Monday, October 22, 2007

Samsung LN-T4665F LCD Calibration

This 46" LCD is part of Samsung's latest line of excellent LCD panels. It is full 1080p of course with a plethora of features. The bezel is a thin piano black and a tabletop stand is included. This panel is well-suited for a 5-10 foot viewing distance and would fit right into a small to medium-sized viewing room.

Calibration of this set was a pleasure as all the necessary adjustments can be made in the user menu. The first step is to engage the Movie Mode. This picture mode opens all the extra adjustments and gives you complete control over image enhancements. There are full controls for white balance and gamma which is quite rare in consumer TVs. Several of the picture enhancement features had interesting results when adjusted. I started with Pluge patterns to set brightness and contrast. I immediately noticed floating black levels. This was defeated by turning off Black Adjust. Once this was done, the TV had perfect DC restoration with no change in black level as the Average Picture Level (APL) increased. When viewing white Pluge patterns, I noticed as the Contrast control was adjusted, the color shifted quite noticeably. This was solved by turning off Dynamic Contrast. I also lowered the Backlight control and set the Color Tone to Warm2.

Color decoding was excellent using the Auto colorspace and turning off xvYCC. This is an extended colorspace that does not conform to any standards currently in use. It will make colors appear blown-out and unnaturally saturated. Measurements showed it to be somewhere between Rec. 709 and the Wide Gamut appearing on some newer TVs. White balance was adjusted to within 200k of D65 with a perfect 2.2 gamma. This LCD has the best gamma and black levels of any LCD I've calibrated to date. I achieved a minimum black level of .028 fL, excellent performance.

The final result was almost a plasma-like image. Color accuracy and saturation were excellent and dynamic range was greatly improved over what I started with. Since this TV is capable of excellent light output and has an anti-glare screen, I would recommend it for rooms without light control. It competes very well with daylight and other in-room light sources. Viewing angle is also above-average for an LCD. I have seen this TV for sale under $2500, a superb value. With the steep drop in flat panel prices over the last year or so, an LCD or plasma is now within reach of many more people. Given the vast adjustability and superb image quality of this display, I would not hesitate to put it in my top 5 recommendations.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Etymotic ER-4P In-Ear Monitors

I had long resisted buying an iPod. As a classical music aficionado, I value quality above all else and I just didn't feel the iPod would live up to my expectations of an audio component. I finally caved when I began a new exercise program that pretty much demanded some form of entertainment to get me through. I went for the 80gb video iPod (of course after a few months, there's a 160gb for the same price). After much research, I knew I would need some quality headphones, not the el cheapo earbuds Apple includes. I settled on the Etymotic ER-4P as the best price/performance in-ear monitors. I needed the isolation from the sounds of my Nordic Track and something that wouldn't slide around on my sweaty head like full-size cans. I did try a few workouts with some Sennheiser 280 Pros and I thought my ears would melt after only 30 minutes! By the way, there are also the ER-4S monitors. These are designed for connection to a headphone amplifier or in-home audio system. There are more difficult to drive and are therefore not suitable for use with portable devices. The P can be converted to the S with the addition of a $60 cable from Etymotic that changes their impedance. If you want to use the S with an iPod, it is recommended to use a headphone amp like the ones available from Headroom. I have read the sound quality with this setup is even better but it's not for the faint of wallet. A cheap headphone amp will run you about $200. Of course if you have the means...

I purchased the ER-4Ps from Amazon a few months ago for $175. This is far better than their $299 MSRP. They arrived promptly as everything from Amazon usually does. Included in a very nice plastic case were the monitors, extra filters with tool, and 2 kinds of earplugs, rubber and foam. The rubber ones are very easy to insert but the seal is a matter of luck depending on the shape and depth of your ear canal. This is very important. If you don't get a good seal with these monitors, the sound quality is poor at best. You also need to get them in as far as possible to enjoy their full frequency response. As a popular magazine says, "You don't wear them so much as implant them." I installed the foam tips. These have a small tube protruding from one end. This the end that goes in the ear. They are made of the same memory foam material as regular earplugs. You roll them between your fingers, insert, and wait for them to expand inside the ear canal. I used them this way for over 2 months and loved them. They are very comfortable and the sound quality is simply amazing. There is a level of detail in recordings that simply cannot be heard in a listening room setting. I can hear musicians breathing and shifting in their chairs. On one of my old Solti/Chicago Beethoven recordings, I can actually hear a telephone ring backstage! Podcasts take on a whole new feel as the voices really are in your head!

After awhile, I began to explore the prospect of custom earmolds. Etymotic recommends several labs that will make these for you. As I am near New York City, I contacted
Scientific Plastics and arranged a time to have my ear impressions taken. This involves a technician filling your ear canal with a green substance that hardens in about 5 minutes and is then removed. The result is a perfect representation of you entire ear canal. I had no idea it was so deep! A week later, my molds arrived in the mail. They were bored out specifically for the ER-4Ps. It took me a few tries to really fit them properly and get used to them. After a few days I am completely accustomed to them. Let me tell you, the sound quality took quite a leap. The bass response is now stupendously good rather than merely excellent. I can actually feel the lower instruments in my head. The seal and sound isolation is also much improved. Only the loudest sounds can penetrate now. I can't wait to try these on a bus or plane trip. Another tip for top sound quality: save your music in Apple's lossless format. Compression will destroy the transparency, dynamic range and soundstage of any classical recording. My CD collection is smaller than average. I fit about 50 hours of music into 20gb using lossless. Now that a 160gb iPod is available, there really is no reason to compress your music. Pictured below are the monitors sporting their somewhat eerie looking ear molds. Thanks for reading and enjoy your listening!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Panasonic TH-37PX60U Plasma Calibration

Another Panasonic so soon! I guess calibrations go in phases. For awhile it was Sonys. This plasma panel is a bit older than the 700U I wrote about recently. My client has had it about a year and he was ready to unlock its full potential. This 37" TV is a nice size for those of you who have an entertainment center or AV cabinet. It fits comfortably in or on many different types of furniture. If you want a TV that doesn't draw attention to itself, this panel is an excellent choice.

Since this is a 720p (1024x768 native) display, I set my pattern generator for this resolution. I also set the cable box and upconverting DVD player in the client's system for these resolutions. It is always best to feed a display its native format whenever possible to minimize any video processing done by the set. Color primaries measured a bit oversaturated for green and red and near-perfect for blue, typical of Panasonic plasmas. Interestingly, this client had the color temp set to a warmer than D65 level. Most people are accustomed to a bluish tint on their TVs and set the color temp to normal or even cool. This is the first client I've had who actually had become accustomed to a too-warm white balance. I also noticed a fair amount of noise in the various test patterns I displayed. Unlike the 700U, the sharpness control did not help this condition.

After doing rough settings in the user menu, I entered service to adjust white balance, and black/white levels. This was tricky at first as going into service sets the TV to Vivid mode. I was fortunately able to toggle between user and service to force the TV into Cinema mode. Cinema is the only mode that allows different settings for each input. The other modes have global settings. Once I set the Cinema mode, white balance was easily adjusted to within 100k of D65. Setting black level in service also allowed me a much finer adjustment than the user menu. Exiting service, I immediately noticed a huge reduction in noise. The multi-burst patterns were now very clean and sharp. Obviously, color adjustments on this set have quite an effect on overall noise levels. As with the 700U, the noise reduction controls in user had no visible effect. The only other adjustment required was to reduce the color and tint controls a bit to compensate for the oversaturated green and red primaries. My trusty CA-6X analyzer came through once again to help me align the decoder more accurately than I could using filters. To my knowledge, no other colorimeter has this feature. It allows me to adjust the color and tint controls to align the decoder to the measured primaries rather than the reference. This is far more precise than filters which only work if the primaries are correct and you're calibrating a CRT.

As usual, my client and I checked out some content when I was finished. Discovery HD over a Cablevision feed looked stunning (I really love plasmas for HD!). The color resolution was so much better than before. My client commented that he could really see an increased color palette. There's nothing like lifting the veil of image inaccuracy and seeing what the content creator intended rather than what the television's manufacturer intended. Raiders of the Lost Ark from a Sony upconverting DVD player looked great too. This THX-certified transfer is an excellent reference for any player or display. The clarity of this DVD release is matched by few other titles. Now that we're on the eve of having all our movies in hi-def, it's still gratifying to see standard-def DVD done so well.

Just like the 700U I reported on recently, this TV is a top candidate for calibration. The client and I were very happy with the results. He considered it well worth the price and I considered it well worth my time. A properly calibrated plasma is probably the closest we can get to the venerable CRT in terms of dynamic range, contrast ratio and color saturation. I do suggest viewing plasmas in a light-controlled room. Reflections from lights and windows can be seen on the glass screen. The image is plenty bright enough however, to compete with indirect light sources. As my client had his panel in a cabinet, he solved the problem of light reflection quite nicely.

Another happy customer, thanks for reading!