What is contrast ratio?

A black monitor featuring a pink and blue pattern on the display above a black Xbox, next to a black headset, and a silver Mac.
Credit: Charles Patterson

A black monitor featuring a pink and blue pattern on the display above a black Xbox, next to a black headset, and a silver Mac.
Credit: Charles Patterson

We all deserve a clear, bright, and vibrant image quality when we watch movies, play video games, or revisit memories through photos on a monitor or TV screen. However, that’s not always the case, as image quality varies across screen types. Certain elements under the hood, such as brightness, colour accuracy, and contrast ratio play a nuanced role in image quality.

Contrast ratio is often misunderstood but is one of the most important elements in display technology. It’s used, especially in some of the best TV and gaming monitors today, to measure the contrast between the brightest and darkest areas of the image, which can sometimes make all the difference in image quality.

Images typically appear more colourful and lifelike with greater detail and clarity when the contrast ratio is high. Anyone looking to buy and enjoy display devices should have a solid understanding of contrast ratio because it can be a deal breaker. We will explain why later.

However, contrast ratio is most noticeable in dark scenes in games or videos, where shades of black will dominate the image. It improves the overall quality of the image and gives the viewer a greater sense of depth and detail in all images. For instance, a contrast ratio of 1,000:1 indicates that the brightest white image is 1,000 times brighter than the darkest black. Accordingly, a full-field white image will have a brightness 1000 times greater than a black image. The display's capacity to produce a natural-looking image increases with the size of the number.

The higher the contrast ratio, the better; therefore, you should look out for contrast ratios ranging from 1000:1 to 3000:1. But if a product is said to have a contrast ratio greater than 3000:1, it's probably just a marketing ploy that’s not worth your hard-earned cash.

Is a higher contrast ratio better?

In case you’ve been asking yourself what to go for, a higher contrast ratio is typically preferable to a lower contrast ratio in display technology. This is because a higher contrast ratio indicates a substantial contrast between an image's darkest and brightest areas, producing more vivid and vibrant colours, darker blacks, brighter whites, and an all-around more immersive viewing experience. It gives the image a more realistic and lifelike appearance.

A low contrast ratio, on the other hand, may provide a washed-out, dull, and less distinct image. The picture may seem flatter, and less interesting with diminished colour differentiation and vividness. Therefore, a higher contrast ratio is better for a better viewing experience.

Image of a black monitor with a sunset scene on the display, one half in high contrast, the other conventional.
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Credit: BenQ

Differences in display technologies

The display technologies used by monitors vary. Knowing your monitor's panel type will provide you with a decent indicator of the contrast ratio you can expect from it:

  • OLED: Known as Organic Light-emitting Diode, OLED monitors now lead the field in high-end display technology with an infinity:1 contrast ratio, high refresh rates, and low latency.
  • VA: Vertical Alignment have the next highest contrast ratio ranging from 2500:1 to 6000:1.
  • IPS: In-plane Switching monitors usually have a lower contrast ratio than VA monitors ranging from 700:1 to 1500:1.
  • TN: Twisted Nematic monitors have the smallest contrast ratio ranging from 600:1 to 1200:1. They are the worst contrast ratio, but usually the most affordable as a result.

Generally, a monitor's contrast ratio indicates black and picture quality depth. It’s an essential part of picture quality, so if you want something that looks good, get a monitor with a higher contrast ratio.

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