10%). Often this part of a calibration is trickier than the rest, with some adjustments affecting others. Sometimes it’s almost trial and error.
Editor’s note: With our June 2013 launch of our redesigned site, we will start publishing Mike’s calibration results for the CMS settings in our new subscriber area. (We will have them for about a dozen home theater projectors to start, and will be publishing them We will continue to offer the same calibration settings we always have, for free.
If you can budget for it, we do recommend you get your projector professionally calibrated, or do it yourself if you have the talent, time and tools.
Yet we do understand, that someone buying a $899 projector isn’t likely to spend $300 or $500 to calibrate it, whereas the person spending $3000 – $8000 for their projector is far more likely to invest in a calibration. It’s pretty much a given on over $10,000 projectors.
These are basically the choices you have for getting the best picture out of your home theater or home entertainment projector:
1. Hook it your new projector, turn it on, and watch it as is – what we refer to as “out of the box” picture quality – pick a picture mode (Cinema, Sports, Bright, Natural?) from those offered.
2. Same as #1 above, but you do a basic adjustment of Brightness and Contrast settings. Also adjust the color saturation if its over the top or not rich enough.
If you know what you are doing, this can be done by eyeballing it, but a number of discs (mostly Blu-ray) have basic instructions and screens for adjusting these two (Star Wars discs – standard DVD also have this). A proper grayscale test pattern is really all you need, but there are plenty of good scenes from movies that can allowyou to do just as good a job.
3. DIY: You deal with color adjustments as well. Best solution, get yourself an end user calibration disc, such as AVIA, or Digital Video Essentials HD (DVE-HD), and follow the instructions. These are designed with tutorials and to be used by the non-technical. Don’t worry, you can handle it. These will allow you to do not only brightness and contrast, but color. Or rather, the grayscale balance. Your results won’t match a professional calibrator’s but you may end up closer to what a good calibrator can do, than what you started from.
4. We’ve done some of the work: Use the calibration settings we provide in each review. There are three limitations. 1. There is some variance (in terms of color) caused by the variation from one lamp to the next. 2. We calibrate early on – typically with less than 50 hours on a projector and lamp, since most times we are working with brand new projectors. The lamp’s color will shift slightly as it ages (many calibrators recommend holding off until the lamp has 200 hours or more).
Time after time, I get emails from folks telling me about the substantial improvement they are seeing in picture quality/accuracy, by trying our settings. It’s not a perfect solution, but probably the second best, for most folks not planning to hire a professional calibrator, and lacking the tools and skills to do it themselves.
Not every projector improves with our settings because some start out extremely well, so that lamp variation is a bigger factor than any flaw in the manufacturer’s color tables. Try it out. Think of it this way: You just got your projector, even right out of the box, if you are a first time owner, you will probably be extremely pleased from the start. Most folks find that once home, a first projector easily exceeds expectations with way more wow factor than they thought.
Beware, sometimes manufacturers will update firmware, changing color tables. They might do that so the projector has better out of the box color than before. The point is, our settings work if the manufacturer hasn’t changed color tables. Remember we review most projectors within the first 3 months they are on the market. When they make such changes, our published settings typically wont’ work well, or could be terrible. You can always go back to the projector’s default settings.
You can even take that a step further, if so inclined, and visit some of the forums that focus on calibrating projectors, for alternate settings, and other tips. We don’t claim our settings to be perfect, and I doubt that if you have 5 different calibrators working with the same projector, that you would get any less than 5 different groups of settings, each with slightly different end results.
5. Have the projector professionally calibrated. OK, this will cost you anywhere from a couple of hundred to even $1000 – depending on how many modes are calibrated, whether your other gear (such as your Blu-ray player) are calibrated with the projector, and so on. Most folks these days using an independent calibrator, I believe, spend $250 – $500. Those of you buying from a local installing dealer, will most likely find that the dealer has someone on staff that can calibrate the projector, or works with an independent. Lastly, a few of you – my “hard core enthusiasts,” actually have your own light meters, probes, etc., and know how to do it yourselves – I rank you guys in with the calibrators.
That’s pretty much it. You are looking at projectors from under $1000 to $10,000+. With most projectors, the improvement even with just some basic adjustments is easily visible. In many cases, though our settings, or better yet, a full calibration will make a stunning difference, with much improved skin tones, and more.
One last note, some projectors are superb, out of the box, or rather almost as good as they can be. Some have a THX mode doing that, although an occasional REC 709 type mode will be on the money.. Lamp variations might be more significant than any deviation is color accuracy design, with these modes.
Our recommended settings are found in each individual review on those pages linked to above. Plug them into a user savable memory, and compare! If you like it better, then enjoy. In that case, please let us know!
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