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Calibration Gone Bad… You Broke My TV!

  by John Sciacca At the risk of handing over the billows to help stoke what seems to be a near eternal, roaring flame war topic, I will start by saying that I am both THX and ISF video calibration certified. And regardless of what you may think about these services -- wit

by John Sciacca

At the risk of handing over the billows to help stoke what seems to be a near eternal, roaring flame war topic, I will start by saying that I am both THX and ISF video calibration certified. And regardless of what you may think about these services — with lines pretty clearly formed on the sides of, “Your TV is unwatchable without it!” and “Biggest waste of money ever!” — there are many people that feel that a calibrated display produces a much more natural, film-like, and pleasing-to-watch image.

Right before Christmas — like on December 24 — I got a phone call from a guy in his mid-30s who was really zealous about movies and technology and wanted to purchase a gift certificate from me to perform a color calibration on a TV. So, I started by asking him some qualifying questions and it turns out he wanted me to calibrate his parents’ TV, which sold for around $900.

I asked him if he was sure that he wanted to spend $350 to calibrate a $900 TV. “Oh, yeah! Absolutely!” he exclaimed. And, then I told him that in my experience, I’ve found that older people often don’t like the way a calibrated set looks, because it is usually so much dimmer.

“Oh, no!” he assured me. “They’ll love it!” he assured me.

“OK, but, just to be clear, when I accurately adjust the grayscale and the contrast and brightness, it is going to be dimmer,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, but way more accurate,” he argued. “Totally! Let’s do it!”

So, despite my quasi efforts to dissuade him, he was insistent, and I sold him the cal.

Well, yesterday I performed the calibration. When I showed up, the room was like a textbook example of worst-case scenario for performing a calibration. There were tons of windows with no shades or drapes — a lot of natural light that couldn’t be controlled. I asked if there was any way to darken the room, and they both say no. Fine, I said, I’ll just make do the best I can.

So, as I was setting up — opening my laptop, getting out my notes, loading AVIA, unboxing my meter — I tried to engage the customers. One of the things that they teach you when you are getting certified to perform calibrations is that you should get the customers involved in the process. Educate them about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Explain what a calibrated set looks like and why it is important, and that it might take some getting used to, etc. That way, when you’re done they don’t just immediately say, “Oh my gosh! What have you done? It’s so dim! Put it back!”

But, these folks weren’t at all interested in the how, what, why of the educational portion of our calibration agenda. In fact, as I was getting started, they both left the room. So, I jumped into the service menu and activated the “Cal Day” and “Cal Night” settings (a special props should go to Samsung for making it so easy to get to the needed calibration settings. Whatever you think about calibration, one thing we can all agree on is that it is great to not have to hunt around through nebulous and bizarrely coded titles looking for the setting that you need while simultaneously trying to avoid activating any “Press this secret button to instantly brick the TV!” landmines. I give some of this credit to Mike Wood, Samsung’s senior CE products test manager. Mike used to work alongside Joel Silver at ISF, and we actually went to high school together.) Anyway, I started performing the calibration. What should have been a pretty straight-forward process was greatly encumbered by the fact that my calibration software kept crashing, letting me get about 14 out of 18 readings done before it would go all “not responding” on me and then require a reboot where I would have to start all over.

So I finally got my adjustments completed, took all of my measurements for the before-and-after charts, looked at some video clips to confirm image quality, made some nip-and-tucks, and then loaded up my kit and headed out the door. I got back to my store and e-mailed the PDF calibration reports to the son and went on with the rest of my day.

That was until I saw this car come barreling into my store’s parking lot. It pulls in all askew, taking up like three spaces and the guy jumps out in such a hurry that he leaves the car running. He comes storming into the showroom and just makes this beeline toward our offices. I go out to meet him, and before I can even say, “Hi,” he starts talking with so much anger that both my partner and I thought for a brief second that he was going to go, “Ahhh! I’m just kidding! I love it! Great job!” But no. This guy is just so mad that he is literally on the verge of shaking and probably taxing the outer limits of his blood pressure meds.

“I don’t know what you think you did, but you broke my TV! You totally ruined it and now you’re either gonna come back to my house — RIGHT NOW! — and fix it back to how it was, or you’re gonna give me a new TV!” As you can imagine, this is pretty off-putting. First off, it isn’t too often that I actually get yelled at anymore. Second, just minutes before I had been lounging in my black office chair joking around and working on a proposal. I was not at all prepared for an ambush attack. Third, I just spent like three hours making this TV look as good as I could, and now I was being berated for it!

And you know how sometimes people will get a bad gift from a loved one — like a super ugly and gaudy tie for example, or maybe an acrylic napkin holder — and they’ll just suck it up and say, “Oh, no! I love this tie! I don’t have anything like it! It’s just… perfect!”? Well, this wasn’t the type of guy that was gonna suck up an ugly tie from his kid. He was taking this gift, wadding it up into a ball in his rage fists, and throwing it down as hard as he could. This vent goes on for a bit, and he takes the opportunity to tell me that his 35-year-old RCA set looks better and how I’ve made his new set totally dark and unwatchable and what did I think I was doing, etc.

I can tell that this isn’t the time to try and extol all the virtues of a calibrated image — that ship had sailed when he left in the middle of my cal. Fortunately, with the cal settings in the Samsung it is incredibly easy for him to go back to the pre-calibrated image. There were no lingering sub-menu adjustments where the guy is going to be able to say the set isn’t exactly as I found it. I demonstrate what he needs to do and then give him a business card to call me to make sure that he is satisfied that the set has indeed been returned to how it was before.

Later, he calls to inform me that it is back to normal and “at least 10,000 times better looking now than whatever it was you did,” and he hangs up.

The son actually got a good laugh out of the whole thing; apparently the dad called him and gave him an equal dose of the same two-barrels that he unloaded on me. I assured him that the cal settings would still be in place so he could enjoy them on his next visit.

So, what have we learned from this?

First, calibration isn’t for everyone and is probably a risky gift to give, especially to your parents. My dad freaked out when I wanted to program his HDTV channels under his “Favorites” button. If I had whipped out a meter and started tweaking with his grayscale, he probably would have disowned me.

Second, there is a real reason why ISF and THX both stress the importance of the client education process; it is crucial to helping them understand not only what you are doing but what the image will look like afterwards. I’m not sure that I’ll perform another calibration where the set owner refuses to be on hand for at least part of the process.

Third, if you are going to be the bearer of such a possibly unwanted “gift,” then make sure that it can be easily — and completely — undone. If I hadn’t had a quick and totally reversible solution for this customer, we would have undoubtedly had a far worse outcome. And that big, throbbing, purple temple vein is one color that you don’t want to have to calibrate your way out of.