Back in 1994, the majority of people were still viewing analog CRT direct-view TVs under 35”. The medium of choice to watch movies at home was on videotape or cable TV. Movies were never viewed in a letterboxed format because most viewers didn’t like the top and bottom of the image cropped. The picture was adjusted until it looked “normal” in their moderately lit room and one or two speakers in the TV provided the sound. Despite their basic setups, these individuals were generally content with their home entertainment systems because to them it was good enough.
The rest of us owned TVs with screens larger than 50”. Our medium of choice to watch movies at home was on laserdisc. Movies were always presented in their original aspect ratios and often didn’t fill the entire screen, which thrilled us because we knew the image wasn’t being cropped. The picture was adjusted to look as accurate as possible in a darkened room and five speakers and a sub woofer provided the sound. Despite our high-end setups, we were always looking for ways to improve our home entertainment systems because to us it could always be improved.
So, when in early 1994, an organization by the name of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) began training technicians to go to our homes with expensive test instrumentation to spend several hours improving our big-screen’s picture, we videophiles felt validated for all of the incessant tweaking that more than once tempted our significant others to hurl the remote out the window!
Analog Age of Display Calibrations
The ISF addressed what we thought to be the case for years – our home theater’s picture wasn’t being presented accurately and a lot could be done to improve it. Compared to the digital displays of today, however, the rear projection televisions (RPTVs) of the time were much more arduous to work on because they required electronic AND mechanical adjustments. In regards to the latter, one could easily spend the better part of an afternoon performing mechanical and electrostatic focus, deep optics cleaning, geometry, overscan, convergence, protective screen removal, and a slew of other time intensive tweaks. Some people even had the inside of their RPTVs lined with black fabric to cut down on inner-cabinet reflections.
With so much that could potentially be off, the post-calibration results would often be dramatic under the hands of a capable technician some of which would go on to gain national attention within the online home theater communities that would spring up in the late 90s. People like Kevin Miller, Jim Doolittle, Ken Whitcomb, Pat Bradley, Michael Chen, Chuck Williams, Robert P. Jones, David Abrams and yours truly, all cut their teeth during a time when spending 6-10 hours adjusting a video system to its limits was not uncommon. As word got around, no serious home theater enthusiast would consider his or her theater complete without its video system optimized by one of the dozen or so individuals known for providing a level of service that was head and shoulders above what other ISF technicians of the time were offering.
Digital Age of Display Calibrations
Things have changed considerably since the days of big-box televisions and 12” silver platters. So much so, that people have difficulty giving away let alone selling, their perfectly functioning analog sets because everyone wants a sexy flat-panel to hang on their wall. And who can blame them? Flat-panel technology has improved remarkably over the last two years and has come down to a price that most people can afford. Even quality front projection, which had been largely relegated to the affluent, can now be had for less than what a decent CRT/RPTV cost 10 years ago. And the ubiquitous standard definition DVD is becoming passé as Blu-ray is on track to becoming bigger than…well…DVD!
With such an exponential improvement in technology in such a relatively short period of time, it’s no wonder that some videophiles are beginning to doubt the benefits of a professional calibration since the picture is already so much more impressive than any display that they’ve ever owned – including the RPTV that they had calibrated! This is evident by how many attempt to quantify the amount of improvement their system might benefit from to determine whether or not hiring an ISF technician is worth the investment.
Setting aside the fact that an accurate number cannot be accessed beforehand, and that if it were possible everyone would see the improvement differently because of his/her own visual acuity, since when did 50, 70, or 85% accurate become good enough to the magazine reading, forum perusing, always ahead of the home theater curve videophile? Isn’t the basic goal to reproduce material as true to the original source as possible? Does it really matter if the calibration improvement is only 10, 20, or 30%?
No, it most certainly doesn’t. Right is right and wrong is wrong. Presenting material on a video system in anything but the most accurate manner in which it is capable of is a disservice to the time and monetary investment that its owners spent assembling it, particularly to those that have given considerable amounts of both.
Nevertheless, a growing trend persists in the online home theater communities – even amongst supposed videophiles – of doubting the benefits of a professional calibration because they feel that certain digital displays are already “good enough” out of the box and/or with minimal tweaking.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following.
A Musical Analogy
Three friends, Mike, John, and Sheryl, go to a piano recital. The following day, Mike goes online to read what the critics had to say. The reviews, while not bad, state that the pianist had performed better at a different venue a few days prior. This surprised Mike as he thought that it was a truly great performance. He decided to visit John and Sheryl to get their take on it.
John, who knows little about classical music and less about the performer, said, “To heck with the music critics. Who are they to say the concert wasn’t great?” When asked to support his remarks, John said, “You told me yourself that she was the best pianist that you had ever heard. Are you now doubting what you thought last night?”
Sheryl, who has a degree in classical piano performance, said, “She didn’t really convey the emotion that the program called for and as a result, the music wasn’t as engaging as it could have been.” When asked to support her remarks, she gathered some CDs and said, “Compare these to the recording of the concert. Listen to them carefully over the next week and let me know what you think.”
One week later, Mike understood why Sheryl felt the way she did about the recital. A performance that only a few days earlier seemed terrific to him was now subpar compared to the superior recordings of the same pianist that she had lent him. John, on the other hand, continues asserting that it was a great performance despite his musical ignorance. But he doesn’t stop there, he now feels compelled to convince his other friends to not buy any of the artist’s CDs because the free concert download is good enough.
I liken Mike to the home theater enthusiast that is deeply impressed by his new digital display yet wonders if a calibration could improve the already great picture. Sheryl is a home theater enthusiast as well but also a videophile who knows the full benefits of a properly calibrated video system. John, like his friends, is very much into home theater but is perfectly content with the current state of his video system, which to his credit is far better than any that he’s ever owned. He thinks Sheryl is way too picky about her picture and unlike Mike, is not interested in seeking the advice of a professional to see if his can be improved further.
Mike might say, “It should have been made better at the factory!” despite the fact that they are with each passing year. Plus, if one were to follow that logic, every known industry committed to improving an already good product wouldn’t exist. Or, he might say, “Any incremental improvement wouldn’t be worth paying for since the picture is already nearly perfect!” despite having never actually lived with a properly calibrated display or to be able to quantify what “nearly perfect” in video means to him.
True videophiles were a rare breed in 1994 and it seems that that’s still the case in 2009. Good enough was never good enough for us then, now, or perhaps ever. Nor are we concerned with the percentage of improvement since frankly, it is irrelevant. We simply demand no less than the most accurate picture that our video systems are capable of because of our deep love and respect for film. And we will never stop looking for ways to improve our home entertainment systems because to us, any improvement brings us one step closer to experiencing material the way its makers intended it to be enjoyed.
To all the Johns out there, even a Steinway Concert Grand delicately delivered to Carnegie Hall has to be precisely tuned by an expert for it to produce the most beautiful sound that it is capable of.