Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition

The digital age has provided us with many innovations both in the audio and video world over the past several years. The most dramatic and accessible improvements have been in the video domain with the advent of affordable high definition displays and a wide variety of high definition material courtesy of HD broadcasts and the Blu-ray format. The HD standard brings with it a new set of performance parameters that need to be optimized in order to unlock the full potential of HD video. In order to optimize your TV or projector you will need to use appropriate calibration material.

For the better part of the last two decades, various video calibration discs have been available for this purpose, starting with the original Video Essentials disc on the now defunct laser disc format. This original NTSC test disc was brought to us by video guru Joe Kane who, in conjunction with Joel Silver, helped establish a set of video standards that evolved into what is now known as the ISF or Imaging Science Foundation. The mandate for ISF is to optimize the performance of video displays in the home environment with a significant boost in picture quality as well as prolonging the life of our video displays. Back in the day of analog NTSC televisions, standard definition broadcasts and VHS tape, the benefits derived from proper calibration were still clear for all to see. Our old TVs were big and clunky because they were based on a vacuum tube with phosphors painted on the inside of the screen that were excited by an electron gun. Proper calibration of these designs not only improved performance but also prolonged the life of the TV as all TV sets had incorrect settings out of the box. The TVs’ images needed to jump out at the consumer on the brightly lit retail sales floor so manufacturers had the contrast or white levels set very high. Leaving the TV in this mode meant the phosphors were literally being burnt off at a rapid pace, shortening the optimal performance capability of the TVs by a significant margin. Remember the dull, washed out images one experienced on our TVs after a few years?

Fast forward to the late ’90s and the incredible jump in home video performance brought to us courtesy of the DVD format. Our TVs were still NTSC and analog but the improvements in picture and sound quality from the DVD were phenomenal, making the DVD the most rapidly adopted new format in the history of the electronics industry. The Video Essentials DVD and Avia DVD calibration discs made their appearance providing an even more precise tool to optimize our video displays. The goal was to achieve as film-like an image as possible given the superior encoding capabilities of the DVD format.

The next logical step was to develop new display technologies as the DVD format exceeded the capabilities of most tube based TVs. We simply were not seeing all the potential benefits of the digital software. Plasma televisions provided the first digital video display technology available for the home viewer with LCD and DLP technologies following shortly thereafter. The displays were prohibitively expensive but for the few early adopters the benefits were huge. Proper calibration of digital displays again resulted in huge improvements in picture quality and extended their lifespan especially for the phosphor based plasmas. But we were still dealing with the 480 i/p NTSC standard DVD. Now the software had to catch up to the digital display’s 720p/768p capabilities.

As we strolled into the new millennium it was out with the old NTSC format and in with the new ATSC HD standard. High definition 720p/1080i broadcasts via cable, satellite and over the air transmissions meant we could finally experience digital video with cutting edge performance. Today we are on the verge of phasing out the NTSC format and finally on the doorstep of full digital and HD display standard. Try to find an old style analog tube based TV in a retail environment these days, not that you would want to!

Which brings us to the present day with full 1080p TVs, the Blu-ray format and, of course, new 1080p Blu-ray calibration discs.

In this review, we’ll take a look at the most recently released Blu-ray based calibration disc from Stacey Spears and Don Munsil, the Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition. Mastered at 1080p with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio audio options, this is the most user friendly and accurate 1080p calibration disc that we have used to date. Do I have your attention yet?

Having the experience of calibrating video displays over the last twenty years I can sympathize with the average enthusiast when it comes to trying to figure out how in the world one uses the test patterns in conjunction with the video displays controls to achieve the desired result. This has been the main failure of all previous calibration discs. They were difficult to navigate through the menu options and once one located the desired test pattern there was little guidance as to how to properly utilize the pattern and the TV’s controls.

The Spears and Munsil disc surprised us with a series of new test patterns that we have never seen before. The patterns are easily accessible via the on-screen menu and are logically laid out in the proper sequence. Most importantly the disc comes with a small, well written manual that clearly explains how to use every test pattern found on the disc. This is a tool anyone with an interest in optimizing their video display can use, not just those that have calibration training.

The video display used for this review was a Mitsubishi HC4900 LCD 1080p front projector firing onto an 80-inch screen with a PS3 as the source connected via HDMI. We had previously calibrated the projector with a Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics Blu-ray calibration disc. The room lights were turned off and the projector was already set to the warm colour temperature setting. All “enhancement” settings were previously defeated so as to provide a clean slate for calibration.

The two key elements that need to be accurately set are the contrast and brightness settings on your display’s controls. The contrast (or gain) setting establishes the correct white level of the image. The brightness (or bias) setting controls the black level of the picture. Inaccurate black and white levels result in inaccurate levels of grey from pure white to pure black which in turn means incorrect colour rendition. The Spears and Munsil disc provides two different patterns for setting black levels, a PLUGE Low and High. PLUGE stands for Picture Line-Up Generator, a long established pattern used for setting accurate levels on displays. These were very simple to use with a detailed set of instructions guiding me what to look for. Our original settings required just a slight decrease in the brightness level.

Once black levels were set we now moved onto the first truly unique pattern used to set contrast or white levels. The pattern consisted of a series of numbered black and white bars as well as two ramps going from black to white and back to black again and vice versa. This pattern showed how inaccurate our previous test disc was in setting white levels. The contrast level needs to be adjusted until ALL the numbered white bars are visible. Our previous settings allowed for only a third of the bars to be visible, meaning that our display was clipping or essentially merging the highest levels of white into one white blob. We popped the DVE test disc in again as we were shocked at the variance. The DVE calibration disc was substantially off relative to the Spears and Munsil test pattern. We went from a -2 setting of contrast to a -12! Since the contrast and brightness settings interact with each other, we again verified that the black levels were correct and we moved to the next pattern.

The colour bar patterns the Spears and Munsil disc include the standard SMPTE and the newer HD SMPTE set of colour bars showing the primary and secondary colours. This pattern represents the only omission that Spears and Munsil are guilty of. In order to properly evaluate the colour bar pattern you need to view it through a blue filter, which is not included with this disc for some inexplicable reason. One can acquire the blue filter by ordering it from the THX site for a grand total of $1.99 plus $5-10 shipping. The blue filter can be purchased at this link: http://www.costore.com/THX/productenlarged.asp?peid=87&pid=930793

Viewing both the standard SMPTE and HD SMPTE bars showed that our original colour settings were accurate. These patterns also test the tint or hue settings and again they were bang on.

The next pattern again represented a large variance from the old settings. The sharpness control is often the most abused and misunderstood pattern as individuals think more is better or sharper in this case. The opposite usually holds true as most displays benefit from the sharpness being turned down from the factory setting. The sharpness control when increased will add a halo effect around solid lines which is detrimental to the overall image quality. Our previous setting of 0 had to be further reduced to -5 as this unique sharpness pattern clearly showed ghosting around the solid lines at the old setting. This was the fastest sharpness calibration we have ever undertaken as it usually takes a lot of peering up close to the screen to determine halos or ghosting. Very impressive!

These first six patterns are the fundamental patterns that are used in conjunction with your display’s brightness, contrast, tint and sharpness controls to effectively calibrate your display. The remaining patterns on this disc are used to fine-tune and evaluate your display and your Blu-ray player.

Among these, is a unique Clipping pattern, which shows whether your display or player is capable of rendering the full range of luma or white and Red, Green & Blue(RGB). The instructions state that a slight adjustment of the contrast would help offset any clipping issues.

The Image Cropping pattern lets you know if all 1080 x 1920 pixels are being displayed. Check to see if your “Overscan” feature is turned off on the display if you are encountering pixel cropping.

Chroma Alignment is next up with a pattern that utilizes crosshairs distributed around the screen that should be pure white with no colour fringing.

The Dynamic Range (both high and low) is determined in the next two patterns ensuring that full dynamic range of the signal is being processed by the display and delivered by the player to the display respectively. Again the instructions are clear and concise as to how to adjust the display accordingly.

The final pattern that allows for fine-tuning is the 11 Step Crossed Gray Scale pattern. All 11 levels should be clearly visible and adjusting contrast will fine-tune your gray scale rendition.

There are also a series of luma and chroma patterns for resolution and bandwidth evaluation with the first section of patterns ending with Geometry patterns enabling you to verify that your display is not distorting the image (handy for aligning front projectors) and a unique Picture In Picture geometry pattern verifying accurate PIP performance.

The next two chapters involve patterns designed to evaluate your display’s capability to de-interlace standard and HD material. Also included are test patterns with video material interspersed with film (i.e. titles or captions present on film based source material) as well as the edge adaptive deinterlacing capabilities. Again, this section is clearly explained, simple to comprehend and is effective in evaluating your display and your video source.

There is a brief audio section that allows for evaluation of PCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio but the main focus of this disc is on video performance.

The Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition is exactly as stated, a true benchmark for all other calibration discs. Our projector has never looked better with a more 3D and film-like image with absolutely no viewing fatigue in a pitch black room, a major improvement over the previous calibration settings. This is a disc for anyone who owns a 1080p display and wishes to attain maximum performance with minimum headache. Very highly recommended!

For more information about this disc, please visit www.spearsandmunsil.com.

Update (June 2010): It was just brought to our attention that the Spears & Munsil disc now comes supplied with a blue calibration filter (at 1X, 2X, and 3X) to help adjust the colour and tint controls of your display.

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