HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is the latest buzzword in the world of TVs. Of course, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about the latest and greatest thing. Whether we’re talking about 3D TV or BetaMax, new features are regularly introduced into the world of TV technology, often without leaving much of an impression. But there’s reason to believe that HDR is here to stay. We’l teach you what is HDR TV, go through the more popular HDR formats, and help you decide if it’s a feature that should matter to you. Finally, we’ll address some frequently asked questions.
Understanding Dynamic Range
The standard for TV resolution tends to change with the passing years, and that isn’t going to be changing any time soon. Just as 4K Ultra HD surpassed Full HD as the standard for high definition, so is 8K looming on the horizon. The problem is that there’s a threshold of diminishing returns. Packing more megapixels into a screen won’t bear much of a result until you get into much larger TVs.
That’s one reason why manufacturers are turning their attention to two other factors in the quality of image reproduction: contrast ratio and color accuracy. Both of these have a dramatic effect on how good an image looks on a screen, and it’s the same whether you’re playing a game on your Xbox One or watching an Ultra HD Blu-Ray on a Blu-Ray Player. And in more brightly lit environments, more detail will stick out rather than simply looking like a blinding mess of white.
- Contrast ratio refers to how black the blacks and how white the whites are on your screen. An Ultra HD Blu-Ray of a darkly shot movie will look more nuanced with a higher contrast ratio, and picking out opponents hiding in the shadows in your favorite Xbox One game is far easier.
- Color accuracy tells you how accurately your screen reproduces the colors on the screen. Higher color accuracy means a higher color gamut. That means that a TV with higher color accuracy can distinguish a wider range of greens while other TVs blur them into the same shade, but it also means that the colors themselves will just more accurately reflect the real world (or the imagined world that the creator is trying to replicate).
What’s great about contrast ratio and color accuracy is that they’re complimentary to the resolution. The human eye may not be able to tell that a video sports a higher contrast ratio or color accuracy, but they can definitely pick out a TV with a raised contrast ratio or color accuracy when put beside an otherwise comparable model. HDR gets its name from the term “dynamic range” which encompasses both contrast ratio and color accuracy in photography. And while it’s not exactly the same, the fundamentals are still on point for both.
Understanding High Dynamic Range
An HDR TV employs technology that expands both the contrast ratio and the color gamut on your TV. That ensures that there’s a larger color gamut to choose from and a wider range of tints to encompass those colors. The difference between firetruck red and cardinal red will be more distinct on an HDR TV, as will so many colors in between that you might not see with a non HDR TV. But the ability to display HDR content is actually predicated on two things.
The most easy to resolve is the TV itself. An HDR TV will be clearly be labeled as such (after all, it’s such a popular selling point these days), but being an HDR TV just means that it’s capable of displaying HDR content. How good that content looks really depends on the quality of the HDR TV. And not all HDR TVs are built equally. This is generally a case where you get what you pay for. A low price FHD TV with fly by night HDR may display a wider range of colors, but they might not be implemented as well as they should, whereas an Ultra HD TV might offer significantly more.
But how do HDR TVs actually work? It’s essentially the same as local dimming technology. TVs that support HDR can reach higher lighting levels. That stretches out the dynamic range between the highest and the lowest setting, allowing space for more textures and colors in between. The brighter HDR TVs can get, the wider the dynamic range, and the more likely they’ll be able to deliver a higher level of authenticity.
The other side of the equation is HDR content. 4K Ultra HD TVs can scale up older content that doesn’t support 4K Ultra HD formats to look better. There’s no such easy solution for HDR content. In other words, you can’t scale up the standard dynamic range to high dynamic range. HDR TVs can’t display the expanded HDR contrast range or color gamut for content that doesn’t support HDR, and you can’t watch HDR content on a TV that doesn’t support it.
Whether HDR is properly implemented depends on the game developer or film maker. How well they implement the wider color gamut can significantly effect the quality of the video. Fortunately, HDR looks like it’s here to stay. More and more HDR content is becoming available, and in a few years, we can expect most games, TV shows, and movies to support the format. The easiest way to find HDR content is on streaming services. Some of the biggest platforms like Hulu, Netflix, and Disney Plus all offer plenty of HDR programming, and that’s only going to expand over the years.
If you’re worried about HDR putting too much of a burden on your internet bandwidth to be of value to you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. While HDR can have a dramatic effect on the quality of video, it also doesn’t require a significant amount of extra power to stream. Any connection capable enough of streaming 4K video should be able to handle any HDR format in streaming without any additional issues.
If you prefer to not use streaming services, there are a number of different formats that offer support for HDR. You need to know that the only way to get HDR support on a video disc is to use an Ultra HD Blu-Ray. These are supported by Blu-Ray players. PS4s can also serve as Blu-Ray players too. If you want to play your favorite games in HDR, the Xbox One and also the PS4 support it (though only the latter can play an Ultra HD Blu-Ray). Having an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player is a no brainer for one who plans on sticking with physical media for the foreseeable future.
Different HDR Formats
HDR is a big innovation in terms of TV design, and as is often the case, the very idea of HDR has split off into a number of different proprietary formats. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, but you’re going to be inherently limited by what form of HDR your TV supports. Few offer support for all the HDR formats, so you’ll want to understand what the TVs you’re browsing support rather than pick up a TV just because it promises HDR support.
HDR10 and Dolby Vision (which we’ll outline in greater detail below) are the most standard versions of the HDR format, but HDR10 is the one that offers the most content at this moment. It’s the original HDR format and is also supported by the UHD Alliance, and that means there’s much more pressure to produce in the HDR10 format.
And there are definitely some advantages to HDR10. As a highly technical format, HDR10 prescribes to rigid specifications and ranges for color and contrast. The advantage here is that if your TV says it supports HDR10, you can rest easy knowing that it’s been through some pretty rigorous testing. And best of all, HDR10 is an open source and royalty free format. That means that anyone is free to use it. As a result, it tends to be prolific and offer a level of consistency that some other HDR formats can’t promise.
Generally, if you’re going to get a TV with HDR10 support, HDR10 and Dolby Vision are the two choices you’ll want to go with. They’ve proven their value and in all likelihood continue to be the leaders of the industry. While it’s possible another format could come along and dethrone them, it’s often hard to gain traction once formats like HDR10 and Dolby Vision have really captured as much ground as they have.
HDR10 uses static metadata. What that means is that all of the data that determines color and brightness is streamed to your TV when the video begins. This provides consistency in format across all TVs, but it is also somewhat limiting. The other limitations for HDR10 are typically more apparent than in other HDR formats. HDR10 employs 10 bit color, which offers billions of color options instead of the millions you’ll find in the standard dynamic range. For now, that’s more than enough. Even the best TVs available today don’t extend past the 10 bit color gamut.
The real issue here comes down to brightness. The HDR10 format only offers support for brightness on a range of up to 1000 nits. HDR10 will still work with TVs that have a wider brightness level, but if you’d like to make the most of the contrast ratio your TV offers, an HDR format other than HDR10 may be the way to go.
HDR10+ was designed as a way to improve on the fundamentals of HDR10 will shoring up the biggest weaknesses, and it exceeds for the most part. Despite being developed by Samsung, the format is completely open source. Since developers don’t have to pay a licensing fee to incorporate HDR10+ in their content, it will hypothetically continue to grow in popularity and eventually eclipse HDR10 in terms of adoption from TV manufacturers.
Unlike the traditional HDR10 format, HDR10+ supports dynamic metadata. That means that the color range and lighting settings aren’t pre-determined. Instead, the dynamic range of video is determined by a mix of a unique TV’s specs and the format in which it was originally shot. TVs with a wider or narrower brightness level or contrast ratio can thus have their video tailored to match the specifications of their TV.
Unfortunately, HDR10+ hasn’t really hit its stride just yet. While higher end Samsung TVs often come with support for HDR10, other manufacturers have been slow to catch on. The volume of video media that also incorporates the HDR10+ format will be predicated on the install base, and it’s simply just not there yet. But the open source format and the significant step up in quality when compared to HDR10 means that it could see a lot of growth in the coming years. It’s hopefully just a matter of the market catching up to the technology.
Dolby Vision is one of the more impressive forms of HDR on the market, and it’s also easily one of the most adopted. That’s because it was one of the first HDR formats to support dynamic metadata. As a result, the entire movie isn’t restricted by a single contrast ratio and color gamut. Each scene can employ more dramatically different colors and create more dynamic environments. The detail in shadows and bright light will look better, although you might not see much of a difference in movies or TV shows that are more consistent with how they’re shot.
Dolby Vision is a highly proprietary format designed by Dolby, and that’s a double edged sword. On the one hand, Dolby has some pretty impressive engineers at their disposal. The capabilities of the Dolby Vision HDR format go well beyond most of the other HDR formats available, and with this being a long term investment, Dolby Vision will probably only continue to develop and grow more sophisticated as time goes on. It also includes the information on the device used to create a master recording and can adjust the lighting and colors accordingly, providing higher precision.
But that proprietary format means that any manufacturer who wants to use the Dolby Vision format also needs to pay a licensing fee. As a result, fewer TVs tend to support Dolby Vision than HDR10. Not only does that mean that you may have to search harder to find a TV that supports Dolby Vision, but you may also have to search harder to find Dolby Vision content that you like.
That can be a huge impediment if you tend to prefer physical media. Source devices that support the Dolby Vision HDR format are rarer than more traditional sources. Ultra HD Blu-ray players can display Dolby Vision. but streaming sources can be a bit complicated too. If you’re using a streaming box or stick, you’ll want to make sure that it supports Dolby Vision, or you might need to buy a new one. Roku set top boxes, for instance, don’t support Dolby Vision at all.
That said, Dolby Vision isn’t as closed a format as it might seem at first. Most of the big name streaming services offer content that’s built with Dolby Vision in mind, and more and more manufacturers are creating TVs that support Dolby Vision despite the licensing fee. These include names like Apple, Vizio, and TCL. That’s a good sign that Dolby Vision will continue to stay with us for some time to come.
Part of that advantage has to do with the fact that Dolby Vision is already future-proofed. Dolby Vision can transmit video at up to 12 bits, which goes well beyond the current standards that TVs support and offers access to 68 billion colors, so it’s likely that Dolby Vision will lead the pack when 8K finally becomes feasible resolution. And it can offer dynamic resolution for TVs with a brightness of up to 10,000 nits: 10 times that offered by HDR10.
Hybrid Log-Gamma, more commonly referred to as HLG, is the new kid on the block as far as HDR formats go, and it’s actually doing some very interesting things. While the distinguishing factor between HDR and Dolby Vision is whether they use dynamic or static metadata to deliver content, HLG doesn’t use any metadata at all.
We talked before about how TVs that don’t support HDR can’t play HDR content, but HLG is the exception to the rule. That’s because instead of using metadata, the HLG format uses a gamma curve that’s normally used to determine brightness for SDR and a logarithmic curve that helps translate those SDR signals into something resembling an HDR format. That means that any TV can get HDR through the HLG format, although TVs built with native support for HDR will see some serious improvements.
That said, not a lot of people seem to be using HLG. It was originally created out of a relationship between Japan’s NHK and the U.K.’s BBC to create a format broadcaster can use to display HDR. The big problem here is that broadcasters tend to be behind the curve when it comes to the latest resolutions. 4K video is largely reserved for streaming and physical content, and few of the major networks – cable or otherwise – are even broadcasting 4K video, much less HDR video.
But HLG could see some wider adoption for live broadcasts. It’s one of only two HDR formats that can project HDR over live footage, and it doesn’t require expensive equipment. Many broadcasters can convert video to support the HLG HDR format without having to invest in more gear. The downside is that it upgrades existing SDR content rather than translating content built with HDR in mind. As a result, it doesn’t expand the contrast ratio but just expands the color palette. Blacks won’t be blacker, or whites whiter, unlike with more traditionally adopted HDR formats.
In terms of fundamentals, HLG is one of the most promising HDR formats, but we’ll have to see how widely it gets adopted down the road. That said, if you want a TV that supports HDR, you probably don’t need to go out of your way to make sure that it offers HLF compatibility. You probably don’t need to go out of your way to actively track down a TV that supports Hybrid Log-Gamma HDR, but its inclusion is absolutely a positive and could be useful down the road. The BBC and DirecTV air content in HLG, and most TVs produced after 2017 support it.
Advanced HDR by Technicolor
As it becomes clear that HDR is going to be the defining factor in the latest and best new TVs, it seems like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Technicolor was one of the first innovators in color TV and film, and they’re the latest brand to throw their hat in the HDR ring.
One thing that can be said about Technicolor is that their Advanced HDR technology isn’t lacking in ambition. That’s because Advanced HDR actually covers three different HDR formats, each with a different goal in mind and a specific role to potentially play in the market.
- Both broadcasters and people with older TVs will like the HDR-2-U format. Like HLG, this format is designed to work with both broadcast and pre-recorded video, and it’s designed to work with both SDR and HDR signals. It essentially hides HDR metadata into an SDR broadcast, providing hte best of both worlds and scaling to the technology of the user.
- SL-HDR2 uses HDR10 as its inspiration. But like HDR10+, it also provides support for metadata. But just like HDR10+ or Dolby Vision, footage mastered for SL-HDR2 will only work with TVs that come with HDR capabilities built in.
- SL-HDR3 instead builds on the format established by HLG. There’s not a lot to know about it yet, but it takes the fundamentals of HLG will potentially improving the quality of the video that can be transmitted.
Advanced HDR is still the youngest format, and there are a lot of questions about adoption. As of yet, there isn’t any content that’s designed with Advanced High Dynamic Range in mind. But LG TVs are already coming with support for this HDR format, and China has adopted it as part of their broadcast standards. Still, with so many manufacturers adopting HDR10, Dolby Vision, or both, Technicolor has a long road to climb to find some level of traction in the field.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is HDR Better than 4k?
HDR isn’t better than 4K. It’s complimentary to 4K. Whereas 4K refers to a resolution (or the numbers that can be packed into a single screen), HDR essentially refers to the number of colors and range of lighting that can be applied to video. That said, 8K is still a long way off, and HDR isn’t going anywhere. If you want the best TV currently on the market today, you should look for a 4K TV that also offers support for HDR.
Should HDR be On or Off?
We generally suggest keeping HDR on. With HDR applied, any content designed with HDR in mind will result in brighter and more vibrant colors and a wider contrast ratio. While a lot of content still doesn’t support HDR, you don’t have to worry about anything bad happening just because you keep HDR on.
Does HDR Make a Difference?
HDR can absolutely make a difference, but it won’t always. Full HD TVs often struggle to make HDR look realistic, and some cheaper TVs don’t make the most of the format. But for the most part, content designed with HDR in mind is going to look a lot more vibrant than standard range TVs.
What Does HDR Mean?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and it refers to the ability to display video designed with an expanded contrast ratio and wider color gamut in mind. HDR is poised to be the latest major innovation in TV technology, and plenty of programming is already being designed to accommodate the standards of HDR.
So what’s the big deal about HDR? 4K Ultra HD was all about packing in more pixels than FHD could offer, and 8K is about packing in more pixels still. That’s an admirable goal, but HDR is predicated on the notion of making the available pixels look better. And since it exists in harmony with the resolution, more advanced forms of HDR are only going to improve the look of your TV.
So do you need a TV with HDR? Not necessarily, but you should probably look for one. More and more TV shows, movies, and video games are going to start employing the different HDR formats, and getting a TV with HDR now will prevent you from being behind the curve as programming becomes more sophisticated. 8K is still a while away, but a new TV that offers HDR will be pretty well future proofed.
Now that you know about HDR and what is HDR, you can shop for your TV with a lot more confidence. We suggest you check out one of our TV shopping guides if you want to track down a quality TV that offers all of the best advantages of HDR technology.