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

Why it’s time to get pumped about HDR television

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. 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?

Standard dynamic range

High dynamic range

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.

The images 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 coming to your TV and your 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.

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

Samsung's SUHD TVs are both 4K and HDR compatible

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

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, all of the early 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 experience professionals, we're not overly concerned about it.

What do I need to watch HDR films and TV shows?

Recent Netflix Originals such as Marco Polo have been filmed with HDR in mind

First, you’ll need a display device – a TV or a projector, in other words – compatible with HDR. Second, you’ll need a source that has been mastered in HDR.

HDR display devices are starting to be announced now. You can scroll down to the next section to read about those.

With HDR broadcasts likely years away, the most likely sources for HDR video are the web and Blu-ray. Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have both pledged to make HDR streams available, with the former making most of its new original series – shows like Marco Polo – in such a way as to be both 4K and HDR ready. Amazon has not yet revealed what form its HDR content will take.

Interestingly, Netflix has hinted that, as HDR streaming uses far less bandwidth than 4K streaming (around 2.5Mb/s as opposed to 12Mb/s), users with slower broadband connections will see their streams default to 1080p HDR rather than 4K with normal dynamic range.

So who’s on board, manufacturer-wise?

Sony's HDR-compatible Bravia X94C TV, due May 2015

Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG all showed off HDR prototype products at CES 2015, which pretty much covers off the biggest television manufacturers. And of those companies, Sony and Samsung have actually promised hardware this year.

Sony has announced that its Bravia X93C 55in and 65in and Bravia X94C 75in 4K televisions (due on sale in May 2015) will support HDR, while Samsung’s 4K JS8500, JS9000 and JS9500 series models (sized between 48in and 88in), are also compatible with HDR.

Panasonic, meanwhile, showed off a prototype 4K Blu-ray player at CES 2015 that also offered HDR. And indeed the Blu-ray Disc Association’s standards for a 4K Blu-ray format also include provision for HDR support – as do the standards for the HDMI 2.0a connector.

What can I watch?

Dolby Cinema is bring HDR to the big screen

At the moment, not much. In fact, at the time of writing, there’s nothing at all out there to watch and nothing to watch it on. We really have to wait for the first wave of HDR TVs to arrive (which will be May 2015), and that should spark Netflix and Amazon and other content providers into delivering HDR series and films – probably via their smart TV apps in the first instance. By the end of 2015, we’ll most likely have 4K Blu-ray players able to deliver HDR – but as yet none have been announced.

Venture out of the house and you’ll find HDR coming to 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 could mean, as with IMAX, that only a handful of the biggest name films will be available to watch in Dolby Vision. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, due for release in December 2015, is tipped by some to be a candidate for in-cinema HDR.