High-dynamic range (HDR) is one of the most exciting changes to TV picture quality to happen since we moved from standard definition to high-definition. With more colors, higher brightness, and way better contrast, it can be breathtaking. For a lot of folks, though, HDR is a mystery wrapped in a riddle. Not all TVs support it, and even if you have an HDR-capable TV, that doesn’t mean you’ll get to see actual HDR video.
Why is it so complicated, and how can you make sure you’re getting every pixel’s worth of picture quality from your gear? Stay with us, and we’ll explain the hows and whys of getting great-looking HDR on your TV.
What is HDR?
For a full explanation of the ins and outs of HDR as a technology, check out our in-depth HDR explainer. If you want to save yourself some time, here’s the TL;DR version.
HDR refers to a family of formats that are designed to add extra color, brightness, and contrast to video content. If HDTV and 4K increase picture quality by upping TV resolution (with more pixels for crisper and more detailed images), HDR supercharges what those pixels can do.
You may encounter several names for HDR, including HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Hybrid-Log Gamma (HLG). These are all considered HDR formats, but they’re all a little bit different. We’ll get into why and how in a bit, but for now, the most important thing to remember is that your HDR experience will be in part determined by which of these HDR formats your TV supports.
Some TV models, like the Philips 804-Series OLED TV, which is expected to reach U.S. shores later in 2020, support all but one HDR format, while some other HDR-capable TVs only support one or two.
What do I need to see HDR?
Though there are several factors involved in seeing HDR, the most important is actually owning an HDR-capable TV. Virtually all HDR TVs are also 4K TVs, but 4K is not a requirement for HDR — the two technologies just happen to be getting popular at the same time, so they’re both being added to new models.
Beyond owning an HDR-capable TV, here are the other things you need to have:
- You need a way to play HDR content on your TV. Some HDR-capable TVs are also smart TVs with built-in streaming apps. It’s not a guarantee that these apps will support HDR (more on that later), but for most people, it’s the easiest solution.
- If you want to access HDR content from an external device (see the next bullet), your TV needs at least one HDMI port that supports HDCP 2.2 (a copy protection technology that most streaming services require in order to pass 4K and HDR content to your TV).
- If your TV isn’t so smart or doesn’t have the apps you need, you’ll want to buy an HDR-capable streaming media device, like an Apple TV 4K, Roku, or Amazon Fire TV.
- You need a high-speed internet connection. This is a weird one, because, technically speaking, HDR doesn’t add a ton of bandwidth to a video stream. However, most streaming services consider HDR a premium experience and only offer it with their 4K content, and 4K is quite demanding when it comes to data. Netflix, as an example, requires a 25Mbps or faster connection for its HDR content.
- You need a premium-tier subscription (maybe). This one depends on who you want to stream from. Netflix only offers HDR on its Premium plan, whereas Disney+, Apple TV+, and Amazon Prime Video include both 4K and HDR at no extra charge. Check with your streaming service to see what’s on tap.
As we mentioned above, HDR isn’t actually one format, it’s several formats. Currently, there are five different HDR formats:
These HDR formats are discrete from each other. In other words, for each format, your TV, media streamer, cable box, etc., must specifically support that format. If your media streamer only lists HDR10 and HLG in its specifications, it likely does not support Dolby Vision or HDR10+.
Unlike some kinds of audio and video formats, HDR formats cannot be “transcoded.” So, your HDR10-only TV won’t be able to convert a Dolby Vision movie into HDR10 so that you can see it in HDR. The HDR format of your content has to match the capabilities of your equipment.
Fortunately, disc-based media and streaming services usually offer HDR titles in more than one format, making it less likely that you’ll come across HDR content that won’t work with your gear — but it’s not a guarantee. Netflix, for instance, supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but not on every single HDR title; some are Dolby Vision only.
We’re not going to get into the technical differences between these HDR formats here. If you’re curious about them, however, we’ve got some great in-depth explainers, which we’ve linked to in the list above.
Instead, let’s discuss how the existence of these different formats can affect whether or not you’re going to see HDR content on your TV.
HDR10 is by far the most common of the five HDR formats. In fact, HDR10 is so common that it’s become synonymous with HDR overall. If you buy a TV or playback device today that claims to support HDR, it will — at a minimum — support HDR10. The same is usually true of streaming services that offer HDR. Even the ones that promote other HDR formats, like Dolby Vision or HDR10+, will also offer HDR10.
You’ll still need to make sure that all of the devices, services, and media titles are designated as HDR10, but otherwise, there are no special considerations. HDR10 will work over standard high-speed HDMI cables.
Dolby Vision is a proprietary HDR format that Dolby Labs licenses to studios, streaming services, and device makers. Because of the fees involved, some of these companies have decided not to offer Dolby Vision. Samsung doesn’t support Dolby Vision on any of its TVs, preferring instead to support HDR10 and HDR10+.
Roku doesn’t support Dolby Vision on any of its standalone streaming devices like the Roku Streaming Stick+ or the Roku Ultra. However, some Roku TVs, like TCL’s 5-Series, 6-Series, and 8-Series, do support Dolby Vision.
The Apple TV 4K does support it, but the Apple TV HD doesn’t support any HDR formats. The newest Nvidia Shield TV (2019) models do support it, but the older 2017 models do not.
This mixed bag of support for Dolby Vision means you have to pay extra close attention to the devices and services you own or are planning to buy. The only way to get Dolby Vision HDR is if every piece of the puzzle, from the movie to the TV, supports it.
That even extends to the HDMI cables you’re using. Dolby Vision uses a lot more data than HDR10, which means it needs an HDMI cable that can handle the extra bandwidth. Your best bet is a premium high-speed HDMI cable. It may be possible to get Dolby Vision over a regular high-speed HDMI cable, but it’s not guaranteed to work.
You might be wondering if it’s so tricky to see Dolby Vision, why don’t you just stick to HDR10? The answer is picture quality. Dolby Vision, as our in-depth explainer points out, is a dynamic HDR format, which can offer significant enhancements to the overall HDR experience.
HDR10+ is a direct competitor to Dolby Vision in terms of picture quality, but it is an open-source technology, and therefore there are no licensing fees associated with it. Samsung is the format’s biggest backer on the TV side of the equation, and Amazon is the biggest on the services and streaming devices sides.
In fact, Amazon Prime Video supports HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HDR10+ for most of its HDR content, and its 4K-capable streaming devices, like the Fire TV Cube and the Fire TV Stick 4K, support all three formats plus HLG, easily making them the HDR champs of the streaming device world.
Though it took some time, most major manufacturers now support HDR10+ with two notable exceptions: LG and Sony. However, Amazon is the only streaming device maker that uses it. There isn’t much in the way of HDR10+ content to watch at the moment unless you’re on Amazon Prime Video.
Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) is primarily used to present HDR content over broadcast TV, but until ATSC 3.0 (aka NextGen TV) becomes mainstream in the U.S., it’s unlikely you’ll have much opportunity to view HLG content even if your TV supports it. The BBC uses it, and some HLG content exists on YouTube. DirecTV uses HLG on its 4K channels, but even there, it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Once TV broadcasters start to add HLG support, we may begin to see far more TV shows and sports events in HDR.
Advanced HDR by Technicolor
Advanced HDR by Technicolor is essentially a non-entity so far. With no real support from content creators, device makers, or streaming services, it may be some time before we see this format gain a foothold. If and when it does, it will likely be as a competitor to HLG in the broadcast world because of Technicolor’s ability to pair HDR with standard dynamic range (SDR) in the production process.
Navigating the HDR compatibility minefield
The good news is that HDR is awesome when you can get it. The bad news is that actually getting HDR can be like navigating a virtual minefield. To get HDR, all of the pieces of the puzzle need to line up. When they don’t line up, it can be tricky to figure out which of those puzzle pieces is getting in your way. Here are the most common stumbling blocks to getting HDR.
Check your app
TiVo’s popular Bolt Vox DVR is a 4K and HDR-capable device that lets you run various streaming apps, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu. When the device went on sale in 2017, the only app that had been written to take advantage of the Bolt’s HDR capabilities was Vudu. It took another two years for Netflix and Amazon to update their apps to support the feature.
We’ve also seen instances where an app developer is simply unable, despite its best efforts, to support HDR, even when its app is running on an HDR-capable device.
Some apps only offer a single HDR format. When that format is HDR10, it shouldn’t be a problem. But some apps, like Vudu’s app for Vizio’s SmartCast platform, only offer Dolby Vision. If your TV doesn’t support Dolby Vision, you won’t be able to see any HDR content from that app.
Check your A/V receiver or soundbar
Another potential gotcha is your audio equipment. If you connect all of your devices to an A/V receiver or a soundbar, which are then in turn connected to your TV via HDMI, these intermediate products need to be HDR-compatible too.
If they aren’t, they won’t be able to pass the HDR information from your Blu-ray player or streaming device to your TV. Virtually all new A/V receivers and soundbars can handle HDR, but if yours is between five and 10 years old (or older), you should definitely check its specs. If it doesn’t mention compatibility with HDR, Dolby Vision, or HDR10+, there’s a good chance it isn’t compatible.
The workaround here is to place your TV between the Blu-ray player or streaming device and your audio gear.
Check your streaming device or game console
Most dedicated streaming devices that are built for HDR don’t need to be configured to send the correct HDR signal to your TV. However, game consoles like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 may need to be set up for HDR display.
On the Xbox One S or X:
- Press the Xbox button to open the Xbox Guide.
- Scroll down to Settings.
- Select All Settings.
- Select Display & Sound.
- Select Video Output.
- Select Video Modes.
To make sure HDR is enabled, both the Allow 4K and Allow HDR checkboxes should be filled.
On the PlayStation 4:
- Go to Settings.
- Select Sound and Screen.
- Select Video Output Settings.
- Select HDR and check Automatic.
- Go back to Video Output Settings.
- Select Deep Color Output and check Automatic.
Check your movie or TV show
Even if you have a streaming app that supports HDR, you’re on an HDR-capable device, and you’re connected to an HDR-capable TV, you won’t get to see HDR content 100% of the time. That’s because movies and TV shows that have been formatted to display HDR are still something of a rarity.
The details page for the movie or show you’re about to stream will usually tell you all of the available formats, such as 4K, HDR, Dolby Atmos, 5.1 surround sound, etc. If you don’t see at least one of the HDR formats listed, then it probably isn’t available in HDR. As time goes on, more and more content will be created in HDR, so this problem should diminish in the future.
Another gotcha: If the HDR format listed isn’t one that your TV supports, you may not be able to watch it in HDR.
Check your TV’s settings and ports
Depending on your TV, you might need to adjust one or more settings in order to see HDR. Some TV models, like LG’s 4K OLED TVs, automatically switch to the appropriate settings when they detect an HDR signal. Others, like Vizio TVs, need you to let them know when an HDR source device has been connected. On a Vizio TV, you do this by going to Input Settings, then select the HDMI port your device is connected to, and turn on the Full UHD Color option.
Additionally, not every HDMI port can be used with HDR content. Some TVs support it on every port, some support it on just one port, and still others offer HDR support on some — but not all — ports. Suffice it to say this: Check the documentation that came with your TV, or look up the details online to make sure.
How do I know if I’m getting HDR?
Let’s assume you’ve done everything right: You’ve made sure your devices, your services, your content, and your cables are all compatible with one or more HDR formats. Are you actually seeing HDR?
On a high-end HDR TV like a Samsung QLED TV or an LG OLED TV, the difference should be immediately noticeable. Scenes with bright sunlight or explosions should be dazzling, and colors should pop. Dark scenes should look way more detailed than you’re used to. Overall, you should find yourself thinking, “Wow, I’ve never seen a movie or TV show look this good before on my TV.”
If this doesn’t happen, it’s worth looking for an official confirmation from your TV that you are indeed seeing HDR. LG and Vizio TVs make this easy. Whenever you begin playback of an HDR10 or Dolby Vision stream, a matching icon appears briefly in the top right corner to let you know. If you believe you should be seeing HDR and one of these icons does not appear, something’s wrong.
With other brands, it can vary. On Samsung TVs, pressing the info button on the remote will bring up an information bar at the top of the screen. Look for an indicator in the top right corner that says “HDR.”
On Sony TVs, it’s more convoluted. Using the remote:
- Press the Home button.
- Select Settings.
- Select Preferences.
- Select Picture.
- Select Picture Mode. If your TV detects an HDR format, it will display “HDR-Vivid” or “HDR-Video.”
If you’re uncertain about how to tell if you’re in HDR mode on your TV, try Googling, “[TV Brand, Model] how to tell if I’m seeing HDR.”
Even if you’re not viewing content that has been created using one of the five HDR formats, your TV may be able to upscale SDR content to near-HDR quality. LG HDR TVs have a picture mode called “HDR effect,” which takes advantage of the TV’s image processing smarts to make SDR movies and shows look more like HDR. Other brands have similar picture mode options.
How effective this upscaling is will depend on a lot of factors, like the quality of the source content, your TV’s panel, and the algorithms used to achieve the upscaling effect.
Common HDR problems
If while playing HDR content — especially when using Dolby Vision — your screen repeatedly goes black and then comes back to life (audio is usually uninterrupted), that is a sign that your HDMI cables aren’t fast enough to maintain the link between your TV and the device that is feeding it the HDR signal.
Remember: Dolby Vision is happiest with premium high-speed cables. If you’re using more than one HDMI cable in your device chain, they’ll all need to be premium high-speed rated.
HDR icon comes and goes
We’ve seen reports of people experiencing an HDR on-screen icon that keeps coming back intermittently after its first appearance.
A possible reason for this is your internet connection. If it’s teetering on the edge of being just fast enough for HDR, but not consistently so, your streaming service may end up adjusting its quality several times while you watch. Because HDR tends to add extra bandwidth, with Dolby Vision being especially greedy, turning HDR off is an easy way to drop the requirements of the movie or TV show.
If you’ve reached this point and your head is spinning, we’re sorry. Unfortunately, HDR is having a truly messy moment as it bounces between competing formats, uneven support for those formats among devices, and a relatively small number of actual titles that make use of it.
But if you’ve got the patience to wade through it all, we promise you’ll be rewarded with some of the best-looking picture quality you’ve ever seen outside of your local movie theater.
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