For Apple, the CRT may be dead, but for those of us who need accurate, stable, predictable color, the CRT not only is alive and well but also continues to improve. The Sony Artisan Color Reference System is a case in point. This $1,729 21-inch monitor-and-calibrator bundle provides rock-solid contrast and color without the viewing-angle problems and lack of uniformity that plague LCD monitors. And with a maximum resolution of 2,048 by 1,536 ppi, it also displays more pixels than current LCDs.
The Artisan runs in both OS 9.2 and OS X 10.1, and it offers one-button calibration for people who rely on a monitor when making critical decisions about tone and color — such as digital photographers, designers, and prepress technicians. The entire package is beautifully designed — from the neutral gray monitor case and its padded hood, to the software’s look-and-feel, to the sensor’s exquisite industrial design. Developed by Dr. Karl Lang, father of the Radius Pressview, the system acts like a Pressview manufactured start to finish by Sony with the benefit of five years of hindsight, rather than one put together by Radius.
Start with a Monitor
The heart of the Artisan system is the Sony GDM-C520K monitor, a state-of-the-art 21-inch flat-screen Trinitron with a low, 0.24mm aperture-grille pitch that supports horizontal scan frequencies from 30kHz to 130kHz and vertical refresh rates from 48Hz to 170Hz — all of which adds up to sharp, flicker-free performance even at high resolutions. It has all the advanced controls you’d expect from a high-end monitor, including individual red, green, and blue gain and bias controls, and separate convergence controls for top, center, and bottom, conveniently accessible through a joysticklike control on the front bezel. But what makes the Artisan system much more than just another monitor is the Artisan sensor and calibration software.
Marry It to a Sensor
The Artisan sensor is a very sensitive colorimeter whose filters are matched to the phosphors used in the GDM-C520K monitor. Therefore, it provides very accurate data to base the monitor profile on — it won’t work particularly well on monitors with different phosphor sets, but on the GDM-C520K, it’s more accurate than any general-purpose instrument. The Artisan sensor also avoids the major weakness of most affordable third-party monitor calibrators: their inability to accurately measure black.
The Artisan software communicates directly with both the sensor and the monitor through USB connections. The software uses the feedback from the sensor to adjust the monitor’s RGB gain and bias to the desired color and luminance of white and black, instead of simply adjusting levels in the video card’s lookup table. Some third-party calibrators let you do this manually, but with the Artisan it’s automatic. Moreover, it’s extremely accurate. After calibrating the monitor, we could see a difference between each level from 0 through 10, and as we cycled through the levels, the grays remained dead-on neutral.
Before we encountered the Artisan, the only monitors that had passed this extreme-torture test with flying colors sported a Barco logo. The upshot is that you get reliable calibration with a predictable contrast range, which is essential for making fine judgments about tone and color.
Control It with Software
The Artisan Color Reference System is also easy to use. Setup is a breeze — the only part that’s even slightly tricky is that one end of the monitor cable has both a D-Sub 15 and a USB connector, and you have to make sure to plug that end into both the video card and one of the USB ports on the Mac. (Unlike many competing CRTs, such as the LaCie electron22blue III and NEC- Mitsubishi’s 22-inch SpectraView models, the Artisan monitor doesn’t have a built-in USB hub.)
The software’s interface has a modern look-and-feel that matches the rest of the product. If you use one of the default settings, calibration and profiling really are a one-button process — but if you think defaults are for the timid, you’ll find that you have complete control over defining new aim points for color temperature, black and white luminance, and gamma. A unique Artisan feature is the ability to save calibration data for different monitor resolutions: once you’ve calibrated the monitor at two different resolutions, you can switch freely between them without having to recalibrate.
A full calibration takes about ten minutes and is good for 30 days; after that, the software forces you to recalibrate. While some competing systems allow you to set a warning for a user-selectable calibration period, Sony takes the same approach as Barco. But the software also offers a quick Update Calibration Data feature that revalidates the calibration in about three minutes — if you run this once a week or so, you can avoid the lengthier routine. In dual-monitor setups, you can calibrate the Artisan only when it’s the main monitor, but once it’s calibrated, you can move the menu bar to the second monitor if you wish.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If you need accurate, predictable color from your display, day in and day out, and you’re willing to pay a premium price for it, the Sony Artisan Color Reference System will give you your money’s worth. It’s more expensive than comparable solutions from competitors such as NEC-Mitsubishi and LaCie, but it provides shadow performance matched only by the considerably more expensive Barco Reference Calibrator V.