Spring 2016 Entry Level Monitors Roundup

So you're just starting to get serious about color correction and are thinking about upgrading your monitor. Navigating the myriad of display options and knowing the difference between not appropriate, good enough, and ideal can be difficult without hours of research and a deep understanding of display technology and post production. Fortunately I've done all that work for you.

Let's begin this conversation by saying that if really want to establish yourself as a legitimate colorist, you need a color critical monitor. These are outside the price range for most just getting into the industry, but should be the first major investment you make. Briefly, a color critical display is going to have a 10bit panel with 12bit or better processing, support 3D LUTs, have SDI connections, and will cover the full range of major color gamuts. Additionally, you'll need the hardware to drive 10bit signals to these displays and the software/probes to calibrate them. A typical entry level model in this arena would be a Flanders Scientific CM171 ($2,495), Blackmagic Design Decklink SDI 4K ($295), and Light Illusion LTE (£525) with i1 Display Pro OEM probe (£227) - and that's for a tiny 17" non OLED monitor. A full midrange setup can easily cross $10,000 and high end options can quickly surpass down payments on a home.

But if you're just looking for "good enough" then there's a lot of great options available on the market. To be clear, these are not a replacement for even a low end color critical system, but if you're learning or just getting started it will at least get you headed in the right direction.

Calibration

Before we talk about any monitors, we need to take calibration into account. To be as clear as possible: buying a decent color probe and calibrating your monitor (every few months) is the single most important thing you can do. If you can only afford one thing, your work will benefit far more from calibrating whatever monitor you're currently using than by buying a more expensive monitor and depending on factory calibration.

Probes
i1 Display Pro OEM

The cheapest calibration probe worth talking about is the Xrite i1 Display Pro OEM (£227).

This probe is exceptional, especially for the price and the OEM version allows you to use whatever calibration software you need to (the non OEM version which you find on Amazon, B&H, etc is not as flexible and should be avoided).

Yeah, you can limp by with a Spyder or similar low-end model, but you'll soon be upgrading to this (which will last you a long time) so you might as well bite the bullet.

Software

The industry standard is Light Illusion and for good reason - the software is excellent and accurate while their customer service is incredible. SpectraCal CalMAN is another popular option you'll frequently see. The price of both, however, might put some people off. Fortunately, there is an excellent free and open source option called displaycal (Win, OSX, GNU/Linux) which is more than good enough for most users. Just calibrate to Rec 1886 (Rec 709 color space and BT.1886 gamma) and a brightness of 100-130cd/m^2 and you'll be on your way.

It's a dirty secret display manufacturers don't like to talk about that displays drift in their calibration as time goes on. The reasons why are numerous (temperature, backlight aging, etc) and the speed at which it changes varies wildly - even on similar displays. This is why factory calibration, while a nice marketing gimmick, is totally useless after a couple weeks as are the "monitor calibration" settings enthusiasts share online. To fight this, calibrate your monitor every few weeks to months after it's been running for at least 30 minutes (the warm up period).

Affordable Monitors

So here's the list you've been waiting for. These monitors (24" and greater) were selected on the reliability of their brands (ie no Korean no name panels as good as they may be provided you're lucky) and color accuracy first and foremost while coming in under $1000 (prices are time of writing - April 2016). Resolution, refresh, looks, and gimmicks like GSync/Freesync trail far behind in the criteria.

Asus Pro Art PA249Q

The 24" Asus Pro Art PA249Q covers 99% Adobe RGB and has a GUI friendly 1920x1200 16:10 display. The extra height a 16:10 display offers for software really can't be under emphasized - this means more nodes or tracks in your timeline visible at once. The AH-IPS panel is full 10bit with 12bit LUTs (though unless you're using a Quadro or Fire Pro GPU to drive it then your GPU is only going to be outputting 8bit anyway).

Asus also has excellent built in calibration controls which helps to make sure your monitor is close to accurate before letting software finish the job.

Slightly more affordable, Asus also makes the PA248Q ($305) which has the same resolution and aspect ratio, but lacks the AH-IPS panel instead sporting a standard 8bit IPS model with only 100% sRGB.

Dell UP2516D

Dell UP2516D 25.0" Screen LED-Lit Monitor

Price
$329.99   (2018/12/06 18:07)
Brand
Dell

The 25" Dell UP2516D might be the best value in affordable "color accurate" monitors around. With a resolution of 2560x1440, the monitor strikes a great balance between plenty of working room and avoiding the GPU needs of 4K.

The monitor supports 100% AdobeRGB, 98% DCI-P3, and even boasts a specific 100% Rec 709 setting straight out of the box. Dell claim's over 1 billion colors (typical of 10bit panels) but it seems to be an 8bit panel with 2bit dithering to achieve it. Still, the size, resolution, and image quality make this monitor hard to beat for the price.

There are two additional sizes available at $659 for the 27" and $1300 for the 31.5" 4K model.

BenQ PG2401PT

The BenQ PG2401PT is another 24" 1920x1200 16:10 monitor (your GUI will thank you for all that extra space) sporting a high quality 10bit (and 14bit LUT) display.

This model is extremely popular with photographers and graphic designers as it sports hardware calibration that can interface directly with X-Rite calibration tools (including the X-rite i1 Display Pro) which adjust the internal LUT for more accurate colors. Full AdobeRGB (as well as CMYK support if you do print work) mean color is dependable.

Slightly more affordable, BenQ also makes the 2560x1440 27" SW2700PT for $650. This monitor also boasts a 10bit panel with 99% AdobeRGB support, as well as hardware calibration, but saves a little on the pricetag with a (very slightly) cheaper panel and lack of print color space processing (which is a feature you'll very likely never use on the PG2401PT). The additional size and resolution should more than make up for the differences in the panels.

LG 31MU97C-B

It's on the higher end, but the 31" LG 31MU97C-B brags about it's color and for good reason: it's over 99.5% of Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 97%. This means the monitor should be set for displaying all 709/sRGB work without breaking a sweat and can get close to DCI P3 if you find yourself mastering an indie feature or two. The panel claims to be a true 10bit - though, as mentioned, many users won't be able to take advantage of this. The 4K resolution can be demanding to drive, but should give you plenty of work space - just make sure you have room on your desk for 31 inches of screen.

This is a great monitor to use while saving up for your FSI or Sony OLED.

Philips 276E6ADSS

The Philips 276E6ADSS is a bit of a wildcard, but hopefully worth including in the list. The monitor is the first of its kind to use the much lauded quantum dot technology that has taken the world of high end televisions by storm. The panel is 27" IPS and supports 99% AdobeRGB on its 8bit display.

Unfortunately the panel is only 1920x1080 which is on the low end for a 27" panel, but it still may be worth it for someone on a budget who is looking for accuracy and (essentially) full AdobeRGB support.

At the time of writing, the monitor was only recently announced and so very little reviews of the monitor are available. It's probably worth waiting to hear what reviewers say about this new tech and how it suits the monitor form factor.

Final Thoughts

This is just a handful of the monitors on the market that are well suited to getting into the world of color accurate displays. There are many cheaper models in the 1920x1080 24" range that offer IPS panels and AdobeRGB support, but the ones listed in this page (minus the Philips wildcard) are without a doubt solid enough to calibrate and color grade on.