Can an app make your TV look better? According to THX, the answer to that question is yes. Today the company is releasing THX Tune-Up, a calibration app for iOS it claims can help you get the best performance from your home theater setup. Tune-Up arrives just in time for the rush of HDTVs being sold ahead of this weekend's Super Bowl, and there's good reason for new TV owners to give the app a look.
True, there are those people that will pull a $1,500 big-screen TV out of its box, plug it in, and live happily ever after with their new purchase. Considering the investment high-end HDTVs demand, though, it's worth doing some extra work to ensure you're getting the optimal viewing experience. That's where calibration comes in, but why is it necessary to begin with?
Getting the best from your new TV
The characteristics of each TV display that comes off the manufacturing line vary slightly — even if they're all being used for the exact same TV model. Therefore, the settings applied to your TV out of the box are the manufacturer's best guess as to what will make for a satisfactory picture. But "satisfactory" and "best" are two very different things. Getting your TV looking its best usually means digging into menus and altering settings like brightness, contrast, color, and tint. But how are you supposed to know which adjustments to make? The calibration process can seem hopelessly complex to the uninitiated, but thankfully there are several approaches to achieving the desired result.
You can already purchase special DVDs and Blu-ray discs that will steer you through calibration with the help of on-screen test patterns and sound samples. Digital Video Essentials makes one such product, and more recently, Disney's World of Wonder Blu-ray has also proven a popular choice. Included in these packages are colored filters you'll need to look through during certain tint-oriented tests, and you'll want to run through the whole gamut of patterns more than once to make sure you've reached the right settings. There's also the option of hiring an ISF-certified specialist to come into your home for a professional-grade calibration. The results you'll get from these experts are unrivaled, but it's also the most costly option — and overkill for 99 percent of viewers.
Bringing calibration to the iPhone
THX Tune-Up marks the first time we've seen a smartphone assist users with setting up their home theater centerpiece. Even so, the execution here is largely similar to optical media solutions. Tune-Up displays various visual patterns on your TV with step-by-step audio and text instructions guiding you through each test. They're all extremely straightforward, and a photo sample paired with each test helps you better understand how each change impacts image quality. THX has also come up with a clever substitute for those plastic color filters; since the company can't exactly include physical accessories with a digital app, it uses the iPhone's camera to mirror their utility. As for the included sound system tests, they're a bit simpler but will help you verify that audio is being routed through the proper speaker.
You'll either need an Apple TV or an expensive cable for your iPhone
Just how do you go about connecting Tune-Up to your HDTV? There are a few methods, none of them free. The first is AirPlay mirroring over the $99 Apple TV, though THX cautions this isn't an ideal solution since you can't run audio tests thanks to current limitations with Apple's protocol. The company would instead prefer that you use Apple's official AV cables and tether directly over HDMI. And while the app is free (for a limited time), those cables aren't cheap — the Lighting AV cable is $50 — and may convince some to skip Tune-Up entirely in favor of cheaper solutions or free online resources like AVS Forum.
But those that do try out THX's method will be rewarded with modest improvements. In our tests, it worked as advertised. Speaking to The Verge, company reps made clear that Tune-Up isn't meant to be a substitute for having a professional visit your home for a thorough calibration. Instead, it's a tool that can (fairly quickly) help your new TV look better than it did the first time you turned it on. And as an added bonus, you'll be able to play the famous "deep note" that moviegoers hear before THX-certified movies in lossless audio. Available in the App Store now, THX Tune-Up is free for one week, after which it will run $1.99 in the US and abroad. An Android version is planned for spring 2013.