Why it’s time to get pumped about HDR television

Forget 4K for a minute – the next generation of televisions are about to go highly dynamic all over your eyeballs

Every few years, the people that build our televisions come up with a new technology that improves performance and makes us all want to shell out hundreds of pounds on a new gogglebox: 100Hz; high definition; 3D. You get the picture (no pun intended).

Well, now there isn’t just one fancy new picture-boosting feature knocking about, there are two: 4K and HDR.

We’ve covered off the former in appropriately high detail, but the latter remains something of a mystery to many, despite pretty much every manufacturer launching new HDR sets at CES this week.

Fear not: we’re here to explain precisely what HDR is, and why you should be very excited about it.

What does HDR stand for?

As keen photographers amongst you will know, HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. Essentially, it refers to an image that displays a greater range of brightness and luminosity than “normal” pictures – so dark areas of the picture will look darker while, at the same time, bright areas will look brighter. You’ll also see more luminance detail in shadowy, darker areas of the picture. An image's dynamic range is the contrast between its brightest whites and darkest blacks, and HDR images boast a much greater constrast than regular images.

The sample pictures above, provided by Sony, demonstrate the difference between standard and high dynamic range pictures.

And now HDR isn’t confined to still images: it’s on your TV and the cinema screen.

What’s so great about it?

With the extra luminance, images take on a whole new level of detail. Dark scenes become less of a gloom-fest – you’ll be able to pick out far more in the shadows – while the added vigour of bright areas helps them to leap out of the screen. Colours also become richer and more lifelike, with more delicate blends and shifts in tone.

Basically, it makes things look more realistic, more impactful and more detailed. 

But what about 4K? Doesn’t that add more detail too?

Yes, but it’s a different kind of detail. HDR isn’t about increasing the number of pixels, but about making every pixel that’s already there better. And this means that, while 4K generally requires a large screen size to prove effective, HDR’s advantages are plainly visible on a screen of any size.

It’s worth noting, of course, that while 4K and HDR are different concepts, there’s no reason why they can’t work together. In fact, many HDR-compatible TVs are also 4K TVs, able to combine both new technologies to deliver stunning all-round image quality.

Within Hollywood, some TV and filmmakers believe that HDR could be a bigger deal than 4K. Howard Lukk, VP of production technology for Walt Disney Studios, told Variety: “There’s a feeling in Hollywood, and even at the Walt Disney Studios, in order to change over the complete marketplace to a new format, we really need more than just pixels. Adding more dynamic range and more contrast really makes a big difference.”

Are there any bad sides to HDR?

Well, HDR video takes up more storage space or bandwidth than standard dynamic range video, so there’s an increased strain and potentially increased costs for the end user there.

And anyone who has spent time browsing HDR photos on Flickr will know that the effect can often be overused, creating an image that trades subtlety for tasteless impact (there's even an entire subreddit dedicated to these eye-polluting abominations). There’s a danger that this lack of restraint could also afflict HDR video - but given that mastering will be mostly in the hands of highly experienced professionals, we're not too concerned about that.

What can I watch?

Amazon Prime Instant Video started offering limited amounts of HDR content in the summer of 2015. While HDR comes at no extra cost to Prime members, it does require that they own a compatible smart TV. These allow you to access HDR material through their Amazon app. At the time of writing, Amazon’s HDR content is limited to two of its own original shows: Mozart in the Jungle and Red Oaks.

Meanwhile, Netflix CEO Reed Hasting announced at CES 2016 that the company will begin offering HDR content at some point in the coming year. We don’t yet know if you’ll have to pay more to access HDR shows and movies, whether or not it’ll be limited to selected smart TVs, and exactly what content will be made available in HDR.

On the last point, Netflix has been making its own original programming in an “HDR-ready” format for some time, so we’d have to assume that the likes of House of Cards, Daredevil and Orange is the New Black will all be available to stream in HDR.

YouTube is getting in on the action too, with chief business officer Robert Kyncl confirming HDR is on the way at this year's CES show. There's no confirmed date yet, but all signs point to a 2016 launch.

On the Blu-ray front, 2016 looks to be the year when 4K Blu-ray finally cements itself as a format – and many of the movies released in this format will offer HDR in addition to 4K quality. For instance, Warner Bros. plans to release 35 4K/HDR discs in 2016, starting with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Lego Movie; Pacific Rim and Man of Steel are following later. Other movie studios are releasing 4K Blu-rays too, but at the time of writing it’s not entirely clear whether or not they’ll offer HDR in addition to 4K resolution.

HDR-ready Blu-ray discs aren't going to be cheap, though. It's not confirmed yet, but Lionsgate Entertainment revealed suggested prices for its first run of UHD discs earlier this week. A brand new release should set you back US$43, or roughly £30 - twice the amount a new Blu-ray costs on Amazon. 

The good news is that older films won't be quite so costly. Back catalogue films that have already had a Blu-ray release should go on sale for US$23, which is around £15. Still more expensive than a month's subscription to Netflix, sure, but a little bit easier to stomach than a full-price disc.

Venture out of the house and you’ll find HDR on the big screen too. Selected theatres will be certified for Dolby Cinema, a premium (i.e. more expensive for you, the cinema-goer) experience designed to rival IMAX by combining Dolby Atmos sound with Dolby Vision visuals. Dolby Vision’s big advancement is HDR, delivering what Dolby describes as “true to life brightness, colors and contrast”.

Dolby Vision pictures require tandem Christie 6P 4K projectors, a setup that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds – so don’t expect it to be available in anything but the swankiest flagship cinemas. It also requires movie studios to specially process films, which means, as with IMAX, that only a handful of the biggest name films will be available to watch in Dolby Vision. At the time of writing, the only movie you can watch in the format is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then only at AMC Prime theatres in the US. We expect the number of compatible theatres and movies to rise in 2016, however.

As for HDR broadcasts from the likes of the BBC, Sky and Virgin - well, you're probably going to have to wait a few years for that. Nobody except BT Sport is even broadcasting in 4K yet (and even that's in very, very limited quantities), and it seems as though that'll come first before broadcasters start to figure out HDR.

How do I watch HDR?

You’ll need a compatible TV to watch HDR content. Thus far, all the TVs released or announced that offer HDR compatibility are also 4K, suggesting that these two technologies are going to go hand-in-hand.

In 2015 there were only a handful of HDR-compatible tellies on the market, but that’s increasing a lot in 2016. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the choices:

All of Samsung’s 2016 SUHD 4K range is HDR compatible, with screen sizes ranging from 49in to 88in. Samsung is also one of the first companies to announced a 4K/HDR Blu-ray player, the UBD-K8500; due in the US in March 2016, it’ll cost a reasonable US$400.

Samsung’s Korean compatriot LG is also firmly aboard the HDR bandwagon with its 2016 range of TVs. Not only is its flagship Signature 65OLEDG6 model (also coming in a 77in version at some point) compatible, but its regular G6 and E6 ranges are too. That means 55in to 77in HDR models.

Sony has announced a slew of HDR 4K sets too – nine models in all, ranging from 55in to 85in. Sony also sells an HDR-capable 4K projector, the VPL-VW520ES – so if you’re truly serious about home cinema (and have a truly serious budget to blow), that’s well worth a look too.

Panasonic’s DX900 TV, available in 58in and 65in screen sizes, is fully HDR and 4K compatible. It’s being released alongside a 4K/HDR Blu-ray player, the DMP-UB900. No UK pricing has been announced.

Philips’ 2016 telly range has also gone HDR-friendly; its 9000, 8600 and 7000 series TVs are all compatible with the format.

If all the above end up a bit pricey, you might want to check out Hisense’s upcoming range. All the budget brand’s 2016 4K models are HDR compatible, including the entry-level 43in H7C TV – and that’ll be priced at just US$399 in the States (UK price is still TBC, however).

Is there an industry standard for HDR?

We want to say, “Sort of…?”

At CES 2016, the UHD Alliance – a consortium of broadcasters, film producers and tech manufacturers – announced a campaign to set a minimum requirement for TVs and projectors able to deliver what it describes as “a premium” 4K experience.

If a device meets the requirement, it’s eligible to sport an “Ultra HD Premium” logo. It’s basically the “HD Ready” logo of our times, we suppose, aiming to dispel some of the confusion surrounding the 4K and HDR formats. Buy a product bearing the logo, the UHD Alliance is saying, and you know you’re getting something that fits into the top tier of display devices.

HDR is among the minimum requirements for the Ultra HD Premium certification, as well as 10-bit colour depth and a resolution of at least 3840 x 2160. The HDR part is all a bit technical to get into in too much detail here, but suffice to say there’s a minimum dynamic range required.

All this is not to say that a TV without the logo is incapable of displaying HDR, confusingly. We’re in the early days of the format, unfortunately, and it’s all a bit Wild West at the moment. The UHD Alliance is trying to play sheriff and lay down the law somewhat, but companies will still be able to create a TV that delivers some kind of HDR capabilities without hitting all the requirements.