Do we sound like a broken record when we stress the value of properly setting up your television? Probably, but we're going to say it again anyhow. Taking the time to select the best picture mode (usually, the movie or cinema mode) and adjust controls like contrast, brightness, color, tint, and sharpness can go a long way in improving your TV's performance.
Some TV manufacturers, such as LG and Philips, have incorporated helpful setup wizards into the TVs themselves; these wizards walk you through a few steps to achieve a more accurate, more attractive picture. Of course, you can also purchase calibration equipment and software programs that help you analyze and adjust the image. However, the most common, tried-and-true method is to buy a calibration disc, like Digital Video Essentials or the Spears & Munsil High-Definition Benchmark disc. The biggest challenge facing the author of a calibration disc is to make the disc advanced enough to please the enthusiast who's more likely to use it regularly, but also simple enough that the average user can understand the test patterns. Disney's new WOW calibration disc does a nice job walking that fine line.
The WOW disc includes both video and audio calibration tests. The Blu-ray package is available in two forms: a single-disc Blu-ray ($34.99) that offers the video and audio setup tools or a two-disc set ($39.99) that adds a Blu-ray disc called "Visions: Inspired by Nature," which is basically just attractive HD footage designed to show off your newly calibrated TV. (A DVD version of WOW is also available.) The package contains a 53-page booklet that provides full explanations for each test pattern, including helpful pictures that show how each pattern should and should not look. The WOW disc is divided into three sections: Discover, Optimize, and Experience.
The Discover section is aimed at the HDTV newbie. Through segments entitled "Home Theater Basics with Goofy" and "HD Primer," this section provides an overview of HDTV concepts like screen size, resolution, and Blu-ray versus DVD. The HT Basics feature mimics those old Goofy cartoons in which the narrator talks and Goofy responds. Yes, it sounds a bit corny, but the result is actually fairly restrained. The HD Primer breaks down the basics of picture resolution and the attributes of a pixel (color, brightness, and duration), and it also discusses audio frequency and amplitude. I was impressed by the quality of the explanations in this section: Disney has done a nice job of taking potentially confusing topics and presenting them in a clear, concise way that should be helpful to the average TV consumer. Not surprisingly, Disney has thrown in some sample content that just so happens to come from its own Disney/ABC/ESPN catalog.
The Optimize section is the meat of the disc. Here you'll find audio and video setup tools, divided into Beginner, Advanced, and Expert options. The Beginner section includes video test patterns for brightness, contrast, aspect ratio, color, sharpness, and viewing angle. Select a test, and the onscreen menu will state the test's objective, provide a description of the test pattern, and list possible names of the control in your TV's setup menu (i.e., contrast, brightness, etc.). Each test pattern is accompanied by a short video instruction that describes the test pattern and shows the ideal results. Most of the test patterns are clearly explained and easy to use. The explanation of the Contrast pattern might be a bit too quick and confusing for some, in which case the written breakdown in the accompanying booklet will be helpful. As usual, the trickiest one is the color control. As with other calibration discs aimed at the beginner, this section tries to employ filter-less color adjustment, which is quite subjective and won't likely produce the accurate results you get from using a blue filter. Still, the three patterns can help you adjust the color to your preference. On the audio side, you first select between stereo, 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 speakers, and then you can check speaker ID (with a very brief test tone for each speaker) and polarity. The noise floor option will test your speakers' dynamic range to help you determine what you can and can't hear in your room, while the buzz & rattle test helps identify potential noise distractions within your room.
As the name suggests, the Advanced section goes a little deeper. In terms of audio, this section adds test tones for speaker and subwoofer level adjustment using an SPL meter (not supplied). In the video realm, you can select the type of display device and then navigate through more advanced explanations and test patterns for brightness, contrast, and chroma/hue (this one uses a supplied blue filter and produces a more accurate result). You'll find the same sharpness and aspect-ratio patterns used in the previous section, and this section adds helpful tests for overscan/detail and A/V sync. (The setup patterns are basically the same for all the different display types, but CRT adds a convergence pattern.) Again, each test comes with a video explanation of the pattern and its ideal results.
The Advanced section adds display evaluation tools--patterns that don't necessarily involve the basic picture controls but can help you find and (in some cases) correct problems. Yet again, helpful explanations accompany each pattern. The Purity pattern allows you to look for stuck pixels and check brightness uniformity (if you find stuck pixels, the disc includes a pixel flipper that "exercises" the pixels to help unstick them; it can also be used to help counteract image retention in a plasma). Several scaling tests help you confirm that you're getting pixel-for-pixel output from a Blu-ray player or determine the amount of overscan, while zone plates help you look for aliasing due to excessive edge enhancement and more. This section also includes patterns for white/black clipping, gamma response, and gray scale, as well as a compound test chart that allows you to evaluate many different performance parameters at once.
Finally, there's the Expert section, where you can navigate quickly and directly through all the test patterns without the accompanying explanations.
An HD Shootout compares DVD and BD in both the audio and video arenas, while the Evaluation Tools section offers a stress test for professional video encoding systems.
Click on to Page 2 to find out the experience, the high points, low points, and the conclusion . . .
It wouldn't be a Disney disc without a healthy allotment of self-promotion, and that's basically all you'll get in the Experience section. Like the accompanying "Visions: Inspired By Nature" disc, this section is designed to show off the fruits of your calibration labor, with attractive HD demo clips from movies like Toy Story, Up, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and The Prestige.
Disney's WOW calibration disc is definitely aimed at the end user, not the professional calibrator or reviewer looking for highly technical evaluation/calibration tools. It doesn't offer as many advanced options as DVE or Spears & Munsil, but it's more thorough than the Monster/ISF HDTV Calibration Wizard DVD. As a consumer-oriented disc, it does an excellent job meeting the needs of both the home theater novice and the home theater enthusiast who wants to go a little deeper into the setup process. Unless you really like to look at pretty pictures of nature, I recommend you save a few bucks and go with the single-disc Blu-ray copy of WOW. It can help ensure that you're getting the best performance out of every HDTV in the house.