An old monochrome TV.
Oleksandr_Delyk/Shutterstock.com

If you’re searching for a new TV or monitor, you’ve probably come across the term “contrast ratio” in marketing materials and reviews online. So what exactly does contrast ratio mean and what does a “good” contrast ratio look like?

Why You Should Care About Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio is a term that’s used to measure the difference between the maximum and minimum brightness of a display. It’s the difference between the whitest possible white and the darkest possible black. It’s measured by displaying a black-and-white checkerboard pattern like the one below and comparing the values.

A checkerboard-style background of black and white squares.
Chanont Kemthong/Shutterstock.com

Since it’s a ratio, the contrast ratio of a display is shown as a number like 1000:1. When a display has a contrast ratio of 1000:1, it means that a full-field white image will be 1000 times brighter than a black one. The larger the number, the more capable the display is of producing a natural-looking image.

The contrast ratio of a display is highly dependent on the underlying technology. OLED screens have a highly marketable “infinite” contrast ratio, while the best-in-class LCDs from the likes of Samsung exceed 7000:1. Contrast ratio is perceived as one of the most important aspects of image quality, so aim for a higher number if you can.

You can use a website like RTINGs to compare the contrast ratio of TVs and the contrast ratio of computer monitors.

A Higher Contrast Ratio Is Better

The contrast ratio usually says a lot about the black levels of a display. How dark a display can get ultimately depends on what type of display it is.

LED-lit LCD televisions and monitors must shine a bright light through the thin-film-transistor (TFT) layer of a display to produce an image. When displaying black, the display does its best to block out as much of this light as possible. With older LCD technology, this often results in poor black reproduction. Blacks appear as washed-out grays, or they may have areas of the screen where light more easily passes through, resulting in poor uniformity.

LG G1 OLED Evo
LG

Compare this with self-emissive display technologies like OLED, which attain a theoretically “infinite” contrast ratio. Since the pixels can be switched off completely, the display can output pure blacks right next to bright whites. This is what makes OLED displays so desirable, although they’re not without their own drawbacks.

LCD isn’t a complete bust in this department, with newer Mini-LED displays delivering algorithm-controlled backlight dimming. This allows LCD technology to get much closer to the inky blacks of an OLED by varying light levels over the surface of the display. Unfortunately, these displays still suffer from issues like ghosting and black crush.

Buying a New TV?

A display with a higher contrast ratio will usually fare better in a dark room, while displays with lower ratios are typically optimized for brightness. Depending on where you’re watching TV and what you’re watching on it, a high-end OLED with an infinite contrast ratio might be a huge waste of money, while an LCD will do the job just fine.

Learn more about buying the perfect TV for your situation and budget.

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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