Skip to main content

Tweak Your Way to Heaven

Your new HDTV looks atrocious. It doesn?t produce a picture any better than the old analog TV you just demoted to the bedroom. The first realization may hit you smack on the head. Then again, it might just sneak up on you gradually. Either way the result is the same?dissatisfaction, disappointment, disillusionment, suffering, pain, misery, death. Or the death of innocence, anyway.

Now here?s the ray of sunshine. There may be nothing wrong with the product. The manufacturer may merely have set it up to look bad right out of the box under the assumption that you are too stupid to know what good performance really looks like.

There?s always a chance that you really did buy a lousy product. However, a good video display set up wrong can do a convincing impersonation of a bad one. If so, and if you know what you?re doing, you might actually be able to tweak your way out of this.

Start with a Good Signal

Before we start searching for the good-looking HDTV inside your bad-looking one, let?s eliminate a few obvious possibilities.

Are you sure you?re looking at a high-definition signal? If you?re using an antenna, you?ll need to run the channel scan to find the digital (including high-def) channels. Your HDTV may be set up to receive only analog channels out of the box.

The same applies to cable-ready sets. Even if you get only a broadcast-basic package?the cheapest possible service?you should still be able to get the digital versions of CBS, Fox, PBS, etc. So go into the setup menu, tell the set you?ve got cable, and run the channel scan.

If you?ve got satellite service, it?s true that all your channels are digital, but they could be standard-definition, not high-definition. Unfortunately you?ll have to upgrade your dish, receiver, and programming package to get HDTV.

If you?re using DVD, there is no such thing as high-definition DVD at the moment, apart from a few Microsoft Windows Media titles, though that is about to change with the expected debut of the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats. You?ve heard about the latest format war? OK, just checking. Yeah, it is depressing!

In order to pass high-def video signals, your cable or satellite box will need to feed the set with the highest quality available interface. For HDTV that means either HDMI, DVI, or component video. You can also use IEEE 1394, a.k.a. Firewire, for recording, though less often for display (Mitsubishi is a notable exception). S-video and composite video will not pass an HD signal.

While component video is usually an HD-capable (albeit analog) input, occasionally you might run across a display that accepts only standard-definition signals via component input, or a signal source that delivers only standard-def signals through its component output. In that case, your HDTV signal will be displayed as SDTV, and you?ll lose out on HD?s higher resolution. There are rumors that the forthcoming HD-capable DVD formats will down-res (reduce the resolution of) their component outputs because the studios deem analog interfaces less secure.

Unless you watch most of your TV in the daytime, it would help to reduce ambient light in the room. If your set is not wall-mounted, put a low-wattage lamp behind it to relieve stress on your optic nerves, and turn off the other lights for movie viewing. You?ll see the picture better and enjoy it more that way. If you do watch a lot of TV under bright lighting conditions, the manufacturer probably offers a daylight mode, but if you really want your set to live up to its performance potential, don?t use the daylight mode except for casual daytime viewing.

Get Into the Menu

The manufacturer probably provided several preset picture modes. If you?re lucky, one of them may offer accurate picture settings. It may be called ?movie? or something else. If there is no movie mode, there probably is a ?custom mode? that allows a broader array of adjustments. Once you?ve arrived at the right custom settings, jot them down, because you may need to apply them to each input.

Here are the things most likely to be misadjusted on your set: contrast (black level), brightness (white level), color intensity, color temperature, and sharpness (detail).

Elevated contrast is the killer on direct-view tube TVs and tube-based displays. It drives the set into ?blooming? and distorts shapes. But even flat-panel sets are often set with too-high contrast and, less often, too-high brightness. And if you?ve got an LCD set, the backlight will be set on stun.

For starters, back all of these things up to half of their potential. For extra credit, buy the Digital Video Essentials DVD and learn to use PLUGE and greyscale test patterns. I know, that sounds painful, but you don?t have to go that far to approximate a good picture. Just back up all these controls back to 50 or at most 60 percent of maximum and see how you feel about it.

Flat-panel sets sometimes include fancy extra controls to compensate for their inherent black-level limitations (tubes have the advantage in reproducing the absence of light). These controls may produce a more pleasing overall balance between dark and light picture areas but they also may eliminate shadow detail?check out men?s beards in darker scenes. Turn these modes off or set them to their lowest settings.

Color intensity is usually cranked up just a little higher than it should be. Back it off slightly. Color temperature is a completely separate thing. The only correct setting is 6500 degrees Kelvin or just below. You may not find the words ?color temperature? in a menu but nearly all sets include it under another name. You?ll know you?ve found it when you flip through settings and see the color of grey going from blue to brown. The latter?visually counterintuitive though this may seem?will give you more accurate (and satisfying) color in the long run. Trust me on this.

Sharpness?who doesn?t love sharpness? Isn?t that what you bought an HDTV to see? Unfortunately, the sharpness or detail controls should really be labeled noise, because that?s all they add to the picture! Back them off all the way to zero. You might sneak up a few points from zero if you like a little edge enhancement but don?t go higher than 25 percent. The best setting is probably at or near zero. Again, this may seem counterintuitive, but you want to see information, not noise. Test-disc resolution patterns (even those on standard-definition DVD) are helpful for this but you can probably get by using the fine print in car ads.

These rough-and-ready settings will correct 90 percent of what?s wrong with your picture. To get to 95 percent, buy the Digital Video Essentials or AVIA test discs and you can go a little further in greyscale and color adjustment. To achieve near-perfection?within the limits of your display?have a technician certified by the Imaging Science Foundation ( finish the job. He?ll be able to burrow into service menus not accessible to you, calibrate color to maximum linearity, and deal with other issues like convergence, overscan, and geometry.

I don?t mean to make getting a good picture sound scary and inaccessible. It?s not, really. Hired help is just for those who want to go the extra mile and wring the last little bit of performance out of their costly new displays.

The Best Recipe

The real point of this column?yeah, I?ve taken long enough to get around to it?is why, why, why? Why would the TV industry deliberately mess up all these picture parameters?

Most of them are misadjusted because manufacturers need to compete. TVs in a showroom are like needy little kids or small furry animals bidding for your attention (like when my cat attacks my armchair with his claws and I chase him around the apartment). Once they?ve got it, they assume you?ll eventually wise up and fix all the things they intentionally set askew. And if you don?t wise up, well, who cares?

Even if they don?t care, you should. The basic tweaks detailed above are not just the obsessions of the technically correct?they?re really the only way to get a good picture. Unfortunately, a lot of folks never stray far from the factory settings of their TVs, and consequently have never had a chance to see what a good picture looks like. A good picture is a lot like good sound (another dying art). Until you?ve seen (or heard) it for the first time, you can never know how much better it really is.

Just buying an HDTV and switching it on isn?t enough. Even if you?ve laid out a lot of money for a first-rate video display, you?ve got to be proactive to get the best picture out of it. And that means paying attention not just to resolution but to greyscale adjustment, color fidelity, and the artful use (or avoidance) of edge enhancement. They?re also major ingredients in the big picture.

In a way, high-def resolution is like the flour in a cake. It?s a major ingredient but a cake isn?t a cake without eggs and sugar. See HDTV at its best and you?ll be itchin? to get in the kitchen.


Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (

Editors' Recommendations