Kevin Miller talks to TVs.
I'd call him a TV whisperer, except Miller--one of CNET's main TV reviewers and a leading video expert who has his own home-theater consulting business--doesn't usually speak in gentle, soothing tones while working. No, when trying to tame the picture on one of the many plasmas, LCDs, rear-projections HDTVs, and front projectors he calibrates during a given month, he generally talks to them in insults laced with expletives--depending, of course, on how uncooperative the set is while undergoing a calibration.
Just the other day, I passed our A/V room, and there was Miller standing in front of a 42-inch ViewSonic plasma, chaffing, "You son of a bitch." I thought he was having trouble getting into the special technician's service menu and asked him what was wrong. It turned out that something right was bothering him: one of the set's preset picture modes was actually producing a good picture.
"This is bad for business," Miller said. "Bad for my business."
Miller makes a good living calibrating new HDTVs and providing equipment and room suggestions to clients. For better or worse, he lives off the fact that most TVs are preset from the factory to be as bright as possible on the showroom floor (brighter TVs sell better), and that once discerning viewers take the TV home and turn down the lights, the picture looks too garish. In many cases, you can do just so much with a basic calibration before anteing up $400 or so for a guy like Miller to make your TV be all that it can be. I've frequently told Miller it's a travesty. You pay several thousand dollars for a TV, and you should be able to make it look good yourself without spending a dime extra.
|Miller's maxims: common home-theater video problems
|Too large a screen for the room
"I don't care how good the TV is; if you're sitting too close to it, you'll see flaws in the picture."
More info: Size up your screen
|Bad choice of room colors
"White walls for front-projectors are a disaster because white reflects light. Also, don't paint the wall your screen or display is on with a primary color (green, blue, and so on). It messes with how your eye sees the picture."
|TV is placed too high
"Yeah, that plasma sure looks nice over the fireplace, but if you truly have respect for picture quality, it should be placed as close to eye level as possible."
|Standard-def cable and satellite TV look crappy
"Upgrading from a 27-inch analog set to a high-resolution HDTV is essentially like buying a big magnifying glass--an HD set is going to magnify flaws in the signal. What I tell people is, buy an HDTV for high-def programming and DVD--or just sit back a lot farther when watching standard-def channels."
More info: Three ways to get HDTV
"Don't put your kid in a high chair and have her watching 4:3 cartoons on a wide-screen display for two hours a day with the contrast cranked--unless, of course, you want to severely depreciate the value of your plasma."
More info: CNET's quick guide to aspect ratio
He agrees, but says if you're willing to spend four grand or more on a TV, $400 is a small price to pay to get the most out of your purchase. That begs the question: Is Miller's "magic" worth the dough, or is it is just some hocus-pocus act?
"I can't perform miracles," he says without the Scottish accent of Star Trek's Scotty. "But I can offer a dramatic improvement. It's not subtle. You will see a difference."
Having had his services performed on a few of my sets over the years, I can vouch for him. He can make bad performers out of the box look OK and good performers look even better. His main goals are to make colors appear more accurate, bring out details in dark scenes, and make the overall picture look sharper. He'll also make recommendations for seating distance, TV placement, room design, and lighting, and he refers clients to a handful of specialty retailers for equipment and installation. Audio's not his area of expertise, though he knows enough to point folks in the right direction.
He does warn that the industry is rife with charlatans. "A lot of the clients I deal with are pretty clueless about home theater, and some jerks out there take advantage of that." Miller's certified by the Imaging Science Foundation and also occasionally runs ISF-certification seminars. (In the interest of full disclosure, as part of my wedding present, Miller promised me free calibrations for life--or until I wrote a column about him that pissed him off.)
I'm sure he'll forgive me, but I still can't figure out why more TVs can't be like the ViewSonic plasma, which Miller has discovered is actually a Hitachi panel. In short, why should I need a Kevin Miller?
There are signs that some industry players are moving, slowly but surely, to address that question. According to Miller, "Some companies are making more of an effort to get it right out of the box than others--or to at least make it easy for qualified technicians to calibrate the set."
|Coming soon: CNET's Home Integrator Directory
This fall, CNET is launching a zip-code searchable directory of people like Kevin Miller who offer services to help you buy and use technology. CNET's Home Integrator Directory will catalog services ranging from simple plasma TV installs to full home automation. If you're in the business and you would like to be listed in our directory, visit homeintegrator.cnet.com for more information.
More info: CNET's Home Integrator Directory
In fact, not long after Miller reviewed Hitachi's 50V500 for us, the company hired him for a short consulting gig to educate product managers on how Hitachi could make their sets even better. In other words, they brought Miller in to tell them how they could help put him out of business.
"Hey, if they're going to get smart," Miller says philosophically, "I might as well be the one helping them do it." Kevin Miller works in the New York City tristate area and be reached at his Web site: http://www.isftv.com. If you'd like to sound off about mediocre out-of-the-box performance and other matters, let me (not him) know by using our new TalkBack feature.
David Carnoy is an executive editor for CNET Reviews.
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