What Does Contrast Ratio Tell You About Your TV?

A misleading spec, contrast ratio is still important to understand

Color analog television sets showing color stripes

 Harald Sund / Getty Images

Contrast ratio is a misleading specification when it comes to HDTVs. Even when it is reported as the same between different models, the actual contrast ratio may be different. This discrepancy is due to the lack of an industry standard of measurement.

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.

This information applies to televisions from a variety of manufacturers, including LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio.

What is TV Contrast Ratio?

A television's contrast ratio refers to the difference in light between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks that a display can produce.

Imagine you're in a store looking at a row of HDTV displays. Each one is displaying footage with a mixture of light and dark images—like that of the sky from the perspective of a cave interior. As we look at the TVs, we should notice differences in detail. One display may reveal detailed texture on the cave walls, while another may show the same wall with little more detail than a solid block of color.

A TV's contrast ratio is responsible for that difference. It is, in a nutshell, the amount of onscreen detail in the blacks and other dark colors in a picture. These darker images are usually more difficult for TVs to reproduce than whites.

The contrast ratio is always listed in a model's 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.

What Is Static and Dynamic Contrast Ratio?

There are two measurements of the 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. These are different measurements that produce different results.

TV contrast ratio is reported as either "static" or "dynamic." Static is also often referred to as "native" or "onscreen." Many industry experts believe static to be the more accurate or trustworthy spec because it 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 because the industry does not have an agreed-upon standard of measurement.

Without a standard, we don't know exactly how each manufacturer tests their own displays and how their process differs from others. 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 tips as a guide for comparing contrast ratios between HDTVs:

  • Use contrast ratio only when comparing HDTVs made by the same manufacturer. For example, Sony to Sony—not Sony to Samsung.
  • Compare either static to static or dynamic to dynamic, but avoid comparing static to dynamic.
  • Remember that contrast ratio is just one of many factors to consider when buying an HDTV. For us, the contrast ratio would be down on the list of priorities because the measurements aren't consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer. Instead, use your eyes to determine if the contrast appeals to you.