What Does TV Contrast Ratio Mean?
More is better, right? That’s what TV manufacturers tell you when they pump up the numbers for dynamic contrast ratings on their products. If 3,000,000:1 is good, 150,000,000:1 must be better, right? Not necessarily.
The Numbers Game: TV Contrast Ratio Inflation
In 2004, the first TVs with a 4,000:1 contrast ratio were introduced. By 2007 that number was up to 15,000:1, and in 2008, we reached 1,000,000:1. Now we have “infinite” contrast ratios, often simply called mega-contrast.
Contrast is more than just numbers, though. Beyond the numbers, here’s what to look for in a TV’s contrast rating—and its real-world contrast.
What Is Being Measured in a Contrast Rating?
Contrast is the ratio between white and black in an image. If your contrast is 20:1, the white areas are 20 times brighter than the black areas. The larger the contrast ratio, the greater the difference between black and white.
Contrast helps us see image brightness and image detail. Low-contrast images are flat, dull, and gray, and fine detail is lost.
Static contrast is the native contrast of a display—the darkest blacks and brightest whites a display can show. Dynamic contrast uses a processor to adjust contrast on the fly, rendering deeper blacks in dark scenes, for instance, and brighter whites within a mostly bright scene. The dynamic contrast rating is the rating with higher numbers.
Ambient Light Affects Contrast
Contrast ratios are measured in a completely dark room, not in a real-world situation. Because we always view TV in a room with some ambient light, contrast numbers will be different in your home.
A higher brightness level helps us see contrast in brighter ambient light and in some ways is a more helpful measure than contrast ratio. Grayscale performance is also an issue: The ability to display a large number of gray levels will show better detail in bright scenes.
Seeing Contrast in the Real World
Mega-contrast ratings measured in complete darkness are true, if a bit misleading. A contrast ratio of 8,000:1 can show a dark subject better than a contrast ratio of 800:1. But the difference would only be apparent in a completely dark room and even then, the effect would be minimal.
A display should have the ability to display a deep shade of black, a bright white, and many levels of gray. When shopping, read contrast ratio numbers, but also use your eyes to look for contrast and shadow details in a real-world viewing situation.
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