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What is TV Contrast Ratio?

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Updated July 13, 2009
TV contrast ratio is possibly the biggest misleading feature that you can use when comparing HDTVs because even though a contrast ratio might be reported as identical between models, the actual contrast might be different. This discrepancy is a result of no industry standard of measurement.

Still, despite the cries of some industry experts, contrast ratio is an important specification to understand because it deals with light, which is what televisions emit.

As you read through this article you'll gain an understanding of what it is and when to use it to make a better buying decision.

What is TV Contrast Ratio?

Let's say we’re at a store looking at HDTV displays. Now, let’s say that there is something on the screen that has a mixture of bright and dark images, like looking out from a dark cave into the sunlight.

As we look at the screens we should notice differences in detail between each panel. One panel might show the textures on the cave’s wall in great detail while another HDTV might show the same wall as nothing more than a solid color without much detail or texture.

This is TV contrast ratio in a nutshell - the amount of onscreen detail in blacks and other dark colors.

Technically, TV contrast ratio measures the difference of light between the brightest white and darkest black that can be produced onscreen by a viewing display, but it's these darker images that displays seem to have more problems reproducing.

What Does TV Contrast Ratio Look Like?

As a consumer, you’ll see contrast ratio listed on product packaging and specifications.

An example would be a static contrast ratio of 2,500:1, which means that the brightest white is 2,500 times brighter than the darkest black. The general assumption is that the larger the ratio the more levels of detail are shown onscreen.

The curve ball is that there are two measurements of TV contrast ratio, thus two sets of ratios. These measurements are called static and dynamic. They differ significantly, so it's important to know which one you're looking at.

Using our example above, the TV with 2,500:1 static contrast ratio could have a dynamic contrast ratio of 25,000:1. So, which is better? Well, neither really. They're different measurements so they produce different results. To compare static against dynamic would be like comparing apples and oranges.

What is Static and Dynamic Contrast Ratio?

TV contrast ratio is reported to consumers as either static or dynamic. Static is also referred to as native or onscreen. Anyhow, this is where contrast ratio gets complicated and really the consumer doesn’t need to know the specifics as to how static and dynamic contrast ratios differ from each other.

What consumers really need to know is which contrast ratio is being reported - static or dynamic. Many industry experts believe static to be the more accurate or trustworthy of numbers since its measurement technique yields more "real world" results than dynamic contrast ratio.

TV Contrast Ratio Controversy

TV contrast ratio is one of the most controversial specifications when comparing televisions from manufacturer to manufacturer because the industry doesn't have an agreed upon standard of measurement.

Without a standard, we don't know exactly how each manufacturer tests their displays and how their process differs from other manufacturers. As a result, industry experts recommend using contrast ratio only when comparing HDTVs made by the same manufacturer.

The general thought among industry experts is that static contrast ratio is a more reliable measurement because it is more consistent with how the viewing display will show content rather than a "what if" scenario that dynamic contrast ratio employs.

TV Contrast Ratio Buying Advice

Use the following as a general guide to comparing contrast ratios between HDTVs:

  1. Use contrast ratio only when comparing HDTVs made by the same manufacturer. For example, Sony to Sony, not Sony to Samsung.
  2. Compare either static to static or dynamic to dynamic but don‘t compare static to dynamic.
  3. Remember that contrast ratio as just one of many factors to consider when buying a HDTV. For me, contrast ratio would be down on the list of deal-breakers because the measurements aren't consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer. Instead, use your eyes to determine if the contrast meets your visual needs.

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