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Why black objects on your TV look gray (and what you can do about it)

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Modern TVs are, all things considered, pretty great at what they do. Most feature 4K resolution, built-in streaming apps, and eye-popping color reproduction. But the one color that most TVs fail to produce accurately also happens to be one of the most important colors in cinema: black.

The reason is simple. Most TVs use two different components to produce a picture: a layer of LCD pixels to generate colors, and a backlight panel behind them to make them visible. When those attempt to recreate the color black, some of the light from the backlight still bleeds through the panel, making those black pixels appear gray. This reduces the overall contrast between things on screen that are supposed to be black, and things that are not, which can cause dark scenes of movies to seem muddled and muted.

Luckily, there's an easy way to improve your perceived black levels on any TV, as well as technologies found in some newer TVs that aim to fix the problem entirely.

Bias Lights

A bias light is simply a light that you place behind your TV to bounce off of your wall, forming a kind of halo of light around your picture. The effect will only be noticeable in a dark room, and of course, it doesn't actually improve your TV's black levels or contrast. But it can affect how your eyes perceive your TV's picture, which is what really matters in the end.

To get a sense of how this works, take a look at the rectangle in the middle of this picture:

Notice how it appears to be darker on the left, when surrounded by a lighter background? That's entirely an optical illusion. The middle rectangle is the same color throughout, but its contrast against a light background makes it appear darker than it does against a dark background. This is all a bias light does: make your wall lighter in order to make your TV picture seem darker to your eyes.

Most bias lights these days come in the form of inexpensive LED strips that stick to the back of your TV, and in some cases, even plug into the USB port on your TV for power. One of the best of the bunch is Luminoodle's Professional Bias Light, which tunes its LEDs to a color temperature of 6,500 kelvin, the same color temperature to which all films calibrate "pure white."

While a 6,500K bias light will maximize the extent to which your blacks "pop," just about any bias light will improve your TV's perceived contrast. This set is cheaper than the Luminoodle Pro, but lets you select any color you want with your phone (though its whites can't achieve 6,500K), so you can, say, make your wall glow with your favorite team's color while watching a game.

Local Dimming

Via TCL

If you're in the market for a new TV, you'll want to keep an eye out for a set with local dimming. TVs with local dimming arrays divide their backlights into multiple, distinct sections. So if, say, an area on the bottom right corner of the picture is supposed to be pure black, a section of the backlight on the bottom right corner can dim or shut itself off independently of the rest of the backlight.

TVs with local dimming can still benefit from bias lights, and they still don't produce perfect blacks, since light from one section of the backlight can "bleed" into a section that's not supposed to be lit. The quality of the effect is also highly dependent on how many different zones the TV can control independently. For example, this Vizio M-Series TV has 12 local dimming zones, whereas this TCL 6-Series has 96 zones, and a new breed of high end "Mini LED" sets effectively have over 1,000. Any local dimming zones are preferable to no local dimming zones, but the the more zones you have, the more precisely your TV will be able to target dark areas.

OLED

LG OLED TV

If you've got the budget for it, the best way to enjoy true, inky blacks on your TV is to buy an OLED set. Unlike LED TVs, which have separate pixels and backlights, the pixels on OLED TVs produce their own light, no backlighting required. That means that if a pixel is meant to be displaying black, it can turn itself off entirely, emitting no light at all. It doesn't get blacker than that.

Unfortunately, not many companies actually make OLED TVs these days, and those that do charge a pretty penny. The closest thing to a budget option would be LG's B9 series, which costs around $1,300 for 55".


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