Forget 3D and 4K; television makers are hawking a new acronym in 2016: HDR. Short for high dynamic range, HDR was ubiquitous at this year’s CES. Every major TV brand, from LG to Samsung to Sony, had at least one HDR set to show off. Many vendors even displayed their HDR TVs side-by-side with standard ones, with the former’s bright lights and vivid colors making a single point: You want this technology in your next TV.
But as we’ve learned from HD and 3D and 4K, new television features can mean new pain points and confusion. Not all TVs treat HDR equally, for instance, and not all HDR content is handled in the same way. The risk for TV buyers is that their hardware might not be compatible with future HDR hardware and content, or that it look not look as good as it could.
To sort it all out, I spent a good portion of CES talking to some of HDR’s key purveyors. Here’s what I learned, and what you need to know before buying into HDR yourself:
On a basic level, high dynamic range is about boosting brightness to provide more range between dark and light. When a biker gang member revs his flamethrower in Mad Max: Fury Road, the pyrotechnics in HDR seem to pop off the screen in radiant shades of orange and red. Watch it in today’s standard dynamic range, and you’ll see only blown-out whites.
To my eye, the difference between SDR and HDR is far more impressive than the jump from 1080p to 4K, and the barrier to enjoying it is much lower than that presented by 3D TV. In fact, HDR doesn’t even require 4K video resolution, but not a single vendor at CES offered a 1080p HDR TV.
TV makers have been bragging about more vibrant displays for years, but HDR isn’t just an incremental improvement. It’s a major increase in terms of brightness output, with HDR TVs hovering around a brightness level of 1000 nits. That’s more than double what you see in current non-HDR sets.
HDR also involves a new kind of video signal—and thus, entirely new HDR-enabled content—allowing filmmakers to redefine how colors appear on television. Instead of making major compromises for the living room, they’ll be able to achieve a look that’s similar to theatrical releases.
“I might want to make the whole show darker and explore the shadow detail, or I can make the whole thing brighter, or I can take advantage of the new reds and greens that I’ve got, and make creative decisions that way,” said Mark Turner, head of business development and relationships at Technicolor. “We’re great believers that the HDR file is a different creative process.”
Because of its allure for filmmakers, the TV industry is optimistic that we’ll see plenty of HDR content in the years ahead. But how that content is created, and what it looks like on individual TV sets, is where things get complicated.
A format war looms, but the stakes aren’t too high
Right now, two companies are trying to advance HDR content in Hollywood. Dolby Labs is one. It introduced an HDR system called Dolby Vision a couple of years back. With this system, Dolby works with filmmakers to create an HDR master copy on high-performance displays, and then packages it for distribution to televisions. On the TV side, Dolby’s technology unpacks the master copy and maps it to the characteristics of that specific television.
“What that means is the software can take the Dolby Vision master and make it look as good as it possibly can on that specific television,” said Giles Baker, senior vice president of Dolby’s broadcast business group.
Among streaming services, Dolby Vision will be supported in content from Netflix and Vudu. As for TVs, new sets from LG and TCL will support it, as will future Roku-powered smart TVs.
For these TV makers, the attraction to Dolby comes down to both quality and marketing appeal. “They’re the gold standard,” said Chris Larson, TCL’s vice president of sales and marketing. “So when you think of who can do this right, Dolby represents a firm line in the sand in everything they want to do.”
But Dolby is not alone in this effort. Technicolor, already a major player on the Hollywood post-production scene, wants in on the HDR business, too; and it’s come up with its own system for creating and delivering video. Technicolor’s main pitch is the ability to convert between SDR and HDR in a single file. That could be a big draw for cable and satellite providers, who might not want to dedicate lots of bandwidth or new satellites to what is not yet a widely adopted format.
“What we want is content that’ll play everywhere, and a delivery system that fulfills what pay-TV operators and broadcasters specifically are looking for, and the most important feature for them is backwards compatibility,” Technicolor’s Mark Turner said.
Turner also criticized Dolby Vision for being a proprietary format, though it’s worth noting that both approaches involve licensing technology to TV makers and requiring specific silicon on HDR-enabled TV sets. From a consumer perspective, the end result may not be all that different.
The good news is that this isn’t a winner-take-all battle akin to Blu-ray versus HD-DVD, in which consumers who made the wrong choice got shafted. For one thing, TVs that support Dolby or Technicolor’s methods also support a more standardized format called HDR-10 that will appear on 4K Blu-ray players. Streaming services are likely to support HDR-10 as well, which means users will always enjoy a baseline level of HDR quality.
“Everything supports HDR-10, basically,” Turner said. “Think of it as the new base layer. It’s the default, it’s easy, it’s low-complexity, everybody’s doing it.”
In the long run, it’s entirely possible for TVs and streaming services to support both Dolby Vision and Technicolor’s system as well. This is already the case with the OLED TV that LG announced at CES. In terms of future-proofing, users could reasonably worry that they’re not getting the best possible HDR signal, or that their TVs might not support future cable HDR channels, but they won’t be completely starved for content.
Not all HDR TVs are equal
Content isn’t the only concern with HDR. On the TV side, there’s also the issue of quality control. An unscrupulous TV maker, for instance, might advertise the ability to play HDR content, but that doesn’t mean the TV delivers peak brightness that’s high enough to make that content look good. Unlike 4K, which is rigidly defined as displaying 3840 by 2160 pixels, HDR is more open to interpretation.
Fortunately, this is a problem TV manufacturers seem willing to solve. At CES, we heard about a new consumer-facing standard called “Ultra HD Premium,” which aims to distinguish exceptional TVs from the rest. LCD/LED TVs that carry the Ultra HD Premium label, for instance, must achieve a brightness of at least 1000 nits. Although the label doesn’t solely address HDR—it also specifies things like black levels and color gamut—it does guarantee a certain level of HDR quality. LG, Panasonic, and Samsung all announced Ultra HD Premium sets during CES.
“It’s an aspirational goal for the CE manufacturers to meet these requirements, and now that they know how far the goal line is, they’ll try to meet it,” said Hanno Basse, President of the UHD Alliance.
Beyond just hardware, the Alliance hopes to stamp this label on HDR content. 4K Blu-ray discs, which are HDR-enabled by default, will all have the Ultra HD Premium label, and Technicolor says any HDR content it produces will meet the requirements as well. The idea is that users can match the TV and the label together and know they’re getting top-notch video.
The problem, at least for 2016, is that a lot of TVs will occupy a middle ground: They won’t achieve the lofty criteria to be designated Ultra HD Premium displays, but they will able to handle the HDR aspect of Ultra HD Premium content. This raises the question of how TV makers can communicate those capabilities in a trustworthy way.
“Maybe there’s a way for TV manufacturers to say, ‘Okay, I can take a piece of Ultra HD Premium content and represent it well,’ but what the specific requirements around that are, whether there would be a logo for that, what the logo would say is all unclear,” Basse says.
What’s a TV buyer to do?
It’s understandable if your eyes glazed over at all the HDR details above. Ideally, users shouldn’t have to do a ton of research to grasp what HDR is and what they need to enjoy it.
But it’s still an early-adopter technology, which means things aren’t going to be so simple in 2016. So before you head to the store, here are some key takeaways about HDR this year:
Getting the best picture from an HDR TV will require HDR content. Amazon offers HDR for some of its shows already, while Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube are planning to offer HDR this year. The first 4K Blu-ray players are also coming soon, and they’ll support HDR by default.
Some TVs will advertise themselves as “HDR-enabled,” but that alone is not an indicator of quality. Ideally, you can pick up a TV with an “Ultra HD Premium” label, but they’ll be expensive for at least a couple years.
Until Ultra HD Premium becomes more affordable, a TV that advertises Dolby Vision support should be a safe bet in terms of HDR quality, because Dolby plans to enforce some of its standards on TV makers. (“We definitely don’t want a TV with Dolby Vision to look like crap,” said Dolby’s Giles Baker.)
If all else fails, shoot for a TV that hits or comes close to 1000 nits brightness, which is what the UHD Alliance recommends for Ultra HD Premium TVs. (OLED TVs have lower nit requirements due to a lack of backlighting, but they’ll also be some of the priciest TVs you can buy.)
The HDR situation for cable, satellite, and telco TV services is a lot murkier compared to streaming and Blu-ray, which means it’s hard to say if an HDR television bought in 2016 will work with HDR content from these providers, whenever it arrives.
Currently, there are no game consoles or streaming boxes on the market with HDR built in, so users will have to access HDR content directly through their smart TVs. To prepare for future HDR set-top boxes, you’ll want an HDR TV that supports HDMI 2.0a.
The abbreviated version of this abbreviated conclusion? It’s safe to buy an HDR TV in 2016, and you’ll enjoy immediate benefits if you do. But before you plunk down thousands of dollars on a new set, look for more than the acronym alone.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.