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

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

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 Is this just another clever marketing term to make you feel like your TV is outdated?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, HDR can provide a higher level of contrast between light and dark images on the screen, while using more colors, 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 that it represents a dramatic leap forward from plain old 4K.

HDR: The basics

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To really understand HDR, we need to get a bit technical. That’s because there are several competing and overlapping HDR formats, each with its own specifications. We’ll cover these in a moment, but first, here’s what HDR is at a general level.

More brightness means more contrast

HDR increases the contrast of any given on-screen image by increasing brightness. Contrast is the difference between the brightest whites and darkest blacks a TV can display. It’s typically measured as a ratio, e.g. 1:2,000,000, which in this case would mean that that TV is capable of displaying a bright area that is 2,000,000 times brighter than its correspondingly darkest area.
Brightness is measured in candelas per square meter (cd/m2), also known as “nits.” By increasing the maximum amount of nits for a given image, HDR TVs are capable of a higher contrast ratio. LED TVs in particular benefit from this increased brightness, as they can’t show blacks as deep and dark as OLED TVs, so they need to get brighter to achieve the same or better contrast ratios.

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 upward of 2,000 nits of peak brightness for HDR highlights. Sony has shown off a prototype TV capable of a whopping 10,000 nits of peak brightness.

More colors, too

HDR technology also provides a larger color palette than SDR. As TV technology evolves, TV displays are capable of showing an increasingly large number of color shades. HDR takes advantage of this by encoding videos using more of those available colors. When you watch HDR material on an HDR TV, these additional colors add to realism — because they better match what the human eye is capable of seeing in nature — but they also improve things like gradients, where you have a single area on screen that shifts from one end of a color shade to another, like bright red to dark red. More color shades mean these shifts will appear smoother.

The many versions of HDR

As we mentioned above, there isn’t just one HDR format. In fact, at the moment, there are five competing HDR formats: HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG, HDR10+, and Advanced HDR by Technicolor. Let’s take a look at each one to see how they differ.

HDR10

Though not the first HDR format to emerge, HDR10 is by far the most widely used. If you have an HDR TV, it supports HDR10, even if it doesn’t support any other HDR formats. HDR10 is the de facto HDR standard because it’s open-source, which means any manufacturer can implement it on their TVs without a licensing fee, and it has the official backing of several major industry-standard bodies, like the UHD Alliance. HDR10 allows for many of the improvements to image quality that HDR makes possible, but it is not as sophisticated as some of the other HDR formats.

HDR10 uses 10-bit color depth, which provides for millions of colors, versus the thousands of colors used by the predominantly 8-bit color depth of SDR. Currently, 10-bit color is more than adequate for HDR, because no TVs on the market are capable of showing more than 10-bit color. From a brightness (and thus contrast) point of view, HDR10 provides for a maximum of 1,000 nits. This is where we begin to see some of HDR10’s limitations: As we’ve already pointed out, the brightest HDR TVs are capable of much more than 1,000 nits.

HDR10 uses metadata that rides along with 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. Known as “static” metadata, this is enough to essentially tell the TV: “This video is encoded using HDR and you should treat it that way.” It’s an effective, low-bandwidth way of adding the extra information required by HDR, but it’s also limited compared to other approaches as we’ll see with Dolby Vision.

Dolby Vision

Before there was HDR10, there was Dolby Vision. The relationship is surprisingly similar to the old Betamax and VHS videotape standards of the late 70s and 80s. Sony’s Betamax was undeniably superior in many ways to VHS, but because of Sony’s insistence on high licensing fees, it eventually lost out to the less capable but far more affordable VHS.

Dolby Vision is a proprietary HDR format developed and licensed by Dolby Labs. In terms of sheer technological might, Dolby Vision has a clear advantage in terms of future-proofing, but its benefits can also be appreciated with current TVs. Dolby Vision supports 12-bit color depth which expands the number of available shades into the billions. It also features higher theoretical brightness: Up to 10,000 nits. That means Dolby Vision material can take advantage of the very brightest displays we are capable of making right now and for the immediate future. Of course, no HDR content whether Dolby Vision or not comes even close to exploring the format’s maximum limits on color or brightness, but that just means there’s lots of room to grow with Dolby Vision.

Right now, with existing TV technology, there’s one area of Dolby Vision that everyone can appreciate. It uses dynamic metadata, which means that every scene and every frame of video can be adjusted with color and contrast info. It’s a huge amount of additional information, but the result is HDR that looks far better than HDR10 and comes closer to what a filmmaker created when they produced their movie or show.

Finally, the Dolby Vision format contains information about the equipment that was used to create the master recording. Using this info, your TV can then recalibrate some of its display settings to offset the differences between the mastering equipment and your home TV.

Because of the licensing fees associated with Dolby Vision, not all HDR TVs support this format. Only those that specifically carry the Dolby Vision logo are compatible. Likewise, not all HDR content is available in Dolby Vision. To see true Dolby Vision HDR, you need both a Dolby Vision source (like UHD 4K Blu-ray, or Dolby Vision streaming video) and a device that can show it. Keep in mind, if you like to watch streaming media through a set-top box, not all of them support Dolby Vision. Roku’s streaming devices are a notable example. They only support HDR10. You will find wide and growing support for Dolby Vision on 4K UHD Blu-rays, streaming media services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and on many TVs and devices from brands like LG, Vizio, TCL, Sony, and Apple.

HDR10+

HDR10+ Example

Dolby Vision is obviously superior to HDR10, but the dilemma of licensing fees prompted a group of companies led by Samsung to develop an open-source HDR format that shared many of the advantages of Dolby Vision but without the fees. HDR10+ is that format. Like Dolby Vision, it supports dynamic metadata for more accurate colors and contrast in every scene. It expands on the possible brightness of HDR10, by allowing up to 4,000 nits. However, it keeps HDR10’s 10-bit color depth.

The hope is that HDR10+ offers enough of an improvement over HDR10 that content creators, streaming media companies, and manufacturers will get on board with the format and give it the critical mass it needs to compete with Dolby Vision. It’s happening, but slowly. Only Samsung, Panasonic and Philips have created HDR10+ compatible TVs. Amazon’s 4K Fire TV Streaming Stick is one of the very few streaming devices to support the format. HDR10+ is starting to be used on 4K UHD Blu-rays, but only about 100 movies had used it so far. It’s even less common on streaming video services. Amazon Prime Video uses the format (in addition to Dolby Vision and HDR10), and Rakuten is reportedly bringing HDR10+ streaming to Samsung smart TVs in the future, but that’s about it.

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 two other HDR formats we should mention. 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, 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, Advanced HDR by Technicolor 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 Advanced HDR and the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard. One intriguing aspect of Advanced HDR is that it promises to take SDR content and “upscale” it to HDR, presumably in the same way that non-4K content can be upscaled by 4K TVs.

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 like Altered Carbon, and the third season of Stranger Things. 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 supports all three major flavors of HDR: HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HDR10+ — making it the only streaming service to do so.

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 iTunes 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. At the moment, watching HDR content from Google Play is supported natively on Chromecast Ultra, Samsung, and LG smart TVs, and some Sony Android TVs. It works with some set-top boxes too, like Nvidia’s Shield TV if you cast the HDR content from an Android or iOS device.

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 works with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Plex, and myTube. 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 at levels 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. And if you’re on the hunt for a bargain, check out our collection of the best 4K TV deals.

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