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THX and ISF Calibration – is it worth it?

John Archer


THX and ISF Calibration – is it worth it?

It's time to get serious about calibration...

It’s a sad but undeniable fact that the vast majority of people who buy a TV – even a really expensive one – never get the best out of their swanky new set. Why? Because most people don’t as much as glance at their picture set up menus. They stick with whatever picture presets come included with the TV, despite the fact that these presets are almost always crap.

Here’s the truth. If you have settings like contrast, backlight, colour, motion processing, noise reduction and brightness set too high, you will never be seeing the best – as in, most detailed, most nuanced, most involving and most natural – pictures your TV can produce.

Honestly, the thought of tens of thousands of TVs across the UK looking like a dog’s dinner when they could be looking beautiful causes us physical pain. Well, nearly.

There are many ways to calibrate a TV, but the hardcore route is to pay £350 to £500 to a professional calibrator. To work out if it’s worth the effort, we rounded up an ISF- and THX-certified plasma TV (Panasonic P50VT50) and receiver (Onkyo TX-NR5010), and invited a similarly certified professional calibrator with 23 years of experience and challenged him to show us.

But first...

What is THX and ISF?

Anyone who reads about TVs will probably have heard of THX and ISF. But even if you know what the letters stand for there’s a good chance you don’t really understand what the organisations behind them do – or why they’re such important forces for good in the AV world.

THX, the brainchild of Star Wars director George Lucas, produced a set of tests for AV gear and TVs. THX is, in other words, a seal of quality and that shows that the product in question has passed its stringent tests.

THX TVs (which are plasma only, at the moment) and projectors these days also carry dedicated THX picture presets, created using laptops at the manufacturers’ factories equipped with THX software. THX presets are a superb shortcut for AV enthusiasts – especially now that TV and projection technology has reached the point where it can fully deliver on THX’s wishes.

THX and ISF Calibration 4

Onkyo is currently the only brand to make ISF compliant receivers in the UK

ISF, meanwhile, stands for the Imaging Science Foundation – an organisation that was set up in 1994 with the aim of assisting everyone from large companies to individual consumers to get the best from their AV products.

The ISF does two important things. First, it works with projector and TV manufacturers who solicit its help to develop and provide the sort of tools – gamma adjustments, colour management systems, white balance options and suchlike – required to deliver a professional calibration. Second, it trains engineers to calibrate TVs and projectors so that they deliver the best (as in, most accurate according to industry standards) picture quality possible.

What makes the ISF calibration procedure special is that it takes the lighting conditions and layout of your room into account, as well as the precise configuration of the particular panel you own, so that you get a truly personalised optimal TV/projector experience. Such a level of precision is clearly impossible to get with even the most carefully calibrated of factory picture presets.

At least, that’s the theory. Read on to see how it works out in practice.


May 30, 2013, 2:01 am

Very interesting article, now if only you can less flash adverts on the site so that my not-that-bad laptop can open more than 2 tabs of TR at a time, that'd be great

Chris Beach

May 30, 2013, 11:48 am

Interesting, my budget £500 LG has some ISF tools, and I've calibrated it using the internal 'optimiser'. I've not a blu-ray optimiser disk though, so I've not gone further than that. It took about 30mins to do, and well worth it.


May 30, 2013, 3:39 pm

Try Adblock in Chrome. Makes this site usable again!


May 30, 2013, 4:22 pm

Might be worth mentioning AVForum's PicturePerfect web-site: http://www.myperfectpicture.tv... with its guides to TV calibration for novices.

On the other hand, I'm looking forward to TR's budget calibration guide, as my expertise only runs as far as setting the TV into Movie mode and disabling the set's picture processing. Hope the article's up soon.


May 31, 2013, 1:28 am

"motion enhancement systems cause pictures to look unnatural"

I couldn't agree more with this. The first setting i changed when i bought my new tv was to switch off motion plus. I find it particularly weird and distracting when watching dialogue, almost like watching something with the sound out of sync or poorly dubbed.


September 26, 2013, 6:57 pm

If you are truly serious about calibration take a look at the Light Illusion website: http://www.lightillusion.com

This is the calibration system used by the professionals, and now available for hight-end home cinema calibration.


October 9, 2013, 8:15 pm

Unless you are uncomfortable or totally inept at becoming familiar with
the basic and Advanced settings of the newer digital HDTVs, it is
foolish to pay for a "pro" calibration by anyone. It is equally as
foolish to spend hundreds of dollars and hours using consumer grade
hobbyist colorimeters or spectros to make TV settings. It is simply. .. .
NOT necessary . . .period. There will be NO night and day difference
that your eye can see between Media Assisted Setting using a test DVD or
Blu-ray with patterns and a "calibration" performed using equipment. . .
on any TV costing under $3,000 or so.

Also, these are consumer grade TVs we are talking about and usually
using a consumer grade Blu-ray or DVD player in the so called
"calibration" process. True calibration of any scientific device
requires a complete chain of equipment set to standards of known
accuracy. A DVD or Blu-ray player does NOT qualify in this regard and
low cost consumer or hobbyist grade meters and software costing several
hundred dollars are also of dubious accuracy.

I've been working in TVs since a teen well before the hype of
"Calibration" and also have purchased and used calibration meters and
softaware. It is a nice diversion and may let you think you are getting
the "best" picture. Not likely. Unless you own a projection TV system
in a home theater costing multi thousands of dollars, or work in pro
photo work with professional monitors. . .. save yourself some money and
make you own TV settings. The skills and equipment of those using
and selling calibration and meters are very much in doubt and there is
NO way for you to know if your TV is any better than doing it yourself.
The "charts and graphs" provided by such things are pretty, but I've
used them none provide meaningful difference in picture quality.

Ohh... I can hear those who sell such stuff gnashing their teeth, but
folks, I've been working in TV since a teen before all this calibration
hype started. It is simply not necessary. Using a Disney WOW disc,
Digital Video Essentials, Spears & Munsil, etc will provide all you
If you want a "warm fuzzy" feeling that your TV is calibrated and
"accurate" go ahead and pay for meters or a calibration for the status
and bragging rights. But it really isn't necessary at all and you really
have NO way of KNOWING that your TV is really optimized because some
charts, graphs or video tech guru SAYS it is.


March 31, 2014, 2:34 am

What does the receiver actually do? Does it have CMS and 10point white balance for each input??


April 27, 2014, 2:54 am

It depends how you define a "night and day" difference. For me there's a night and day difference on my 65" plasma from a basic DVE calibration to proper gamma, Rec. 709 CMS calibration using HCFR and a spectro.
My wife wouldn't even notice the difference. There's also a huge difference to my audio system after an Audyssey calibration but again my wife probably wouldn't notice the difference....at least not consciously.


February 22, 2015, 4:06 pm

Professional home theater audio and video calibration can be very helpful. Here are some client reviews from a popular calibrator in the US http://www.accucalhd.com/revie....

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