A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, broadcast and production facilities displayed video imagery on the best monitors money could buy. Manufacturers were in a constant battle of product one-upmanship, and reference monitor prices ratcheted skyward. But that was years ago in what seems like another world. That world was transformed when the axis of decision making rotated from the technical corps to the accountants.
I can recall experiencing this firsthand during a meeting in New York with a newly appointed TV network senior vice president for engineering and operations. You could have coated his eyeglasses with the total of his technical knowledge and not impede his vision, but he could really make that nickel buffalo cry for mercy. I knew my display business was in trouble when he said the network didn't need hundreds of monitors worth thousands of dollars each when a several-hundred-dollar TV set could do the same thing. He highlighted the polar extremes of using $10,000 display monitors versus $200 TV sets with monitoring inputs. As it turned out, he was at the forefront of an industry move to cost containment and expense reduction that led to lower-cost professional monitors, among other products.
LCD replaces CRT
The key enabler to driving down monitor costs was the replacement of CRTs with LCD display technology. Not only having smaller size, lighter weight, lower power requirements and simpler control circuitry, with LCD panels appearing in everything from cell phones to laptop PCs, the economies of scale afforded to the panel manufacturing process yields an incredibly low cost per square inch of viewing area.
Today, we live in a world of digital theaters, HD broadcast television, high dynamic range image processing, 2K and 4K video, digital intermediates in the film world, and video capture cameras surpassing the dynamic range of film cameras. This world demands the ultimate in color accuracy and quality proofing measurement devices. Until now, that need could only be met by special colorimetry, beam alignment and control circuitry built around high-quality, ultra-fine pitch CRTs.
CRT has long commanded center stage for critical viewing of such things as detail assessment and color reference evaluation. The key advantage of CRT over flat-panel displays has been dynamic range or simply the ratio of peak white luminance versus black-level luminance that the device can display. CRTs have always delivered richer black level detail — until now. Another advantage that CRTs once enjoyed over flat-panel displays was wider color gamut, but this advantage disappeared with the introduction of LED backlight technology.
Recently, Dolby announced a new state-of-the-art in LCD technology. The company now makes a flat-panel reference display that exceeds CRT displays in several key areas of performance and specifications. Using a unique and patented dual modulation scheme, the PRM-4200 panel is backlit by 1500 LEDs, each containing an RGB triad for a total of 4500 individually controllable elements. In a process called local dimming, each element of each RGB triad is independently controlled and modulated on a frame-by-frame basis synchronously with the LCD panel. This technique not only yields black levels heretofore unachievable in an LCD but also enables the display of a wide color gamut. Going well beyond Rec 709 color gamut, Dolby claims this is the first flat-panel display to show 100 percent of the full color gamut of DCI P3.
We have now reached a level of performance with LCD technology where the range of colors that can be displayed is almost beyond what a colorist can create. LCD display technology has truly come of age. It can now be used for checking color accuracy, grading content, approving program material or assessing creative imagery. Such technology may represent the ultimate in a visual quality control tool. But this level of performance doesn't come cheaply. Dolby's new reference monitor has an MSRP of $54,950 — so it's not very likely to be an item for your media room budget. But, say boss, can I borrow this for the weekend?
Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.
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