So, you finally upgraded. Feels good right? You have this huge new panel at the center of your living room, and you’re ready to sit down and take in your favorite movies and shows, ready to hit Netflix and binge until your eyes bleed. Hold up, though. Your television is setup all wrong. Just ask the Duffer brothers, the directors of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things:
“When I go to my friends’ places back home,” said Matt Duffer in a recent interview with Vulture. “I’m constantly fixing their TVs.”
Think of it like having never worn glasses before and trying to get your prescription right. If you’ve never worn them, you’re used to squinting – you don’t even know you need glasses. Any improvement will seem magical, but there’s such a thing as right and wrong prescription. While there are actually pros out there that you can hire to come in and calibrate your television, that’s not feasible for most people, and there’s a lot you can do to make things better anyway.
First, a couple caveats: not all panels will have every single option we discuss here, and the marketing minds at each of these companies spent days, maybe even weeks, coming up with exciting names to make “motion interpolation” sound like magic instead of science.
And there’s a difference between “properly calibrated” and “personal preference.” Neither is necessarily wrong, and no one can tell you whether or not you like something. With that said, it’s worth diving in to make sure we’re getting the most out of our expensive televisions.
Your exact mileage may vary depending on your set and your preferences. And if you’re an advanced home theater geek, we hope you’ll enjoy our trip into the menu systems of 4K sets and jump into the comments to add your thoughts.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. You may want to mark down or take pics with your phone of your settings before you change anything – just in case.
Turn that sharpness all the way down
This one is easy. Whatever your television’s ‘Sharpness’ option is set to, turn it to zero – or whatever your television menu’s equivalent of zero is.
Your sharpness setting, otherwise known as edge enhancement, is meant to – as the name describes – enhance edges. Except that in this modern age of digital televisions playing digital content, everything is already very clean. So what you end up getting instead a nasty halo effect. Rick and Morty look like ghosts (unless it’s the Rick and Morty ghost episode, which could well be a thing at this point), and buildings seem to glow.
This can be hard to capture off-screen, so here’s a video from AVForum that does a good job of showing what a difference turning off sharpness can make:
How your set deals with sharpness might vary. Zero may be the far-left option on the bar, or maybe the exact middle. Find that setting and turn it all the way down. Unless you’re calibrating an old CRT television, in which case: welcome to 2017, time traveler from 1998.
There’s such a thing as too bright
Come outside with me and look up at the sun. How long did you last? The same way you wouldn’t stare at the sun for very long, staring at an overly-bright television for too long is going to be tough on your eyes. TV manufacturers love to crank the brightness and backlight on their sets up to make them pop in the store, but you don’t need that.
The backlight should reflect the brightness of the room you’re watching in. If you’re watching in an otherwise pitch-black room, you’ll want to turn your backlight most of the way down. In an always-lit room, that backlight might be cranked way up. Try turning this setting down until it’s just barely too dim, and then start bringing it back up until it feels right.
Brightness & Contrast
Your brightness and contrast settings won’t change much on most televisions. These are more of something to tweak. If you’re watching something like Planet Earth and a cloud looks like an empty white space instead of a fluffy wad of cotton, you might need adjust your contrast to make the detail visible. A dark scene in an horror movie might reveal that your brightness needs to be turned up or down a few notches.
Update your firmware
This isn’t a catch-all. You might want to make sure that the latest version of your TV’s firmware isn’t causing it to brick. But if you picked up an LG OLED TV back in 2016, you may have been frustrated by the input lag – the delay between pressing a button in a game and seeing the result occur on your television – to be pretty unreliable in when you turned on HDR. A firmware update went on to fix this later, making gaming on an LG OLED TV a much more pleasing experience. On the other hand, some European Samsung owners this summer were seeing a firmware update effectively bricking their televisions. So don’t ignore those updates, but to research them! They can have some pretty far-ranging consequences.
After doing that, though, you may want to peek through the menus and turn off anything you can that sends usage data back home to the manufacturer, listens for voice commands, or authorizes advertising through the increasingly complex menus these sets offer.
Now, onto the tougher stuff.
The Soap-Opera Effect
The same way that TV makers crank the backlight on their sets all the way up when showing them off in stores, they’ll also turn on something that people often refer to as the ‘Soap-Opera Effect.’ In short, this setting can make theatrical films and shows filmed in the same manner look ultra-smooth and ‘lifelike’ in the same way that soap operas do. At the store, this has the effect of making new televisions look very different from old televisions – and therefore more of an attractive purchase. But really, this setting is adding things your picture that simply aren’t there.
The effect happens because movies are filmed at 24 frames per second, while things like soap operas and live sports are filmed at 60 frames per second. To get that look, these motion-smoothing modes, often called things like TruMotion, RealMotion, and stuff like that, are literally making up frames that aren’t there. To boost the frame rate from 24 frames per second, your television is guessing what frames in-between would look like and adding them in.
Disabling these motion-smoothing options will ensure that you’re seeing the movie or show the way it was intended to.
The simplest way to turn off as much post-processing as you can is to simply set your television to Game Mode.
What does game mode do?
Game Mode is an option many televisions have that is meant be used – as the same describes – with video games, many of which require ultra-fast response. A pro-level Street Fighter player can tell the difference between 20ms and 40ms of input latency, for example, and game mode removes the post-processing effects that can make this latency balloon up to 60 or 80ms. While it’s possible some sets still keep some processing on in Game Mode, it’s the fastest shortcut to getting the cleanest, most unadulterated image.
If you’re buying a television with the express purpose of playing games, input latency should be your first consideration, before anything else. Thankfully, there are great resources like the Display Lag database to help with that.
Cords and Ports
Not all HDMI cables and ports are created equal. The cabling side of things is pretty simple here. Use the cable that came with your HDR-capable device, such as UHD Blu-ray player, an Xbox One S or X, a PlayStation 4 Pro, or a Roku Ultra. If that’s not going to work, then you’ll want to update your HDMI cable. When I bought my first 1080p set a decade ago, we were at HDMI 1.3. The spec for HDMI 2.1 was set in early 2017. The current spec, HDMI 2.0, asks for almost four times as much bandwidth as HDMI 1.3, while the upcoming 2.1 asks for ten times as much. that’s not even getting into all the other capabilities that additional bandwidth enables. The cables might look the same, but an old HDMI cable simply isn’t capable of doing what new ones can do. It’s tempting to hoard old cables, but you need a new cable for a device.
Once you have the right cable, you’ll want to check the ports themselves. Consult your television’s manual for this. While some sets might support HDR on all ports, many will support it on just one port, or on all but one port.
Turn on HDR, and beware HDR+
You’ll likely need to turn on HDR manually – it won’t be on by default. If you’re playing HDR content, such as a UHD Blu-ray, your television should typically pop up a message to the effect of “now playing HDR content.” If it doesn’t, make sure the HDR setting is turned on for that input.
Meanwhile, though, you’ll want to look out for faux HDR settings. On my Samsung KS8000 set for example, this setting is called HDR+. What that does is simulate HDR content by cranking the backlight of the set way up and making it “feel” better, the same way motion smoothing does.
Similarly, calibrate a TV input after you’ve turned on HDR. The HDR input settings may be different than the non-HDR settings and enabling that setting may reset the other options back to defaults.
Watch something you know
After you input your settings, be patient. Give the set some time to warm up. And then watch something you know really well, if you possibly can. If your favorite movie has a Criterion edition or an Ultra HD remaster, see if you can pick that up along with the set. If something’s way off, chances are you’ll notice it watching something you’re intimately familiar with. There are also Blu-ray discs you can pick up that will help you calibrate the non-HDR settings on your television, and if you like to tinker around with this stuff, they’re pretty fun to mess with.
Why is this important?
I’m going to wax philosophical for a moment, so stick with me:
For years, filmmakers could rely on a few things. They knew that their movie would look a certain way in the theater, that it would look better in the theater, and that home television sets had only a limited number of settings. Filmmakers could anticipate what we would see both in theaters and at home.
Now, literally none of that is true. A well-calibrated set in a dim room can look incredible. But a poorly-calibrated set might be the norm. And with movie profits down this year, it seems more people than ever are staying home for their moviegoing experiences, meaning that directors have less control than ever over the way movies look. Directors like Christopher Nolan, the Coen brothers, and Wes Anderson all use color differently, but all put great care into making sure their movies look a certain way. Calibrating your television properly will get you as close as possible to watching movies the way they were intended, and make sure that the television set you spent so much money on is working as designed.