If you’ve shopped TVs recently, you’ve no doubt been seduced by the term 4K UHD (Ultra High Definition). When UHD was first introduced a few years ago, it represented a jump in resolution – basically four times the resolution of 1080p HD. That seemed like a pretty big deal, but we now know that, in 2015, UHD is taking on an entirely new meaning. Going forward, the very best UHD TVs will not only offer higher resolution, but also offer more colors than ever before and something called High Dynamic Range, or HDR.
The idea behind HDR is that it can provide a higher level of contrast between light and dark images on the screen to create a much more realistic image. That may not sound like a lot on paper, but in reality, it’s a pretty significant move. In fact, many in the industry believe HDR represents a significantly bigger leap in picture quality than UHD’s higher resolution.
Imagine a TV picture that is more like what you see in real life. One with spectral highlights closer to what you see when the sun gleams off the surface of a lake, or when the stars and moon are especially bright in the sky. Imagine getting to see the exact same shade of green you see on Los Angeles’ highway signs on a TV for the very first time (did you know TVs haven’t been able to faithfully produce that color?) or a shade of red envisioned by a movie director that is so bright and exotic, you’re convinced you’ve never seen it before. HDR makes that possible.
But how does it work, where is it coming from, and how do you get it? We’ve got the answers below.
Dolby Vision and the legend of HDR
In the beginning, there was Dolby. The name synonymous with surround sound has dug heavily into the visual sciences as of late, hard at work on High Dynamic Range technology, both in movie theaters with new types of laser projection, and in homes with new TV technology.
A few years ago Dolby began showing a small consortium of tech writers, directors, and cinematographers a presentation that showed off the company’s grand plan for the future of TV, called simply Dolby Vision. The technology is based around High Dynamic Range, as well as an expansion of color reproduction. Using a souped up 1080p HDTV, Dolby wowed crowds in private screenings, some of which included producers and directors from the heart of Hollywood’s entertainment crucible who will craft the content of the future.
The Dolby Vision presentations inspired quotes like this one from Variety’s David S. Cohen, “Metallic surfaces gleam like mirrors. Colors glow, luminous and rich. Highlights and shadows alike keep their detail.” Dolby’s Executive Director of Technology Patrick Griffis put things more simply: “This may be the icing that makes the UHD cake work.” It was an impressive first glance at HDR, and one that left a lasting impression on the industry.
Nits and pieces
As one of the first companies to experiment with HDR, Dolby’s initial experiments involved a massive increase in a TV’s brightness capabilities, more technically known as peak luminance levels. Luminance is expressed in terms of either candelas per square meter (cd/m2), or nits. And since nits is much easier to say, the industry is now abuzz with nits.
A single nit is about the brightness of a candle. For reference in the real world, the reflection of sunlight off a car hood might be hundreds of thousands of nits, while a shaded area might be a couple hundred. That range of variance is one TVs and projectors will likely never be tasked to cover.
Imagine a TV picture with billions of natural colors, from that indescribably pure blue skyline, to the gleaming sun reflecting off a lake.
While standard TVs right now max out somewhere in the 100-400 nits range, the TV used in the Dolby Vision presentation pushed that number to 4,000 nits. Now, that’s a spicy meatball! However, as the TV-specific definition of HDR has continued to evolve over the last couple of years, Dolby’s uber-bright idea hasn’t made its way off the showroom floor. In fact, contrary to what you’ll see on the Dolby Vision homepage, Variety quotes Dolby reps who said the company has no intention (at present) of creating a 4,000 nit consumer TV. Apparently that display was a bit of a ringer.
To be clear, Dolby isn’t getting into TV manufacturing. The company is instead creating the licensing and processing software that will determine how Dolby Vision is utilized in TV manufacturing. Several TVs will be touting Dolby’s HDR technology in the near future, but the models that will see production will likely be a far cry from that super-bright screen that had the industry insiders’ hearts all a twitter. Vizio’s new Dolby Vision-approved Reference 4K UHD TV, for instance, has an LED light output that peaks at 800 Nits — a nice jump from the average TV, but nowhere near that blazing 4,000 nit display.
As you might expect, not everyone in the industry agrees with Dolby’s vision (pun intended) for HDR, either. Some industry experts think Dolby has focused too squarely on brightness, and that more attention should be paid to the darkside of the contrast spectrum, as it were, to construct a depth of light variance more in line with what we see outside the screen. Many TV manufacturers are also loath to pay Dolby’s stout licensing fees. As such, Dolby Vision isn’t the only game in town anymore, and the term HDR has begun to take on a broader (and, for now, more ambiguous) meaning. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
All the colors of the rainbow
Dolby touted its approach’s unparalleled lighting power (read: lit up like a roman candle), but High Dynamic Range isn’t about searing your retinas with eye-scorching white light. The increase in brightness comes with benefits to the color spectrum, too. In fact, the technology that makes HDR possible in the latest TVs also makes wide color gamut possible. Thanks to special phosphor-coated LEDs and Quantum Dots, the latest UHD televisions are not only brighter, but more colorful as well. And enhanced brightness makes for more striking colors, too – billions of colors, in fact — from that indescribably pure blue you see in a morning skyline, to the metallic-green reflection as the sun bounces off a road sign. In this way, the next generation of TVs aims to create a technicolor feast for the eyes that looks strikingly real.
The competition emerges
While Dolby has set its own standards, HDR has no mandated definition … yet. An organization called The UHD Alliance (definitely different than the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars), has formed to develop standards for UHD, including what HDR will require, and they’re right smack in the middle of that job right now. The version of Dolby’s HDR tech we’ve seen in the new Vizio Reference Series TVs will likely be similar to what we’ll see from other Dolby Vision partners like Sharp, Phillips, HiSense, and TCL. But many of the biggest names in TV have decided to go it alone and create their own versions of HDR.
Samsung offers an open HDR format that it calls Peak Illuminator Ultimate, and other companies like Sony, Panasonic, and LG all have their own flavors of HDR display technology as well. You’ll see this stuff in manufacturers’ marketing materials and probably right on the side of the box, too. Now you’ll know what it means. Below are a few examples of HDR-equipped TVs from some top brands.
|Brand||Model||HDR Handle||Peak Nit count||MSRP||Availability|
|Samsung||JS95000 65″ Super UHD TV||Peak Illuminator Ultimate||1,000||$5,500||Now|
|Sony||65X930C 65″||X-Tended Dynamic Range||Undisclosed||$4,500||Now|
|LG||65UF9500 65″ Prime 4K UHDTV||Ultra Luminance||Undisclosed||$4,500||Now|
|Vizio||Reference 4K UHD TV||Dolby Vision||800||Unknown||Unknown|
While it’s easy to get a grasp on HDR by looking straight at those peak nit numbers, we’d caution strongly against judging too quickly there. As we explained above, part of the reason there are so many different types of HDR is because some companies don’t believe extreme brightness should be at the center of HDR’s definition. Instead, these companies feel deep black levels are just as important, if not more so.
For instance, Panasonic’s latest may not be the brightest, but it offers some of the most inky blacks we’ve seen in an LED TV. And Sony, which did not disclose its nit count, had this to say on the subject: “It requires more than just brightness levels to display HDR well. You need the ability to display the deep blacks AND the brightness.” At any rate, for now, HDR takes many forms, and it’s possible the standard that is set will work on some sort of sliding scale.
So, what do we watch? (The content conundrum)
By now you know a lot about HDR from the display side, but just like 4K UHD resolution, there’s a lone barrier to enjoying HDR awesomeness that’s outside the control of even the TV makers: content.
Most TV content was created for TVs that fall far below the capacity of even the most basic aging HD displays. Modeled for those cube shaped CRT TVs you’ll find out by the dumpster, most film and TV imagery for consumers maxes out at 100 Nits. That means even if your TV has the latest and greatest HDR, color reproduction, and 4K UHD tech, much of what you watch won’t be able to take advantage of all that awesome. Hollywood, of course, is working quickly to remedy this issue, but no release dates for viable HDR content are yet known. Below are a few of the companies pioneering HDR titles and delivery methods.
Perhaps best known for colorizing old movies like The Wizard of Oz, Technicolor is a founding member of the UHD Alliance, and no surprise, the company is designing its own vision for HDR TVs, folding its HDR grading process into movies new and old for the on-demand service M-Go. Like M-Go’s UHD content, Samsung TVs will get first dibs in an exclusive deal. Technicolor is also working on HDR technology for broadcast TV, as well as HDR-equipped set top boxes.
A pioneer in 4K UHD streaming, Netflix will likely be the most timely and easiest way for most of us to get our HDR, with content expected to launch later this year. The company is working with HDR grading on some of its own originals like Marco Polo (which, granted, most people aren’t watching anyway), as well as newer movies, and re-mastered older titles. Once in place, the system will be able to determine your TV’s HDR compatibility and deliver the content accordingly.
Not to be outdone by its streaming rival, Amazon recently announced it too will be working on grading some of its original series for HDR delivery. However no titles have been confirmed for HDR production from the company, nor has Amazon given any further information regarding release dates.
While the new content will come from studios and production houses that will master new and current titles for HDR, the highest-quality delivery method for a top-quality HDR experience at home will likely come from an upgrade to an old friend. The compression involved in sending high quality video content puts limitations on streaming that Blu-rays, with their high storage capacity, don’t have.
The Blu-ray Disc Association is currently working on next-gen 4K UHD Blu-rays, which will allow for 4K UHD resolution, HDR and color expansion, and revolutionary new surround sound codecs like Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X. The recent update to HDMI 2.0a was essentially based entirely around clearing the way for High Dynamic Range devices, including new Blu-ray players, and other set-top devices.
So there you have it. High Dynamic Range is a lot more complex than just three little words. But it’s also a very exciting technology that will pull us even deeper into the spectacular movies and TV series we love to watch, creating more brilliantly realistic images than ever. Of course, the HDR we’ve seen at work for LED TVs still hasn’t managed to create the bursting colors, and infinite contrast of OLED displays. But that’s a topic for another day.