You cautiously exit the dealer’s lot in your spiffy new $70,000 Mercedes and excitedly step on the gas. Instead of the expected surge of acceleration, the engine spits and coughs and the steering wheel shakes in your hands. Do you drive home? Hell no! You U-turn it back to the dealer and complain.

“Oh, didn’t we tell you?” he explains, “the engine tune-up and front end alignment cost an extra $7000. Would you like to make an appointment?”

Of course that doesn’t happen. Whether you buy a $70,000 Mercedes or a $10,000 Hyundai you expect- and get-a car that’s been tuned and aligned. Unfortunately, when you buy an HDTV, no matter what the technology, no matter how expensive, you’re getting the equivalent of an un-tuned, un-aligned car.

Why your new set doesn’t leave the factory properly adjusted has to do with retail floor space conditions, competition, and to a certain degree, consumer ignorance. Ask most consumers what they want in a television picture, and the first thing they usually say is “bright.” Between bright showrooms and consumers demanding “bright,” manufacturers fearful of their sets not looking as bright as the competition, adjust their sets to leave the factory looking bright and way too “contrasty.”

While you can perform certain consumer-accessible adjustments for free that can greatly improve the picture, such as turning the contrast or “picture” adjustment at least half-way down from the 100% factory setting, and the “sharpness” control to around 25% from the much higher factory value, to get the most from your new high-tech video monitor, you’ll have to pay a trained technician-preferably one who’s been trained by the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF)- to professionally calibrate your set, if you want it to be truly “road worthy.”

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

A good color picture begins with a good black and white one, with white being referenced to 6500 degrees Kelvin-the origins and meaning of which are not critical to this discussion. What’s important is that lower than 6500 degrees and “white” begins to look yellow. Higher and “white” turns blue.

Almost all sets leave the factory with “white” referenced to “blue-white” around 10,000 degrees Kelvin and sometimes going as high as 16,000 degrees, which is literally “off the charts.” A calibrator’s first job is to set the color of white to 6500 degrees Kelvin. The next job is to assure that the balance of the three cathode ray tubes (red, green, blue) in a CRT based set, or of the pixel sets in a microdisplay or plasma set, remains consistent from the very lowest light output to the brightest. This is called “tracking a gray scale.”

Perhaps you’ve noticed that your new set has a green or purplish cast in dark scenes. When the calibrator is finished with this part of his job, assuming your set is able to be properly calibrated (not all are), the picture will appear far more natural and life-like, and far less cartoony and garish than almost all sets look via the factory settings. The difference is not subtle, but from years of viewing bright, contrasty, and way too blue pictures, it does take some getting used to. However, once you’ve acclimated to a natural, life-like picture, you’ll never want to go back to blue.

CRT based sets-especially rear projection models-require far more work to look their best. They need both electronic and manual focus to look their sharpest, and they often need adjustment to assure proper geometry (so circles look like circles, and squares square) as well as accurate “convergence,” which assures that the three beams produced by the three electron guns or tubes combine cleanly to form a single, well focused white beam. When you see red or blue “fringes” around screen images, you know the convergence is off. This adjustment requires periodic “touching up.”

Fortunately all sets provide the means, and while newer sets have automatic convergence circuitry, manual adjustment is still best. The better ISF trained calibrators teach their customers how to perform set convergence. Fixed pixel displays (plasma, LCD, DLP, LCoS) require fewer adjustments (no convergence needed), which is why most calibrators charge less to set them up.

Finally, the calibrator will adjust the consumer accessible controls-picture (contrast), brightness, color, tint and sharpness-using a test DVD. Reference values for all settings are provided in an ISF report filled out by the calibrator and left with the customer.

How critical is the calibrator’s work? The analogy to an un-tuned car engine and unaligned steering system is not an overstatement: almost all modern high definition video displays leave the factory grossly mis-adjusted. Almost all benefit greatly from a proper calibration. How much will it cost? Most ISF trained calibrators charge around $375 for a fixed pixel display calibration and $500 for a rear projection CRT based one, with some adding extra by the hour, for long distance travel.

You’ve probably spent thousands for your set. Is it worth spending a few hundred more to get it to produce the best possible picture? After your set is calibrated, chances are good you’ll answer “Yes!”‘

Michael Fremer is senior contributing editor at Stereophile, contributing editor at Stereophile Guide to Home Theater , and official show spokesperson for HE2004, the home theater and hi-fi show being held at New York’s Hilton Hotel MY 20-23. For more info