HDR TV: What it is, and why you’ll want one

Need more contrast in your life? Here’s what you need to know about HDR TVs

If you’ve been TV shopping recently, you’ve probably noticed manufacturers have stopped touting 4K Ultra HD TVs as the hot new thing. These days, it’s all about HDR — high dynamic range. Is this just another clever marketing term to make you feel like your TV is outdated? In a word: No. While the higher resolution of a 4K Ultra HD TV gives you more pixels, an HDR TV can do more with those pixels. But what is HDR TV?

In the right hands, high dynamic range 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 much on paper, but in reality, it can be very significant. In fact, all it takes is seeing a quality HDR TV’s increased contrast and color depth in person to realize it represents a dramatic leap forward from plain old 4K.

HDR: The basics

Contrast is measured by the difference between the brightest whites and darkest blacks a TV can display, as measured in candelas per square meter (cd/m2), known as nits. The ideal low end is completely black, or zero nits — currently only possible on OLED displays, which can turn pixels completely off. On the high end, it’s a different story. Standard dynamic range TVs generally produce 300 to 500 nits at most, but in general, HDR TVs aim much higher. Some top-tier models can display upwards of 2,000 nits of peak brightness for HDR highlights. At CES 2018, Sony showed off a prototype TV capable of a whopping 10,000 nits of peak brightness.

sony 85 inch 8k hdr tv 10000 nit a8f oled hands on series ces 2018 4

In April 2016, the UHD Alliance — an industry group made up of companies like Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Dolby, and many others — announced the Ultra HD Premium certification for UHD Blu-ray players. This benchmark sets some baseline goals for HDR, such as the ability to display up to 1,000 nits of peak brightness and a minimum 10-bit color depth. The best HDR TV models will not only meet these standards, but exceed them, with support for more than one major HDR technology. As technology moves forward, we’re seeing TVs exceed those initial standards by leaps and bounds.

While there are multiple HDR formats, there are currently two major players: Dolby’s proprietary Dolby Vision format and the HDR10 open standard. Dolby was first to the party, and for a short time, Dolby Vision was essentially synonymous with HDR, but not every manufacturer wanted to play by Dolby’s rules (or pay its fees), and many started working on their own alternatives. Companies quickly realized that this could lead to madness, and many popular manufacturers, including LG, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Vizio, eventually agreed on the HDR10 open standard. Both formats meet the UHD Alliance standards mentioned above, but how they go about doing it varies greatly.

HDR10

While Dolby Vision may have been first, HDR10 is currently the most popular format, supported by a wide swath of TV makers. The format isn’t as technologically advanced as Dolby Vision’s theoretical specs, but then again, neither are most Dolby Vision-enabled TVs you can go out and buy right now.

The HDR10 standard was codified by the Consumer Technology Association, the same group behind the annual Consumer Electronics Show. The spec currently uses 10-bit color depth, while Dolby Vision uses 12-bit. Both of these offer millions of colors per pixel, and the difference will be difficult to spot, dependant upon how a given movie or TV show is mastered. Since one of the goals of HDR is to offer greater color volume, a higher color depth is desirable, at least in theory, but even 10-bit color depth is a major step up from the 8-bit color depth used in standard dynamic range TVs.

While HDR10 plays it safer than Dolby Vision, it’s also more feasible for manufacturers to implement right now.

Both HDR10 and Dolby Vision use metadata that rides along the video signal down an HDMI cable and allows the source video to tell a TV how to display colors. HDR10 uses a fairly simple approach, sending metadata once at the start of a video. This is enough to essentially tell the TV: “This video is encoded using HDR and you should treat it that way.” But as we’ll show later, Dolby Vision takes a more thorough approach.

While HDR10 plays it safer than Dolby Vision when it comes to technology, it’s also more feasible for TV manufacturers to implement at present, so it has become the more popular of the two formats. In addition, HDR10 is an open standard — TV manufacturers can implement it free of charge. It is also recommended by the UHD Alliance, which generally prefers open standards to proprietary formats.

HDR10+

Then there is the matter of HDR10+, which Samsung and Amazon announced in April 2017. HDR10+ works much more like Dolby Vision, utilizing dynamic metadata that allows TVs to adjust brightness on a scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame basis. One way in which it differs from Dolby Vision is its color-bit depth which, like HDR10, is limited to 10-bit color depth. This may eventually limit its longevity. That said, this won’t matter in the near term due to hardware and content limitations, and Samsung is so bullish on the format the company added HDR10+ support in all of its 2018 QLED TVs. HDR10+ is also now available on Panasonic’s 2018 4K OLED line (not available stateside), which was unveiled at CES 2018, but its support is still relatively limited.

Dolby Vision

Though HDR10 is currently supported by more TVs, that might not always be the case. In terms of sheer technological might, Dolby Vision has a clear advantage, even with current TVs. As referenced above, Dolby Vision’s superiority could become even more apparent in the future.

Dolby Vision’s support for 12-bit color depth, as opposed to the 10-bit color depth supported by HDR10 and HDR10+, may eventually allow for more vibrant colors and better color accuracy. Dolby Vision also features higher theoretical brightness — HDR10 currently maxes out at 4,000 nits (though most content is only mastered to 1,000 nits) while Dolby Vision is designed to support up to 10,000 nits of peak brightness. Despite what we saw at CES 2018, no TV on the market currently handles anything near that bright, but that will no doubt change in the future, making Dolby Vision poised to deliver more brightness information when TVs and content catch up.

Brightness and color depth aren’t the only areas where Dolby Vision has a theoretical advantage over HDR10. As touched on above, while HDR10 transmits only static metadata (when a video starts playing), Dolby Vision uses dynamic metadata, which can vary by scene or even on a per-frame basis. HDR10+ closes the gap here, sending metadata information more often, but Dolby Vision still offers some advantages.

HDR10 might currently be better supported, both in terms of TVs and content, but Dolby is hard at work trying to change that.

The Dolby Vision spec allows your TV to source data about the screens that were used to master the scene (in the editing lab at a studio), and it can automatically account for the differences between your TV and the gear the pros use. This leads to an image that is automatically adapted to best fit your individual display.

Finally, when it comes to connecting external hardware, while Dolby Vision can be delivered over HDMI 1.4, according to Panasonic’s Assistant General Management (per Flat Panels HD), HDR10+ requires HDMI 2.0b. In other words, your TV will need a newer HDMI input to access HDR10+ from hardware devices, but won’t, as was previously thought, need the brand-new HDMI 2.1 format.

Initially, Dolby Vision required dedicated hardware to work, meaning it couldn’t be added later via a firmware update, but that changed in February 2017, when the company made Dolby Vision available as a software solution, meaning hardware manufacturers — including TV and Ultra HD Blu-ray manufacturers — could add support later on. As such, there are now Ultra HD Blu-ray players available that support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, and some companies have released firmware updates adding Dolby Vision support to their players.

More TV makers have started supporting Dolby Vision as well. Early on, only Vizio and LG sold TVs with both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Since then a number of manufacturers — including Sony, Hisense, and TCL — have cooked up models that support both. Meanwhile, as mentioned above, HDR10+ is relegated to just two TV makers at present.

HDR10+ availability as an open standard could eventually slow down Dolby Vision’s rate of adoption, but at least for now, more and more TVs are also supporting Dolby’s tech.

Other contenders

Dolby Vision and HDR10 (and to a lesser extent, HDR10+) are currently seen as the two biggest players in HDR, but there are other companies working on their own HDR solutions. Two other emerging formats aim to make backward compatibility with standard dynamic range a major focus.

Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) is a format born from a partnership between the BBC and Japanese broadcaster NHK, developed with an emphasis on live broadcasting, though it can also be used for prerecorded content. Unlike HDR10 and Dolby Vision, HLG doesn’t use metadata, which could actually work to its advantage in some ways, depending on how TV manufacturers implement it. For a more thorough look into the topic, read our complete guide to HLG, which discusses both what it offers right now and what it could offer in the future.

Technicolor was an early player in HDR, and at CES 2016, the company announced a partnership with Philips to create a new format. Like HLG, this format aims to be backward compatible with SDR displays, which the companies said in a press release “will simplify HDR deployments for distributors, who will be able to send one signal to all of their customers, regardless of which TV they have.” At CES 2018, Philips announced that its 2019 TVs would support Technicolor HDR and the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard.

So what do we watch?

Even if your TV has the latest and greatest HDR support, color reproduction, and 4K UHD tech, much of what you watch won’t be able to take advantage of all that awesomeness. HDR content is currently even more limited than 4K, but Hollywood (of course) is working to remedy this. Below are the easiest ways to get your HDR fix.

Ultra HD Blu-ray

Offering the highest-quality delivery method for a top-tier HDR experience at home, UHD Blu-ray allows for 4K UHD resolution, HDR and color expansion, alongside revolutionary surround sound codecs like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. The HDMI 2.0a format update was largely based around clearing the way for HDR devices, including new Blu-ray players and other set-top devices.

Ultra HD Blu-ray releases with HDR have become the new standard, and HDR10 is currently the leader there, though Dolby Vision is working hard to catch up. Which discs do HDR best? Check out our picks for the best 4K UHD Blu-Ray releases.

Netflix

It probably comes as no surprise that Netflix was one of the first companies to announce HDR support. Its first HDR title, Marco Polo, was joined by a number of other Netflix originals, including Marvel’s Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage series, as well as original movies like The Do-Over and The Ridiculous Six. HDR titles from Netflix are currently available in HDR10 and/or Dolby Vision.

Amazon

Amazon also announced HDR support fairly early on. A number of HDR films are available via Amazon Prime Video, along with many of its original series, including Jack Ryan (in Dolby Vision), Man in the High Castle, TransparentMozart in the Jungle, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s likely that most if not all of Amazon’s future original programming will also be available in HDR.

Amazon initially only supported HDR10, but in June 2016 the company added support for Dolby Vision. At the time, the company said that more titles were available in HDR10, with a subset available in Dolby Vision, but it added over 100 hours of HDR content in both formats by the end of 2016.

In December 2017, Amazon added more than 100 titles in the HDR10+ format, including series like The Man in the High Castle, The Tick, and The Grand Tour. The company plans to continue to add more titles in HDR10+ moving forward.

iTunes

Alongside the 2017 launch of the Apple TV 4K, the iTunes Store was updated to offer movies and TV shows in HDR. Both HDR10 and Dolby Vision titles are available, with a handy icon flagging which movies use which format.

One perk for those entrenched in the Apple ecosystem is that eligible titles you already own are automatically updated to the HDR version, so you don’t have to buy a movie or TV show twice. If you’re an Apple fan who just bought a new 4K HDR TV and an Apple TV 4K, this could be a great way to show them off without spending more money.

Google Play Movies & TV

Google Play also added HDR movies and TV shows in 2017. Unlike Apple’s offering, Dolby Vision was absent at launch, despite Google’s own Chromecast Ultra supporting the technology. Google promised Dolby Vision was coming, but so far, only HDR10 titles are available.

Google initially partnered with companies like Sony Pictures and Warner Brothers for its offerings, with more films and TV shows to follow. Unfortunately, Google’s interface isn’t quite as upfront as Apple’s in terms of flagging HDR TV shows and movies, so you’ll need to do a little searching.

Vudu

One of the earliest providers of 4K programming, Vudu was also quick to offer HDR support. The service has one of the largest libraries of 4K movies and TV shows available for rental or purchase, many with HDR as well as Dolby Atmos surround sound.

For some time, Vudu’s HDR offerings were only available in Dolby Vision. In November 2017, the company announced complete support for HDR10, making its library of HDR titles available on a far greater range of devices.

FandangoNow

Like Vudu, FandangoNow offers both movies and TV show for rent or purchase in 4K, with some also available in HDR. Also like Vudu, FandangoNow’s library of HDR movies and TV shows is made available in HDR10. FandangoNow is also handy for HDR TV owners, as it lists all the films that are available in HDR on a dedicated section of its website.

YouTube

It doesn’t share much in common with the above services, but YouTube does stream in HDR. Like Google Play Movies & TV, YouTube currently only supports streaming in HDR10. Google hasn’t said much about whether YouTube will ever support Dolby Vision.

In terms of content, there are a whole lot of videos showing off the power of HDR — there’s even a dedicated HDR channel. This is great for showing off your TV, and down the road, we’re sure there will be more content making use of it. For now, it’s mainly a fun novelty.

What about gaming?

While most guides focus on passive viewing experiences for HDR, game consoles are an important part of the discussion. With the PlayStation 4 Pro, Xbox One S, and Xbox One X, Sony and Microsoft have thrown their hats into the HDR ring, but it can be much more complicated to access all that sparkly goodness than you might expect.

Xbox One S & Xbox One X

We’re kicking off with Microsoft’s update to the Xbox One because it’s a much simpler story overall. While the first-generation Xbox One didn’t feature support for either 4K or HDR, the revamped version features both. In addition to 4K support (complete with HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2) HDR10 is supported for both games and general entertainment purposes, though Dolby Vision is not.

Xbox One S
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Xbox streaming in HDR is currently limited to Netflix, but Microsoft has taken things a step further by including an Ultra HD Blu-ray drive built-in, meaning you get twice the bang for the buck — especially considering the Xbox One S is priced competitively with many UHD Blu-ray players.

The Xbox One S does not support native 4K Ultra HD content for gaming. Instead, video is upscaled to 4K. The Xbox One X does support native 4K, while HDR is supported on either console for a number of games, including Battlefield 1, Gears of War 4, and Forza Horizon 3.

PlayStation 4 Pro

Unlike Microsoft’s first effort, Sony did add HDR to the original PS4, but without 4K Ultra HD support. That means it won’t be very helpful as a streaming device for HDR, especially since apps like Netflix and Amazon currently only support HDR alongside 4K. The HDR support on board here will only be useful for a select number of games that include HDR, though more are expected to roll out soon.

The PlayStation 4 Pro features HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2, which allows the PS4 Pro to offer both 4K and HDR10, but it doesn’t offer Dolby Vision. Currently, however, this is only useful for gaming as the Playstation apps for Amazon and Netflix don’t support 4K or HDR.

Unlike the Xbox One S and Xbox One X — and this is key for home theater enthusiasts — Sony didn’t include a UHD Blu-ray drive in the PS4 Pro (even though Sony invented Blu-ray). That’s quite surprising considering how much the built-in DVD drive aided sales of the PlayStation 2, while the PlayStation 3 helped Sony’s Blu-ray format win the high-definition hardware war over HD-DVD.

ps4-pro

Native 4K gaming is possible on the PS4 Pro, though it’s a complicated situation, as some games are native while others are upscaled. HDR gaming is supported for a variety of titles, including Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, The Last of Us: Remastered, Thumper, and many more.

Then there’s the VR complication. Sony has also focused heavily on virtual reality with its PSVR hardware, but this presents a problem for those who would like to game in HDR, as the two are currently mutually exclusive. “If you’re playing a normal, non-VR game on your PS4 Pro, PS VR’s Processor Unit will output a 4K signal to a 4K TV,” Sony’s blog post reads. “The Processor Unit does not support HDR pass-through,” the post continues, meaning you’ll have to go directly into the TV from the PS4 Pro to view HDR content.

In other words, you can’t get HDR on your TV with the PSVR connected. This is less than ideal, but both consoles are dealing with their fair share of issues related to 4K and HDR. As time goes on, bugs will likely be worked out, though it remains to be seen if anything to fix the issue with PSVR is even possible.

Worth the hassle

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. If you’re wondering if the next TV you buy should be HDR compatible, our answer is yes, though we caution to make sure the TV also offers peak brightness on the level that will be able to make HDR pop.

HDR is the most meaningful upgrade to the home video viewing experience since the jump to high definition, and it’s definitely at the core of television’s future.

If you’re wondering how to get the best HDR TV your money can buy, be sure to have a look at our TV buying guide and our list of the best TVs on the market.

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